The National Gallery’s acquisition of Voice of Fire created a massive controversy. Could it happen today?
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 is a regular contributor to CBC Arts Online.
is a visual artist and graphic designer. Her work will be exhibited in the annual CONTACT
Toronto Photography Festival this May.