Museums clash over attempt to sell a Chagall to pay for a David

OTTAWA •People buy and sell shares, but should museums take the same tack when it comes to artworks? In Canada, a museum's bid to boost its acquisition budget by selling a Marc Chagall painting has sparked a culture clash, raising an age-old question: Whose art is it anyway?

The National Gallery of Canada is auctioning off the Russian-French artist's work, worth as much as US$9 million (S$11.9 million), so it can snap up one by French painter Jacques-Louis David, being sold for US$5 million by a cash-strapped church in Quebec City.

The gallery does not mind parting with one of its two Chagalls, but the move has stirred protests, particularly in French-speaking Quebec where history and identity politics loom large.

Two museums and a cabinet minister are now vying to keep the David, with Quebec's government designating it a heritage piece to block its exit from the province.

The face-off is caught in a mesh of tensions: museums hard-pressed to keep up in an era of soaring fine-art prices; controversies worldwide over sales from collections; Quebec's push to preserve its culture in English-dominated Canada; and a church trying to keep up with maintenance costs.

"If tomorrow we decide to sell a (work from American artist Jean-Michel) Basquiat to compete with another museum that sells a painting from its collection, then where are we going next? That would be using collections as commodities," said Ms Nathalie Bondil, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where the David now hangs.

The 1779 piece, called Saint Jerome Hears The Trumpet Of The Last Judgment, was given to the Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica-Cathedral in the 1920s by two French immigrants.

In the 1980s, the church entrusted it to the care of a museum that is now overseen by the Musee de la Civilisation, which has right of first refusal in the case of a sale.

The piece was loaned to the National Gallery from 1995 to 2013.

Notre-Dame welcomes more than a million visitors a year and struggles to get by on an annual budget of about US$588,000. It worries about the painting's condition and the risk of theft. So it approached three galleries - the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Montreal fine-arts museum and the Musee National Des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City - in 2016 offering the David.

The National Gallery quietly looked for private donors to fund the purchase, but came up short. It heard that two foreign museums were approached, prompting it to redouble its efforts.

In December, the gallery's board agreed to sell one of its two Chagalls, 1929's La Tour Eiffel, and offered to buy the David.

Now, the Quebec museum that has first-right-of-refusal is teaming up with the one in Montreal to try and buy it. They are also willing to work with the National Gallery, but the latter's director Marc Mayer is not interested.

"If they're able to raise the money and keep it in Quebec, then bravo," he said, adding he is surprised at the furore over his strategy.

The talks may take a new turn as Quebec's government intervenes.

Culture Minister Marie Montpetit said on Monday she would designate the David as a heritage piece and develop a strategy to protect art of a religious nature in the province.

"I am the guardian of Quebec's heritage. Classifying it helps make sure it stays in Quebec," she added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is staying out of it.

The Chagall sale is the National Gallery's choice and, on the David, "all parties involved have one objective in mind: to keep the piece in Canada", a spokesman for Heritage Minister Melanie Joly said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2018, with the headline 'Museums clash over attempt to sell a Chagall to pay for a David'. Print Edition | Subscribe