№ 3

Firestorm

The National Gallery’s acqui­si­tion of Voice of Fire cre­ated a mas­sive con­tro­versy.
Could it hap­pen today?

—The Wal­rus

1.

Shortly after the National Gallery of Canada announced its acqui­si­tion of Bar­nett Newman’s Voice of Fire in the late win­ter of 1990, Marc Mayer vis­ited his par­ents in Ottawa. In those days, he was liv­ing in New York, work­ing at the 49th Par­al­lel, a Man­hat­tan gallery for Cana­dian artists run by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. His par­ents had been wait­ing for him to arrive. “My father said, ‘Now, you’re the guy who’s going to take us to the museum to see that thing.’ ” That thing was Newman’s huge red and blue abstract paint­ing, and Mayer, an expert in con­tem­po­rary art, hadn’t seen it either. “My par­ents just looked at me,” he recalls, when the three of them stood in front of it for the first time. “My mother said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I said, ‘What’s the mat­ter?’ ‘It’s enor­mous,’ she said. ‘Didn’t you know?’ I asked. ‘It’s as big as two thumbs in the news­pa­per,’ she replied. ‘How was I sup­posed to know that it’s big­ger than the house?’ ”

Newman’s 5.4-by-2.4-metre can­vas, with its three ver­ti­cal bands of colour, a strong red stripe flanked by two swaths of deep blue, spent most of that spring squished and shrunken — onto TV screens and into news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, and edi­to­r­ial car­toons. At $1.76 mil­lion, it was the most expen­sive paint­ing the National Gallery had ever bought. And while it had been on loan to the museum for nearly two years, the announce­ment of the pur­chase on March 7, 1990, set off the most intense and frac­tious debate over visual art the coun­try had ever seen.

Unlike other art con­tro­ver­sies of the period — Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in the United States the year before, or Jana Sterbak’s Flesh Dress in Ottawa the year after — this one wasn’t about the scabrous, the scat­o­log­i­cal, or the pro­fane. Voice of Fire was sim­ply three tow­er­ing bands of colour: pure, extreme abstrac­tion. And in Canada, any­way, Newman’s crit­i­cal role in mid-twentieth-century art his­tory was moot; for many Cana­di­ans, Voice of Fire was akin to cura­to­r­ial snake oil. Some­thing that sim­ple, at that price, and by an Amer­i­can? Did it belong in our National Gallery?

Not as far as Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­v­a­tive MP Felix Holt­mann was con­cerned. “Well, I’m not exactly impressed,” he famously said after see­ing a repro­duc­tion in the news­pa­per. “It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about ten min­utes would do the trick.” A one-time pig farmer from Rosser, Man­i­toba, Holt­mann prob­a­bly used up his full fif­teen min­utes of fame that spring: yank­ing the gallery’s direc­tor, Shirley Thom­son, and its cura­tor of con­tem­po­rary art, Bry­don Smith, before his gov­ern­ment com­mit­tee on com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cul­ture; call­ing for the painting’s deac­ces­sion; ques­tion­ing the gallery’s inde­pen­dence. For more than two months, the Voice of Fire debate filled let­ters to the edi­tor pages, MPs’ mail­boxes, and radio call-in shows. Bottom-feeder com­men­tary ruled, fol­lowed by par­o­dies that included full-scale paint­ings (e.g., Voice of the Tax­payer in Nepean, Ontario).

Inter­na­tion­ally, the affair caused barely a rip­ple. Art in Amer­ica pub­lished a short news story. Blake Gop­nik, chief art critic at the Wash­ing­ton Post, was then a doc­toral stu­dent at Oxford and only heard about it from his fam­ily back home in Mon­treal. Ann Temkin, chief cura­tor of paint­ing and sculp­ture at New York’s Museum of Mod­ern Art, says the con­tro­versy “would cer­tainly have reached peo­ple who are inter­ested in the sub­ject.” It was a made-in-Canada event, which Temkin acknowl­edged in her intro­duc­tion to the cat­a­logue for the land­mark New­man ret­ro­spec­tive she curated at the Philadel­phia Museum of Art in 2002.

The hub­bub even­tu­ally faded, and when it did, Newman’s paint­ing was still in place. “For a long time,” says Thom­son, “peo­ple would come into the gallery and say, ‘Where is it?’ ‘Where is it?’ and we knew exactly what they were look­ing for.” Two decades later, the paint­ing is still among the most rec­og­niz­able pieces of art in Canada, and a cor­ner­stone of the National Gallery’s col­lec­tion. Painted by a life­long New Yorker for the Amer­i­can pavil­ion at Expo 67 and left to lie unat­tended in a Man­hat­tan ware­house for nearly twenty years, it has now become, as John O’Brian wrote in Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State, “as much a part of the crazy quilt of Cana­dian cul­ture as the work of Tom Thom­son and the Group of Seven or Paul-Émile Bor­d­uas and the Automatistes.”

On its twen­ti­eth anniver­sary, the Voice of Fire cri­sis now stands out as one of the hazy relics of Mulroney-era Canada, like the rise of the Reform Party or the fail­ure of the Meech Lake Accord. It’s a story firmly rooted in time and place; yet, look­ing back, it can also feel like a primer on the pro­found forces that have over­taken and trans­formed the art world since 1990. Whether a con­tro­versy like this could ever hap­pen again is just one of the ques­tions it raises. Yes, there’s a surge in museum build­ing across Canada, but will the peo­ple who run these insti­tu­tions have the vision, courage, and finan­cial where­withal to fill them with impor­tant works of art?

2.

The Voice of Fire story begins with the open­ing of Moshe Safdie’s new National Gallery in May 1988. When Bry­don Smith saw Safdie’s plan, with two huge second-floor rooms at the heart of the struc­ture, he envi­sioned the ideal spot for a sig­na­ture acqui­si­tion. “I think I said to Safdie at one point, ‘There’s one paint­ing I know that would hold that wall,’ ” he says, laugh­ing qui­etly at the thought of the nearly twelve-metre-high wall at the end of room C214. Smith had never for­got­ten the world’s fair in Mon­treal, espe­cially his first glimpse of Voice of Fire, sur­rounded as it was by other huge can­vases hang­ing in Buck­min­ster Fuller’s giant geo­desic dome.

Today C214 feels like a cura­to­r­ial time machine; in Canada, pub­licly funded col­lec­tion build­ing never had it so good. Dur­ing his thirty-two-year tenure in Ottawa, Smith filled the museum with mod­ern mas­ter­pieces, from Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes (his first pur­chase, in 1967) to Don­ald Judd’s “spe­cific objects.” In room C214, we see this clar­ity and ambi­tion writ large, with four New­mans, a Jack­son Pol­lock (his only work on glass), and a Mark Rothko (bought, con­tro­ver­sially, in 1993 for more than $1.8 mil­lion), among others.

Newman’s con­nec­tions to Canada ran deep, start­ing with an early res­i­dency at the artists’ retreat at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan; then Expo 67; an address at Dan Flavin’s 1969 National Gallery show; and Smith’s long acquain­tance with Annalee, the artist’s wife and pro­fes­sional part­ner, after Newman’s death in 1970. With­out this his­tory, Voice of Fire might well have been sold to the high­est bid­der. Annalee New­man admit­ted that she kept the price arti­fi­cially low; her hus­band, she believed, would have wanted it in the National Gallery. At auc­tion, the paint­ing would have likely fetched at least dou­ble what the gallery paid — maybe more.

And today? Some observers sug­gest the bid­ding could begin at over $10 mil­lion. “In 1990, even the headline-making pur­chases were not the kind of num­bers we’re talk­ing about now,” says Blake Gop­nik, adding that we “con­stantly hear about van Goghs going for $80 mil­lion,” or even “a lousy Picasso” sell­ing for more than $100 mil­lion. Despite the sever­ity of the eco­nomic down­turn, the art mar­ket is still boom­ing. And Marc Mayer, now the National Gallery’s direc­tor and CEO, says that while the museum has an $8-million annual acqui­si­tions bud­get, “I’m almost pos­i­tive we would not be able to buy Voice of Fire today were it made avail­able to us. That really was our one chance.”

Com­pared with those of other Cana­dian muse­ums, the National Gallery’s acqui­si­tions bud­get — more than dou­ble what it was dur­ing the Voice of Fire cri­sis — is enor­mous. (At the best of times, and with pri­vate sup­port, a big-city museum might nudge toward $1 mil­lion.) But con­sider this within an inter­na­tional con­text. The National Gallery’s bud­get com­petes with that of the new Lou­vre Abu Dhabi (nearly $60 mil­lion) and New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Museum of Art (approx­i­mately $30 mil­lion). Cana­dian cura­tors just don’t cut big taxpayer-funded cheques for his­tor­i­cal mas­ter­works any­more. Now public-private part­ner­ships rule, American-style phil­an­thropy is key, and orga­ni­za­tions (such as Vancouver’s Audain Foun­da­tion) par­tic­i­pate in acqui­si­tions large and small. There are new gal­leries in Toronto and Edmon­ton, and plans afoot in Saska­toon and Van­cou­ver, but can we afford to fill them with new collections?

The Art Gallery of Ontario is often men­tioned as a model. Long before its Frank Gehry–designed exten­sion opened in 2008, direc­tor Matthew Teit­el­baum courted Ken­neth Thom­son. When the bil­lion­aire art col­lec­tor donated his huge, multi-faceted col­lec­tion and more than $100 mil­lion in cash, the new AGO was, lit­er­ally, a gallery trans­formed. Thom­son also bequeathed Rubens’ The Mas­sacre of the Inno­cents, a baroque mas­ter­work he bought at auc­tion for approx­i­mately $117 mil­lion, still the high­est price ever paid for an Old Master.

The Art Gallery of Alberta, which opened its new build­ing in Jan­u­ary, has more lim­ited means. With the addi­tional space (3,250 square metres, plus 1,670 more off-site), the AGA will be able to cycle through its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion in new ways and can now import tour­ing exhi­bi­tions. A main-floor space has been set aside for shows it will co-present with the National Gallery. But a yearly acqui­si­tions bud­get? Cather­ine Crow­ston, deputy direc­tor and chief cura­tor, just laughs. As part of the con­struc­tion, the museum com­mis­sioned two new projects, a photo series by Edward Bur­tyn­sky, and a yet-to-be-named piece for the sculp­ture ter­race. A bud­get for acqui­si­tions, she says, is “a kind of ideal sit­u­a­tion, but the real­ity is, in our case, it didn’t happen.”

3.

The new eco­nomic real­ity makes the Voice of Fire con­tro­versy feel almost quaint. Still, twenty years later it’s rel­e­vant to ask whether the uproar some­how embed­ded itself into the cul­ture, chas­ten­ing and cen­sor­ing cura­tors in the process. Is the fear of a pub­lic back­lash some­thing they still reckon with? “I really don’t think cura­tors worry about that,” says Mayer. “We’re wor­ried about find­ing the best pos­si­ble work and then, when we have it, find­ing the money. To have peo­ple call us idiots in the news­pa­per doesn’t hurt that much, frankly — par­tic­u­larly when you’ve bagged an impor­tant work that’s going to dis­tin­guish your col­lec­tion forever.”

Art, espe­cially con­tem­po­rary art, will always pro­voke; con­tro­versy hov­ers nearby. The National Gallery’s sum­mer block­buster, Pop Life, arrives from London’s Tate Mod­ern with a movie house pro­viso (“Please be aware that some works in this exhi­bi­tion are of a chal­leng­ing and sex­ual nature”), and with­out a much-discussed Richard Prince pho­to­graph (of a nude ten-year-old Brooke Shields). In Alberta, Cather­ine Crow­ston ran up against inter­nal resis­tance in the late 1990s when she bought a sound instal­la­tion by Cana­di­ans Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller and the AGA’s acqui­si­tions com­mit­tee ques­tioned the medium itself. “When you’re mak­ing acqui­si­tions of con­tem­po­rary art specif­i­cally, in some ways it seems to be a gam­ble,” she says. “Boards want to feel that the money they are invest­ing in an acqui­si­tion will actu­ally increase in value and prove to be impor­tant his­tor­i­cally.” (Crowston’s deci­sion proved pre­scient: the AGA was the first Cana­dian insti­tu­tion to acquire a piece by Cardiff and Bures Miller, who are now among the country’s lead­ing inter­na­tional artists.)

Con­tem­po­rary art, sprawl­ing and often daunt­ing, has become a high-wire prov­ing ground for cura­to­r­ial exper­tise and courage. A recent exam­ple — and evi­dence, per­haps, of a post–Voice of Fire ethos — was the National Gallery’s pur­chase of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman in 2004. At $3.4 mil­lion, the huge bronze spi­der became the most expen­sive con­tem­po­rary work acquired for the col­lec­tion. But this time, no one raised a fuss. Rather than kick-starting a national cri­sis, Maman inspired wide­spread applause. Nearly six years later, it’s a beloved Ottawa land­mark, espe­cially among chil­dren, tourists, and in-line skaters on the plaza out­side the museum’s front doors. “It’s one of these things where you present some­thing new to the world and the world accepts it,” observes Kitty Scott, cura­tor of con­tem­po­rary art at the time. Now a direc­tor at the Banff Cen­tre, she con­sid­ers Maman’s suc­cess an indi­ca­tion that Canada isn’t the same coun­try it was dur­ing the out­rage over Voice of Fire. “For us to yell and com­plain, we start to look fool­ish,” she says, point­ing out the num­ber of Bour­geois spi­ders at major muse­ums around the world. “I think we’ve grown up.”

Blake Gop­nik takes a dis­sent­ing view. Maman’s appeal? It’s an “ooga-booga-horror-movie kind of piece,” he says. “It works very well as a jun­gle gym. It’s facile and uncom­pli­cated, and works excel­lently as a back­drop for snap­shots. I think it’s a mis­take for any­one to imag­ine that really good art is ever going to be any­thing other than tremen­dously chal­leng­ing and painful to come to grips with.” He has a point. Few peo­ple would claim they could build Louise Bourgeois’s intri­cate ten-metre-high sculp­ture. But three stripes of the Voice of Fire vari­ety? Abstrac­tion this dras­tic will always leave skep­tics with their “My kid could paint that” punchline.

So what has changed? Even Felix Holt­mann could tell you. No one ques­tioned the National Gallery when it bought Guido Reni’s Jupiter and Europa (for $3.5 mil­lion) two years after it acquired Voice of Fire. And no one doubts the value of The Mas­sacre of the Inno­cents, despite its graphic depic­tion of infan­ti­cide. The skill of the Old Mas­ters remains the public’s default stan­dard. Throw this out, as many artists did in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, and you’re set adrift: one person’s stripe is another person’s zip (as New­man dubbed the ver­ti­cal bands that divided his can­vases). Con­tem­po­rary art led the market’s dizzy­ing rise at the turn of the cen­tury. So while an “impor­tant” abstract paint­ing might still stir up deri­sive jibes, now that it’s worth a for­tune no one would sug­gest the tax­payer is being duped. It might be cyn­i­cal to say the mar­ket spurred this change, but it might also be true.

In Canada, the pull of the parochial mind is never far away. Dur­ing the 2008 fed­eral elec­tion, Stephen Harper sug­gested that “ordi­nary work­ing peo­ple” didn’t care about the arts — or, more specif­i­cally, about the elites at “rich galas” com­plain­ing about their grants. The best cura­tors have always shut out this noise, push­ing their col­lec­tions for­ward, pulling their audi­ences with them. Eco­nom­ics may have got­ten more peo­ple think­ing seri­ously about mod­ern art, but cura­to­r­ial brav­ery has, too. Peo­ple now expect to see con­tem­po­rary work that con­founds them. Ide­ally, they’ll wres­tle with it; some­times they’ll even admire it. Lofty prices breed curios­ity, but they also fos­ter trust in the expert’s eye. Dar­ing cura­tors will con­tinue to inch the bar higher.