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

Illustration by Cecilia Berkovic

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?

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.”

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.

Greg Buium