Banking on Van Gogh to draw crowds to the National Gallery of Canada

Marc Mayer goes with a safe bet in mounting Van Gogh: Up Close

Chasing a summer hit
Blair Gable

Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada, isn’t exactly a Vincent Van Gogh guy. Growing up in Sudbury, Ont., in the 1970s, Mayer decorated his bedroom with poster prints of abstractions by Kandinsky and Mondrian. He speaks gleefully about how, over his career as a curator and administrator at major public galleries in Canada and the U.S., he has persuaded skeptical boards of directors to buy and display “hundreds of pounds of barbed wire to hang from the ceiling, an actual airplane crushed by a boulder, a giant colour photograph of a toxic dump, a stained rag stapled to a broken stick and glued to a piece of old Styrofoam.” He gets more worked up championing contemporary art than 19th-century oil paintings of flowers that look cheerful on the coasters and calendars that sell briskly in a gallery’s gift shop.

Yet Mayer’s life is bound up, for the next few months at least, with Van Gogh’s reliable ability to draw big crowds. The exhibition, Van Gogh: Up Close, slated to run at the Ottawa gallery from May 25 to Sept. 3, is its most surefire crowd-pleaser in years, which is saying something after last summer’s Caravaggio show, a critical success and popular hit. If Mayer’s tone is exuberant when he talks about living artists, he’s more matter-of-fact on the Van Gogh stakes. “The summer is when you need the big numbers,” he says. “What you want is to make sure that you’re delivering programming that is relevant to the largest number of people who are interested in art. But you also want to bring them around so they have broader tastes and broader interests. That’s kind of tricky.”

Pulling off that trick has long been the central challenge at the National Gallery. Tens of thousands turn out for exhibitions of dead masters, many taking a detour to see, say, the permanent collection’s Group of Seven paintings. New work is more likely to trigger “You call that art?” reactions. But that didn’t stop Mayer’s predecessors from buying, for instance, an Andy Warhol sculpture of Brillo soap boxes in 1967, Barnett Newman’s infamous three-striped Voice of Fire in 1989, and the giant bronze spider called Maman, by sculptor Louise Bourgeois, in 2004.

Since he took over as the gallery’s director in 2009, Mayer’s most prominent addition to Canada’s national art trove is a tapering 30-m stainless-steel tree trunk, called One Hundred Foot Line, by American sculptor Roxy Paine. Installed on a grassy hillside on the gallery’s grounds, it dominates the view from Mayer’s office. He interrupts a conversation there when he spots a cluster of visitors trudging up to gawk at it. “Look at the Druids!” he says fondly. “I used to look out at this park and it would be empty for days on end. Now there’s never a day that goes by that people don’t come to look at One Hundred Foot Line.”

It’s Mayer’s infectious delight in contemporary work that his peers mention most often. “He makes people passionate,” says Barbara Fischer, executive director of the University of Toronto’s Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. “He is very down-to-earth, very enthusiastic.” Thomas d’Aquino, the former head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives who now chairs the National Gallery’s private fundraising foundation, says Mayer is less intimidating than the stereotypical head of an elite gallery. “People have difficulty relating to them or even having a conversation with them,” d’Aquino says. “Marc immediately puts you at ease.”

In fact, Mayer’s tireless courting of potential donors has emerged as a hallmark of his leadership at the gallery. He has streamlined its membership and fundraising structure, and presided over the creation of a “Distinguished Patrons” group of blue-chip philanthropists. He touts the inherent cultural value of art, but doesn’t hesitate to argue that those who collect art have a vested interest in supporting galleries that enhance the value of their private collections. “We are fully justified,” he said in a recent speech, “in seeking direct investment in our institutions and their programs from those who stand to benefit materially from our work, the people who buy the art that will appreciate with time, as all great art invariably does.” He added that he doesn’t mind fundraising. “I enjoy that part of my job,” he said. “It makes me feel useful.”

D’Aquino describes Mayer as a “consummate networker” who, “unlike perhaps some of his predecessors,” sees pleading for private support as a key part of his job. “Marc is very comfortable,” he says, “going out and knocking on doors and saying, ‘Here I am.’ ” Mayer says he expects stable government funding for the gallery—it now runs around $50 million a year—but assumes any growth will have to come from private sources, along with ticket and membership revenues. “I want us to be richer,” he says. “I want Canadians to be funding us directly. I want more bodies in the door.”

Born in 1956, Mayer says nobody in his immediate family shared his interest in visual art, although his father, an actor and TV advertising salesman, had a creative streak, inventing a comic character called “Marcel Mucker” to deliver satiric commentaries on a local newscast. An uncle, however, maintained a gallery in the basement of his Sudbury army surplus store. Even better, he had a few late paintings by David Milne, among the most important Canadian artists of the early 20th century, at home. “They had a real strong impact on me,” Mayer recalls. The same uncle also bought him art supplies.

Mayer enjoyed his high school art classes, but otherwise “flunked rather spectacularly,” and moved to Toronto as an 18-year-old dropout. He worked in a camera store and a flower shop, and as a waiter. A few years later, he regrouped to study history at Carleton University, and then art history at McGill. His first big break was being named assistant director at the 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art in New York, where he worked from 1986 to 1990, meeting virtually every major figure in Canadian art when they visited Manhattan. “Sometimes I think the reason I’m the director of the National Gallery of Canada is because I had that job,” he says.

After stops in Paris, Buffalo, N.Y., and at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery, he became deputy director of art at the massive Brooklyn Museum from 2001 to 2004, working closely with Arnold Lehman, the museum’s innovative director. From there he went to Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain, as its director. It was a sort of homecoming. “I realized that I knew these people,” he says. “I’m French-Canadian. We have the same history. We have many of the same values. This was just the opposite of Brooklyn.”

Mayer says heading the National Gallery of Canada puts him in “the national hot seat in the field of art.” He tackles popular skepticism about contemporary art with unusual candour. In a speech he called “Taxpayers’ Money,” aimed largely at art institution insiders, Mayer tried to jolt his peers into recognizing the need to connect with a broader public. “Now, there are plenty of snobs in our fragile little Canadian art world who are quick to say, ‘Who cares! Art isn’t for the masses. Let them eat reality TV!’ ” he said. “You are welcome to your lofty exclusivity. But in Canada, it’s the undifferentiated taxpayer who’s buying the drinks for our party, ladies and gentlemen, and most of them lost their sense of humour about us long ago.”

Mayer’s strategy for shoring up his gallery’s claim to be worthy of taxpayer support in times of government cutbacks includes making it relevant beyond Ottawa. He has forged deals to create satellite National Gallery of Canada spaces at Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta and Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. He boasts that the gallery tours more shows than any other museum in the world, putting chunks of its collection continuously on display across Canada. And not just Canada. The gallery collaborated this year with the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London to take the gallery’s show, Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven—a sleeper success with British gallery-goers—on tour in northern Europe.

But success abroad and across Canada doesn’t ease the pressure to draw crowds into the gallery itself. Its 2010 summer offering, Pop Life, a British-curated showcase of Warhol and big-name contemporary artists he influenced, like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, drew a disappointing 67,435 visitors, despite intense media interest. Last summer’s Caravaggio exhibition did far better, attracting 108,553 visitors. Van Gogh stands a good chance of beating Caravaggio’s total.

Mayer stresses the innovative elements in the show, especially fresh scholarship on Van Gogh’s unique technique for observing nature close up, zooming in on, say, a single bloom or blade of grass and using that as a starting point for building a broader perspective. “We’re saying something new about Van Gogh. It’s a new aspect of his personality that I think will surprise people,” he says, adding, “But at the same time, it’s a Van Gogh exhibition.” By which he means, of course, that he expects strong ticket sales. And as he strives to push his gallery toward new prominence, scoring a summer hit is a strategic necessity. Mayer’s personal tastes may be esoteric, but his frank attention to bringing “more bodies in the door” has him banking this spring on tradition.