Feature

Big Game Hunter

Battered by controversy, the director of the National Gallery of Canada goes art shopping in Holland

Photography by Greg Miller

Iwant her,” Marc Mayer says, his eyes locked on a Chinese ceramic figure maybe two feet high. Her chubby face is telltale. For him, she’s also irresistible. “You can spot a Tang a mile away,” he says, putting on his reading glasses, leaning in for a closer look. “Oh, wow,” he says, and that’s all he says. The fifty-four-year-old director of the National Gallery of Canada is smitten.

Like all lovers, he goes through phases. At the moment, he is deeply into collecting bugs for his living room shelves, but during another stretch he was most obsessed with seventeenth-century Chinese ceramics. He loved the objects themselves, thought they were beautiful, but in some ways he was more intrigued by how they were made. He became crazed with the notion of process. “Generations of craftsmen,” he remembers thinking, “trying to figure out the chemistry between the flames, the object, and the humidity—so that the glaze they put on this pot is the red they were looking for.”

Today Mayer’s own search has brought him to tefaf Maastricht, the European fine art fair held annually in this medieval river town in the Netherlands, just over the non-border from Belgium. He has dressed up for the occasion, tucking in a white shirt and knotting a striped tie, but he still looks a bit ragged. His grey suit is wrinkled in the back, and he’s fighting jet lag and a terrible cold. He was up most of the night after yesterday’s flights from Ottawa to London to Brussels, listening to German opera to quiet his head, and he’s spent this morning wracked by sneezing fits. But minutes ago, when he joined the murmuring line to enter the fair the day before it opens officially (favoured private and public collectors are given first dibs), he began to crackle with energy. “Here we go,” he said when the doors opened at noon. He didn’t take a moment to plot his course or run his finger over a map. He just went, to his left as it happened, and now he’s found her.

His eyes are inches from hers. His love looks dramatic, his hands on his face, his glasses torn off and thrown back on. “I get nervous when someone calls me passionate,” he says. “That’s a code word for ‘weirdo.’”

Passionate remains the right word. Last week, during a tour of the National Gallery, he decided to check whether the card next to a painting by the Canadian-born minimalist Agnes Martin had been changed as he’d requested. It had identified her as American, and… uh-oh. “I am going to have to kill somebody,” Mayer said through his teeth. “She was born in Macklin, Saskatchewan; she came to the Mackenzie River every year, well into her seventies, to ride the rapids. She’s Canadian! She moved to the United States and became a famous artist there, but for this to say she’s American and not indicate that she was born here and became one of the greatest Canadian artists in our history makes me insane.”

Exorcised, he visibly deflated. Now, an ocean and a week away, it takes only a little longer for his shoulders to slump. He knows that sometimes his passion isn’t enough. “We just don’t collect this stuff,” he says of the Tang. “I don’t have an expert.” For virtually every purchase he makes, he relies on the counsel of his team of twenty-five curators, each chasing a personal obsession with the Italian Renaissance or German Modernism. No one on his staff is paid to share his daydreams about Chinese pottery.

Even if one were, though, Mayer has spotted another obstacle to ownership. Unlike most of the dealers, this one has put price tags on nearly every object on display—15,000 euros for a delicate bowl, 32,000 euros for a tiny figurine—but when Mayer looks at the card next to his find, Pottery figure of a court lady, 618–906, there’s no price listed.

“You know what that means,” he says. “Too much for you, buddy.”

Mayer’s annual acquisitions budget is $8 million. Today at tefaf Maastricht, art valued at an estimated $2.7 billion is on display. The math isn’t difficult, except that it is. Among the thousands of people crowding the aisles between the 260 dealer displays, there are a couple of art knobs—the one in the pink scarf who has written “Geronimo Who? ” on his jacket with what looks like bird shit; the nonce who tucked his pinstripe pants into knee-high riding boots—but mostly there is money. Mayer isn’t up against other institutional collectors from New York and London and Madrid (although he is); he’s up against these wealthy Europeans, in their beautiful hand-tailored suits, and an art market that’s still breaking records. “We need a Kandinsky,” he says at one point, “but a crappy one starts at $9 million, so we’re not going to be buying one anytime soon.”

He spots a 1929 Picabia instead. “Isn’t that something? ” he says of the giant canvas jumbled with women and birds, overwhelmingly, wonderfully blue. After a short elucidation on its critical place in art history, he steels himself to ask about the price. “I’m guessing it’s around two million euros,” he says.

More like 4.3.

He walks away, looking back at the painting over his shoulder. “It’s not like shopping,” he says. “You suffer over this stuff.” He looks stricken; his sneezes amplify. He’s feeling sorry for himself. But the painful memories of his Chinese lady and his Picabia are erased soon enough.

It’s mounted at eye height. Not big, but anchored inside a heavy black frame. A drawing, in red and white chalk, on faded blue paper. Mayer asks the dealer how much he wants for it. “Two hundred thousand,” the dealer says in a thick Barcelonan accent.

“That’s not bad,” Mayer says, throwing his glasses back on, and with them returns the crackle.

The dealer, in a crafty bit of target marketing, had emailed Mayer an image of the piece in advance of the fair, although apparently something was lost in the translation. Mayer thought the Spaniard possessed drawings of Italian nobleman Giulio Contarini, the subject of a prize of the National Gallery’s collection, a bust by the Venetian sculptor Alessandro Vittoria, from 1576. But this illustration, a profile of Contarini’s great, unmistakable head—see the hook in his nose, the coils of his beard—is in fact one of fifteen drawings of the bust itself, sketched by another Venetian, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, around 1740. It takes a moment for Mayer to shift his thinking, but he makes the adjustment. He likes the sense of validation the drawing offers: if Tiepolo’s fine eye saw something in Vittoria’s work, then good on the gallery for seeing it, too.

“It’s very strong, yes? ” the dealer says. Mayer nods. The dealer adds that the fair’s organizers have chosen to spotlight the piece in their advertising and literature; it has been blown up banner size all over the building. Validation squared. Mayer nods again.

Still, he wrestles.

Mayer calls himself “a big game hunter.” He has built a reputation for bold, even daring acquisitions during a career that has seen him rise quickly through the curatorial ranks, from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, to the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, to the Brooklyn Museum, to the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. And since his arrival at the National Gallery in January 2009, he has advocated buying fewer, more extraordinary objects—a concession to both the lack of available space and the need for sparks. “Anything that brings bodies is good,” he says.

Chalk on paper won’t bring bodies. Nor will it draw gasps or stir souls, nor garner headlines, good or bad. If Mayer buys the drawing, it would be an academic, logical acquisition, an interesting footnote to an essay already written. It would be a little—gasp—boring. But he understands that most of his purchases, especially of European Old Masters, are meant to fill the blanks in the gallery’s narrative, something more like maintenance than construction. “I wasn’t hired for my good taste,” he says. “I was hired for my objectivity. There’s such a thing as love at first sight, absolutely, but I have to buy with my head, not with my heart.” This drawing is all head.

Mayer’s last purchase, not so much. He first saw it as a drawing, too, in Roxy Paine’s barn in upstate New York two years ago. He was director of the Musée at the time; he had just bought one of the American artist’s sculptures, a riff on his well-known wall installations of lifelike mushrooms. Then Mayer saw a rendering of what looked like a silver tree stripped of its branches, rising high into the sky. He asked what it was. “That’s One Hundred Foot Line,” Paine replied. Mayer felt something go pop in his chest.

He called Paine’s dealer, James Cohan in New York, and asked if the sculpture was spoken for. It was not.

How much?

Too much for you, buddy.

But Mayer couldn’t shake the Line. One of Paine’s stainless steel trees appeared for a time on the roof of the Met in New York, to great acclaim; another was snapped up by a Russian oligarch. Mayer tended to the bruises on his heart. Then he got the job in Ottawa. One day, he was sitting in the National Gallery’s cafeteria, looking out the soaring windows at the vast lawn that stretches between the building and Nepean Point and the river beyond. “There was just all this grass,” Mayer remembers. He imagined filling the grass with sculptures: towering sculptures, incredible sculptures, sculptures turned monuments that would become part of the city’s and the country’s fabric, the way Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider so beautifully echoed its surroundings out front.

Then he remembered: One Hundred Foot Line.

He called Cohan again. The sculpture was still available. “Let’s talk turkey,” Mayer said. “I’ve got money now.”

The price was still too high. Nevertheless, a maquette was delivered, and the two-way courting began. The curators stood around the three-metre-high model. They considered, perhaps, its evocation of the logs that floated down the Ottawa River, the beauty of nature rendered in so much stainless steel, the reflections of fireworks in its mirrored surface. Twenty-five hands went up. Mayer called Cohan: “We’re serious, but we need help on the price.”

The curators presented the maquette to the gallery’s board of trustees, which must approve any seven-figure acquisition. Unanimous. More calls to Cohan. Paine came to Ottawa and walked with Mayer across the grass. The artist picked out a spot, like planting a flag. Landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, designer of the gallery’s gardens, came to give an esteemed second opinion; she moved the proposed site forty feet deeper into the park. Everybody agreed that now it was perfect. Finally, the National Capital Commission, which manages the grass outside the gallery, saw the maquette. Its board and advisory committee joined the more than forty people who had told Mayer to knock himself out. He called Cohan one last time: the price had moved much closer to the right side of a million. Sold.

Mayer was ecstatic when he hung up the phone. “Yes!” he thought. “What a wonderful thing for Ottawa!” The ncc was equally buoyant. They released a rendering of Paine’s work to the press. The Ottawa Citizen put it on the front page. Russia didn’t get this one. Ottawa was on the map.

“Except Ottawa didn’t like it,” Mayer says.

“God’s toothpick,” they called it. “Voice of Twits,” wrote the Citizen’s Ken Gray, nyuk nyuk. A really expensive lightning rod, others railed. Gray suggested that the rod be grounded by Mayer’s chair.

“It sucks,” Mayer says. “It sucks really bad. What breaks my heart is, most people get pissed off when they see art they don’t understand immediately. It becomes ‘You’re joking,’ or ‘This is bullshit,’ or ‘My tax dollars are being wasted.’ But if you just took five minutes, you might be able to get something out of this. You might just be able to make a connection. But it takes a moment. What fun is a crossword puzzle when all the letters have already been filled in? ”

He made the same arguments on radio shows and in letters to the editor, but the fight was already lost. For one of the few times in his long and varied career, Mayer was told, publicly and repeatedly and viciously, that his instinct was wrong. And now here he is, only a few weeks removed from this battering, looking at another drawing, contemplating the writing of another big cheque.

He sends an email to his chief curator, David Franklin, who should be arriving at the fair later today. Franklin knows his stuff, his Italian Renaissance stuff especially. Franklin will help him decide.

“Can you reserve this for me? ” Mayer asks the dealer.

The dealer smiles: but of course.

And then the lights go out.

It must be a heist! When the darkness hits, a noise rises up from the crowd, a kind of howl; then there are a few seconds of nervous laughter; and then, as the seconds turn into minutes, the place falls mostly into silence, breathless—This isn’t funny anymore—except for the high-pitched squeal of an alarm. Fat old women press their hands against their strings of pearls before they faint; noblemen grab for their wallets; dealers stand at the entrances to their displays, their arms outstretched, hoping they will feel the undoubtedly dashing and well-bred Scandinavian thieves brush past. Somewhere, an insurer stands in a pitch-black corner, wishing he’d taken out a policy on his shorts.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mayer says.

He’s lying. A month earlier, with the outcry over One Hundred Foot Line just starting to ebb, he gave a television interview to cbc about the diversity of the artists whose work hangs on the gallery’s walls. (“An ambush,” he calls it.) He believes it’s important that he appear normal and ordinary on TV, that he speak plainly, not in what he calls “Martian talk”; he believes that art should be accessible, and that he should be, too. He also doesn’t give a crap who painted what, so long as it’s good. And so he said, on-camera, without giving it (or Agnes Martin) much thought, “We’re only interested in excellence, so we put what we find in the Canadian art scene that is excellent, and we’re blind to colour or ethnic background or even whether you were born in Canada. We don’t care.”

Just before he left for Europe, a letter began to circulate in response, suggesting that, among other terrible things, Marc Mayer is a racist: “There is a difference between being blind and just shutting your eyes,” it reads. More than 250 artists have signed it so far.

Mayer has been wobbled by his twin controversies—first criticized for the art that he’s buying, and next for the art that he’s not—but watching him now, standing alone in the darkness, it seems the blows have almost counteracted each other. One or the other might have knocked him off his feet; together, they’ve combined to steady him, or at least his resolve and his course. He’s become more mad than hurt, and his is a steam-driven engine.

He mentions that the semi-famous semi-novelist Michael Turner wrote a blog entry suggesting he take anger management therapy. (Turner also wants Mayer to issue “an apology for being a goof.”)

“Well, because I don’t have a French accent when I speak English, people forget I’m a Latin,” Mayer says. “We’re not angry; we’re just hyper.” (A native of Sudbury, Ontario, he is ridiculously bilingual, not to mention a graduate of McGill University, a Sex Pistols fan, and openly gay.) “How dare he say that, right? Now I really am angry. I’m being told all the time to calm down. If I was a wasp, you could say that to me. But I’m a Latin. You can’t say that to me. We don’t calm down. That’s how we live to be a hundred.”

So he won’t be going for therapy?

“Look, this is a scary job, because there are thousands of artists banging on the door to get into the National Gallery, to put their art into the National Gallery, and I’m the nasty, snarling, slobbering dog at the door,” he says. “And I’m meaner now than I have been at any other museum I’ve worked at. I have to be. The stuff people come up with to get through that door is scary. I’ve been called a massive twerp, a twit, a dilettante, and now it’s a racist. I can’t stand the idea of someone not liking me—I really can’t—but there are a lot of controversies around the gallery, and there always will be, because we’ll never do it right for everyone. I’m not sure we’re ever going to do it right for the majority. I don’t know that it’s possible.”

Mayer tells a story. Last year, shortly after he took the job, he came to this fair for the first time. He had just replaced Pierre Théberge, who, if the capital’s whispering classes are to be believed, had held on too long, suffering from late-stage Parkinson’s and demanding the staff tend to his terriers in addition to the art. David Franklin had been caught in the middle of the mess, and Mayer wanted to get to know him, to salve him, make a fresh start. Retail therapy seemed like a good idea. Mayer invited Franklin to Maastricht, where they found an old painting they both liked: Monsieur de Buissy, by the French painter Joseph-Siffred Duplessis. It was from 1780. It was hanging high on a wall, and Franklin and Mayer stood on a ladder and stared at it. Their hearts started to thump.

Mayer especially liked it, for many reasons: it was a stunning example of portraiture, a near-perfect depiction of its subject; it was in excellent condition; it helped assuage Mayer’s feeling that French artists were under-represented in the gallery’s collection—and last, it featured a bankrupt, embattled nobleman in the wake of the French Revolution, who had decided it would be a good idea to hire the finest (most expensive) painter in France to render him in oil, while he wore a red velvet suit, no less, dyed with thousands of crushed Brazilian beetles called cochineals (also expensive), at a time when the French favoured blue, and the red of the British military was unseen at the court of Versailles, except on the king’s heel, where it demonstrated his contempt for the island across the water. And thus Monsieur de Buissy had giant brass balls—about rebels and creditors and kings, he did not give a merde—and in his cochineal suit and all that it said, Mayer had found the red he was looking for. He hung it across the room from a dying General Wolfe.

The lights come back on. There has been no heist, just an interruption in service. Current has been restored. The building is electric again.

But the lights reveal bad news, too. Mayer checks his BlackBerry to find an unexpected response from Franklin: he hasn’t come to Maastricht after all. He thought Mayer knew. It’s approaching fiscal year-end, and Franklin had spent more on translation this year than expected, so he’d decided his budget couldn’t absorb the cost of the trip. So he’s not there. Meaning here. Meaning—

“Shit,” Mayer says.

In the darkness, his head has been talking his heart into a corner. Perhaps he’s been thinking how cool the Tiepolo would look hanging next to the bust, less a footnote and more a second verse. But without Franklin’s expert eyes looking over his shoulder at the drawing, Mayer can’t buy it. Can he? No, no, he can’t. Mustn’t. By the fair’s standards, it’s not a big purchase—it’s a drop, a pixel—but by National Gallery standards, and by Roxy Paine and racist standards, and by Canadian taxpayer standards, 200,000—

Wait—200,000… what, exactly?

Mayer thinks back. The dealer never specified. He said, “Two hundred thousand.” Mayer had assumed dollars, but the dealer might have been talking euros. Hell, he might have been talking British pounds, or simoleons, or camels, or virgins.

“Shit,” Mayer says.

The lights are flickering again.

On his desk, Mayer keeps a reminder of his single worst anti-acquisition. “It chastens me every day,” he says. When he was a student at McGill, he first saw it as a slide, blown up and massive: the Guennol Lioness. In reality, it’s a small figurine, a little more than three inches high, 5,000 years old, an ancient, tiny white sculpture of a lioness flexing her muscles. A man named Alastair Martin owned it, and since 1948 he had loaned his little white lioness to the Brooklyn Museum.

Years later, when Mayer won a position at that same museum, he would visit the sculpture again and again. He called it the Lion Monster. He thought it was the most beautiful, precious thing he had ever seen. “It would have been made with grains of sand on somebody’s thumb, wearing it away,” he says, dreaming. His love for it was so plain that his colleagues bought him a replica for his birthday. And he was given the task of making sure Martin kept the lioness in the museum. So Mayer visited old Mr. Martin, nearly as often as he visited the Lion Monster, and they talked about life and the migration patterns of deer.

Then Mayer left and headed north to Montreal, and the sculpture was put up for auction. Mayer read about the sale in a magazine. The Lion Monster was gone from Brooklyn, sold to a Brit (likely wearing red, the bastard) for a then record $57 million. “It broke my heart,” he says.

He sends another email to Franklin. He describes the chalk drawing. He asks about the drawing, wonders aloud about the drawing, looks at the ceiling and sees the drawing.

It’s going to get away. He knows it. It’s going to follow the Lion Monster out the door, and he’s going to lie awake and imagine it, he’s going to imagine every last part of the process, Tiepolo sitting down to draw Contarini, after the bust by Vittoria, and now it will hang on the wall of some stuffy, insufferable millionaire instead of where it belongs, in a public space, in a public gallery, where regular people can see it, and appreciate it, and marvel at it, and speak plainly of it, and maybe, just maybe, they could have fallen in love with it, they could have seen everything that Marc Mayer sees in art, and they could have felt what he feels.

“You personalize these things, because you have to,” he says. “You’re selling it to people. If you haven’t sold it to yourself, then you’re in trouble.”

His BlackBerry buzzes. Because Franklin is the expert, he knows the drawing, knows that it’s one of fifteen. He also knows where some of the others are, has seen them in private collections, and has heard they might be coming up for auction. The National Gallery might be able to get one cheaper than the one on the wall at tefaf Maastricht, for less than 200,000 whatever-they-ares. And the kicker: two of the fifteen are, in fact, already in storage in the National Gallery’s own collection. This one is a good drawing, maybe even a great drawing, but it’s not the only one of its kind. It’s not unique or essential. It’s not all or nothing.

“I would advise passing,” Franklin writes.

And just like that, it’s gone—not the drawing, but the worry and the wonder and the heartache-in-advance. Mayer takes about four and a half seconds to shake himself out, pulls off his glasses, and throws up his hands, and whoosh—all thoughts of the drawing have emptied out from him. “If David says we should pass, then we should pass,” Mayer says. “I won’t think about it again.” With the thumbing of a few keys, he and the drawing have each been released. They’re free to go on with the rest of their lives.

Mayer continues to wander, aimless, guided by instinct and voices. He stares at a Lucio Fontana, late career, green and punctured with holes. (“I’d kill for one of these—we need one of these,” he says.) He falls hard for a watercolour by George Grosz, from 1920, before the German became a hopeless sentimentalist. (“That’s a beauty.”) He allows himself a chuckle at one of Damien Hirst’s carved-up animals, this one a pig, floating in blue, pig-grinning through the glass. (“He has to be the most cynical artist in the history of the world.”) He sees a seventeenth-century painting by Philippe de Champaigne, Portrait of Noël de Bullion, and he puts his hand to his chest. (“I just love, love, love Champaigne,” he says.)

It’s been a long time since he’s sneezed. But nothing seems to catch hold of him, at least not in the way it must for him to think of buying it. Maybe Maastricht is too much, so many dreams and visions come to life, these thousands of objects, this nearly endless history. Mayer seems overwhelmed in some ways, scattered, even distracted. His mind feels out of range, like an astronaut who’s surrounded by thousands of signals and switches but can’t help staring at the moon.

He stops and turns. “I’d like to take another look at that Picabia,” he says. He smiles, a smile filled with mischief. He begins retracing his steps. Maybe it’s blue he’s been looking for. Maybe it’s blue he’s been looking for, all this time.

This appeared in the July/August 2010 issue.