Not your typical art snob
He is one of the most influential figures in the Canadian art world, but the road that Marc Mayer took to get there was certainly off the beaten track.
by John Allemang
Marc Mayer, BA’84, has something he wants to get off his chest.
“It’s my dirty little secret,” says the director of the National Gallery, sounding nothing like a man who’s inclined to be secretive.
Mayer is in the attention-getting business: Since 2009, he’s run the country’s premier art museum with a look-at-me style that makes no concession to the traditions of public-servant reticence.
When the onetime high-school dropout describes his career trajectory, he talks about chasing tips as a Toronto waiter and haunting the eighties Berlin disco scene as if those were key incubators of Ottawa officialdom. The well-travelled veteran of the contemporary art scene doesn’t think twice about characterizing his preferred milieu as “a snob magnet.” Free speech is in his blood.
So what’s left to confess?
“I’m an aesthete,” says the Sudbury, Ontario, native in his best conspiratorial voice. “I live for beauty and its pleasures.”
If anyone is going to win over Ottawa to rampant hedonism, it’s this animated 57-year-old who found his way to the McGill art history program as a self-taught mature student. His own life bears witness to the power of conversion: because Marc Mayer turned himself into an aesthete, you too can do the same.
Jargon is the enemy
“My goal is to create art lovers,” he says, almost as if that were an unusual priority in a museum director. “It’s not obvious to people how that can happen to you. You’re not born an art lover – I certainly don’t think I was – but it does happen to you at some point. So we have to find ways to attract people to this building, not just to talk to them about art history and point to these objects, but to give them many different reasons, social reasons, to come to the gallery. And once we get new people using the museum, we’re going to start making advocates for the art and people are going to start falling in love with these objects.”
The gallery as hangout – it doesn’t sound like the strategy of an aesthete, but Mayer’s reversed understanding of artistic discovery is that it can begin with basic human needs. Create a gallery bar where people feel happy talking, and the art around them will become part of their comfort zone. Culture, even official culture, doesn’t happen in isolation, and it doesn’t need elaborate interpretation by curatorial high priests to reach the people it was meant for.
“We take labels off the wall if they’re incomprehensible,” Mayer says about his plain-speaking regime, “and we replace them with labels that can be understood. I like the French term, vulgarisateur, meaning someone who can take complex ideas and simplify them without denaturing them, without lessening their import by oversimplification. That’s a skill curators need to have more and more.”
The populist approach could be seen to suit a Conservative government that’s uncomfortable with notions of cultural elitism – particularly if his dreams of a smart gallery bar (and restaurant and bookstore) can generate income and take some pressure off the public purse. But Mayer isn’t playing to the political crowd so much as appealing to his own artistic instincts.
“I’ve been looking at art since I was a child, and at some point I started reading less and looking more. I was scared away by discourse and jargon; I thought, I’m never going to be an art lover if I have to read this stuff and understand it.”
The esoteric, exclusionary side of the art world has always bothered him. “I came to art differently,” he says, “and so I take a different approach.”
Mayer’s approach certainly caught the attention of Ottawa’s mandarin class when he took over the gallery’s directorship from the aloof Pierre Theberge in 2009. “Marc began with some of the style and verve of an enfant terrible, speaking brashly with quick and loud laughter,” says Victor Rabinovitch, BA’68, the former CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization who now chairs the board of Ottawa’s Opera Lyra. “He projected a watch- me message, saying that he would liven up the NGC from its seemingly quiet, academically rooted ways.”
The dropout finds his passion
He came by that style honestly, since his first intense aesthetic explorations took place not in some hallowed gallery but in Toronto’s vast modern reference library. “I was a very frustrated, intellectually ambitious high-school dropout who wanted to know how the world worked,” Mayer recalls. The library for him was a sort of prototype for his notion of the cultural hangout – a social centre with resources that could be life-changing for those who exercised their curiosity.
His education to that point had been highly imperfect. He’d skipped a grade and then been held back in primary school, never successfully learned to tell time until he was a teenager, remade himself into the class clown as a way to deal with the daily boredom of the classroom and was eventually felled by his extramural social distractions: “Sex, drugs, rock and roll etc.,” as he enumerates them.
He dropped out and started over as a waiter in Toronto. He found the work highly satisfying, and it remains a formative part of his worldview. “You develop a certain sang-froid and a dedication to service. At the end of the day you’ve got a pocketful of money because you’ve earned all these tips. But the thing you feel most rewarded by is that you’ve fed all these people.”
In his free time, he explored the library, systematically working his way through photography and history magazines, reading madly in all directions. A friend decided to channel his enthusiasm and pointed him toward a university program for adult dropouts. The winning sales pitch, Mayer says, was “you’re no longer the child, you’re the client.” Client-based education delighted the intellectually ambitious autodidact, and he eventually worked his way to Montreal and McGill.
“McGill was a wonderful experience for me,” he says. “I love the fact that in those days they took the classical approach. You had to read the Bible and the Iliad to get through art history, you had to study foreign languages – I learned German and Italian.”
He actually set out to be a pure historian, but then got a taste of art history and found himself torn. Professor Winthrop Judkins, who’d established the rigorous art history program three decades earlier, took on the role of decider.
“I was one of his last students,” Mayer recalls. “He just looked at me and said, ‘You’re so good, stick with us. Don’t be a jack of all trades, and master of none; you’ll be a terrific art historian.’ And he was right: I was much more interested in objects that remained from the past than documents from the past. I’m more a looker than a reader.”
Old and new
Mayer’s career has been so predisposed to the present – with stints at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, the Power Plant in Toronto, the Brooklyn Museum, the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal – that his intense devotion to the past may come as a surprise. In the cerebral gallery world, there’s generally a friction between contemporary and historical, but Mayer’s pleasure-driven aesthetic has made him a unifying force.
“My cast of mind is such that I’m always trying to make connections, trying to understand material culture and humanity through art. Art is history and it’s also information. I find I’m a little unusual among the curators I’ve worked with in that I’m very passionate about Old Masters, I love African art, I love Chinese ceramics. Material culture to me is an endless cornucopia of fascination. But contemporary art is the most meaningful because I can actually know the creators, I can affect their thinking through our friendship.”
It was at McGill that he came to realize the boundlessness of art history. His passion was the Italian Baroque and his hero was a 17th-century polymath from Turin named Guarino Guarini – architect, playwright, philosopher, monk, master of geometry. “He made the most complex buildings you could imagine,” Mayer says. “Art historians ignored them because they were too complex to describe.”
The degree of difficulty intrigued him. “I decided that I was the guy to explain Guarini and the Italian Baroque by chaos theory and fractals,” he says, both amused and fascinated by the intense academic boldness of his younger self.
And then a new world opened up. The young historian liked to spend free time challenging himself at the Musée d’art contemporain, staring at everything, understanding nothing. He came across a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a fellow high school dropout whose graffiti-inspired work was the subject of an exhibition Mayer later curated at the Brooklyn Museum.
“Here was someone who was world-famous and he was actually younger than me. It was the moment when I realized that a painting hanging in a museum could be something being made today by someone who’s living and experiencing the same world you’re experiencing.”
The power of that personal discovery remains with him at the National Gallery. When he goes hunting for art to acquire, he says immodestly, “I’m looking for that key work in the artist’s corpus that’s going to open a whole new world for you and your life.”
Given his background, he has a soft spot for the kind of contemporary art likely to win over traditionalists who insist the only good art is old art. He points proudly to such acquisitions as Sophie Ristelhueber’s 71 large-format photographs of the aftermath of the First Gulf War, Yang Fudong’s five-part film Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (“probably the most famous Chinese video art”) and Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer’s 120-foot long Leaves of Grass, which features 16,000 images cut out from old editions of Life magazine, mounted on grass sticks.
When calculating what to acquire, he starts with his gut instinct, that nagging feeling of desire that “makes you wake up, sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and say ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to buy that.’” The aesthetic rush is paramount – curatorial justification comes later.
He had that feeling with Farmer’s work. But he also had it with a more conventional painting by the French artist Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. It’s an unfinished erotic work that was commissioned by the Empress Josephine just before she was divorced by Napoleon and bears the winning title Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, Remorse Follows – “the story of everyone’s life,” Mayer notes.
A tough nut to crack
The gallery under his leadership has drawn crowds with blockbuster collaborations on Van Gogh and Caravaggio, but he and his team have received the most kudos for “Sakahan,” an exhibition of contemporary indigenous art from Canada and 15 other countries. “It was an immensely high-minded endeavour to undertake,” says Globe and Mail art critic Sarah Milroy, BA’79, “really bold and expensive and risky. I don’t know that shows like that get huge foot traffic, but there’s no denying they’re the right thing to do.”
Indeed, the 2013 summer show drew barely 60,000 visitors compared to the 230,000 who attended the previous year’s Van Gogh event. “Marc has encountered the hard financial realities of popular shows versus important shows,” Rabinovitch observes. Contemporary art remains a hard sell – at least in Ottawa, in tourist season.
“It’s a challenge,” admits Mayer. “This is a museum that’s two or three times bigger than a city the size of Ottawa would support if it wasn’t a museum meant to serve the whole country. It’s the toughest of nuts to crack: How do you serve the whole country from Ottawa and still be very appealing to the people who live here?”
Partnerships with regional Canadian galleries have become part of the solution. But money, lots of it, remains the best way to solve the National Gallery’s awkward problems of scale. “These are tough times for art museums,” Mayer acknowledges, and the generally bleak economic climate during his tenure has been exacerbated by the need to reconstruct the gallery’s aging Great Hall – responding to the recession and the need to modernize, he has chosen to cut jobs in education, library services, communications, security and IT.
But Mayer is at heart an optimist and an enthusiast, not a man who likes to bear bad news with a long face. Others might take issue with the federal government’s commitment to the finer arts, but he happily says, “I’m not frustrated by politics in Ottawa.”
His funding has held steady, there’s been no interference on the artistic side, and when he wants to share his anxieties about, say, the fragile tourism market in Ottawa, he finds a willing ear in Heritage Minister Shelly Glover.
In return, he looks for ways to make a venerable cultural institution more responsive to contemporary needs and desires.
“The thing that’s important to me and in line with the thinking in Ottawa,” he says, “is that the gallery has to pull its own weight as much as possible.” Hence his hopeful thoughts about repositioning the gallery as a place to have a beautiful meal and a brilliant conversation – and his willingness, bordering on eagerness, to court wealthy donors.
“I’m much more involved in fundraising than my predecessor was,” he says. “I actually enjoy it.”
As the man said, he lives for pleasure.
John Allemang is a feature writer for the Globe and Mail.
Mayer on some masterworks
We invited Marc Mayer to tell us a little about some of his favourite items in the National Gallery’s extensive collection. Here are two of the works that he feels a special connection to. The photos are by Jessica Deeks.
Montreal’s streets as modern art gallery