THE BACK PAGES

Intrigue at the National Gallery

JOHN GEDDES July 21 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Intrigue at the National Gallery

JOHN GEDDES July 21 2008

Intrigue at the National Gallery

An out-of-the-blue announcement that the chief curator is on leave has people talking

JOHN GEDDES

THE BACK PAGES

arts

As one of the world’s leading experts on Italian art history, David Franklin knows plenty about hierarchies, status, and influence. He has explored how rich patrons in the Renaissance gained power at the expense of innovative artists. He’s intrigued by how Bernini, the great baroque sculptor, managed to be viewed as an equal by the popes whose faces he captured with uncanny lifelikeness in marble. Any insights he’s gained into winning and holding status— especially where institutional power and art intersect—must be coming in handy these days. The National Gallery of Canada’s chief curator since 2001, Franklin finds his own position suddenly the subject of speculation around the gossipy Canadian gallery scene, not to mention fodder for bloggers on the international fine-art grapevine.

His future was thrown into doubt when a recent email to gallery staff announced, without explanation, that he is on leave. Franklin wouldn’t comment this week on his sudden absence. As for the gallery, its public affairs director, Joanne Charette, offered only, “All I can say is that he’s on leave.” As chief curator, Franklin largely decided what hangs on the gallery’s walls. Uncertainty about his next move opens up the prospect of wholesale leadership change at the glassand-granite art showcase, a popular tourist destination that boasts a spectacular view of Parliament Hill, and $53 million a year in federal funding. Already, its top administrator, director Pierre Théberge, is slated to retire at the end of this year, and the hunt for his successor is well under way.

Franklin’s fate might depend on how he gets along with the new boss. Although senior gallery officials told Maclean’s they were

in the dark about his situation, one insider said his relationship with Théberge is assumed to be a factor. Despite any strains between Franklin and the current leadership, however, an abrupt exit for him remains highly unlikely. He has several ambitious projects on the go, and sources familiar with the gallery’s plans said there is no talk of jeopardizing them. His renown as an Italian art expert has allowed Franklin to cut deals to borrow key works from major European and American museums, and mount joint shows—delicate arrangements usually struck several years in advance and based on personal contacts.

His top priority is a major summer 2009 show on the Renaissance in Rome, featuring artists like Raphael. The exhibition will be a sequel to his first big splash as chief curator, 2005’s Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Renaissance in Florence. It was the Florence show that caught the eye of curators at Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum, leading them to partner with the National Gallery on a Bernini sculpture show, slated to open next month at the prestigious Getty, before moving to Ottawa for a fall and winter run.

The next big Franklin show, a 2011 retrospective on Caravaggio, could be a crowdpleaser, given the painter’s poster-ready way with shadow and light. A planned 2012 Van Gogh show, which is being pulled together

by another curator recruited by Franklin, has even greater turnstile-spinning potential.

Up to now though, Franklin hasn’t exactly come across as a populist. His Florence show, for instance, asked gallery-goers to care about a roster of lesser artists who emerged after Leonardo and Michelangelo. For his Rome follow-up, he proposes a tour through papal art-buying habits of the 1500s. “We’ll go from pope to pope,” he said, “and stimulate, in each room, the mood of each papacy, some glorious and obsessed by art, and then the ones in the Inquisition mode getting darker and more grim.”

Intriguing, maybe, but it doesn’t exactly scream blockbuster. “Too much classical art,” observes Alan Todd, the gallery’s recently retired long-time chief of design, “does not attract new customers.” Todd says Franklin’s “programming is the subject of some dispute.” Yet Franklin doesn’t come off as an elitist. Long before he broke into the art-history big leagues at Oxford in the late nineties, he grew up as a hockey-playing kid in suburban Toronto. His manner remains more low-key than highbrow. Gallery workers recall how he brought them doughnuts when they were on strike a few years ago.

For now, Franklin is hunkered down in his house in Ottawa’s leafy Glebe neighbourhood, writing his Rome show’s catalogue. Beyond that, his prospects depend on the machinations he knows have always decided who rises or falls in the world of art. M