Last night I received an email alerting me to an open letter posted on a blog called Excellence At The National Gallery. The letter is addressed to Marc Mayer, the gallery’s director.
The signatories of the letter (over 200) take issue with comments made by Mayer during his appearance on a CBC The National segment entitled “Diaspora Art”. According to the letter, Mayer “told the Canadian public that, unlike the nation itself, the National Gallery of Canada is blind to cultural diversity; it only sees ‘excellence’.” Mayer made the comment at the NGC while “surrounded by the work of Aboriginal artists.”
From there the letter rightly asks “Whose excellence?” before providing a history of the gallery’s preference for white men, “good art” and Greenbergian connoisseurialism. In the next paragraph, the equation of “excellence” to “hegemony”. And from there, a reading list: Nochlin’s "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” (1971), Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), hooks’ Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) and Fuse Magazine. The letter ends with a sarcastic thank you to Mayer -- for “showing us your true colours.”
What to say? First of all, should we expect anything less from a mouth like Mayer’s? Do we actually believe that he believes what he’s saying? I don’t. But of course that’s not the point: the point is that he’s said these things – ridiculous things – things he says at the airport bar of the Banff Centre’s Sally Borden Dining Room, things that people laugh at (but not with). Of greater concern is that the Excellence At The National Gallery signatories believe that those who watch The National know nothing of the conversation that is contemporary art and are incapable of seeing a clearly combative man with an ego the size of Toronto get sloppy with a journalist whom he knows is out for a story. I for one don’t believe National watchers are that uninformed; nor do I believe that every person who has signed the Excellence At The National Gallery letter feels that Mayer’s comments were taken at face value. But people being people, we fret, construct our own response – in this case, one that does not include a link to the interview where Mayer made an idiot of himself, nor an attempt to understand this profoundly wounded and power drunk individual in the context of broadcast journalism.
Mayer’s “true colours” do not include an indifference to cultural diversity. I truly believe this, just as I believe that he has accomplished a great deal in his career. His problem is his ego, his inner voice of fire. He is a man in desperate need of help, and I believe in helping people, especially when they're down.
Will I sign the Excellence At The National Gallery letter? No. Instead, I will write my own letter and send it to the National Gallery’s board of directors. I will outline what I have seen and ask that Mayer take an anger management course, after which I will ask that he issue a clarification, and an apology for being a goof. If he fails to do that, I will draft another letter, this one asking for his resignation.