There’s no such thing as free publicity.
UK artist Tomas Georgeson hid a £8,000 blank cheque, about $12,600 Canadian, somewhere in England’s Milton Keynes Gallery. The cheque was bait to get more people through the doors.
“I mean, people will always go to galleries and make of it what they will,” Georgeson told CBC Radio. “So just putting people in there, more people in there, is almost enough because somebody is bound to go in there and have a new experience.”
“I can’t really control the experience people have once they get in there, but I’m glad I’ve got them in there in the first place.”
It’s an approach not lost on the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and its new director and CEO, Terry Graff.
In 2004, the Fredericton gallery garnered international attention. And even without a blank cheque hidden inside the gallery, the
publicity came with a price – a huge legal bill.
The Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation and its British counterpart wanted acknowledgement they owned some artwork they considered on loan at the gallery. While a judge ruled the Beaverbrook would retain the most famous works of art, including a Lucien Freud and J.M.W. Turner, the expensive dispute lingers in court.
Still, the question of ownership gained headlines nationally in the Globe and Mail and as far as Dublin and Korea.
“It was a mixed blessing it certainly absorbed a lot of time, lawyers cost a lot of money,” said Graff, promoted to his new position on Feb.1. “But on the other hand, the marketing that came by naturally from the dispute was a real asset to the gallery and getting the gallery’s identity and the paintings in the public eye.”
And that asset is now paying off with a travelling exhibit that opened early this month in Florida.
Lord Beaverbook, William Maxwell Aitken, opened the Beaverbrook Art Gallery doors in 1959.
The New Brunswick-raised Beaverbrook was a successful businessman, British media mogul, politician, writer and art collector.
“He did things with gusto,” said Graff. “When he was putting the collection together, nothing was going to be second rate. It was going to be the very best, so he sought out international art experts. He had directors and curators from world museums working for him.”
When Graff began working with the gallery in 2008 as deputy director, he began applying for funding for a travelling exhibition of the gallery’s masterworks.
Graff was successful and the Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery began to take shape with funding the Museums Assistance Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage, along with a few sponsors.
Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery was first curated in 2009 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the gallery. The exhibition features 75 historical works of art.
“There was a desire at that time to organize an exhibition of the gallery’s most prestigious works of art but it hadn’t gotten off the
ground because of the dispute with the Beaverbrook Foundation over the ownership of artworks.
The legal issues were a distraction in doing the work for this production.”
The legal issues may have been a distraction, but could’ve been just what the gallery needed.
“I think in the end, having been victorious in the first dispute, and having received the amount of publicity around it, the Beaverbrook has come out on the other side in a very, very good place and we feel we’re at a pivotal moment now.”
The exhibition’s launch was Feb.1 at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida will be on the road for three years. Graff attended the launch and was pleased with the turnout.
“You couldn’t buy that kind of marketing. You couldn’t plan some of that marketing to get that kind of attention.”
“Lord Beaverbrook is such a colorful character,” said Graff. “Love him and hate him at the same time. He’s an angel and a devil wrapped in one. Because he lived life very large and so he had a lot of enemies, but he also had a lot of friends and he hung with the rich and famous.”
Graff speaks as though the pair are old friends. He acknowledges Beaverbrook’s faults, but stresses his virtues.
Once the funding was organized for the exhibition, Graff got to work researching everything there was to know about Lord Beaverbrook and his art collection.
“How his mind worked. What his aesthetic sensibilities were, what he valued, how he looked at art, what he thought was important and who he talked to. Who his advisors were and basically just how he put it together.”
Graff said Lord Beaverbrook was a “brilliant businessman.” He found loopholes to acquire what he wanted and was always bargaining for the best deals. Many of his business associates saw him as evil, or corrupt.
“There should be a Hollywood movie about Beaverbrook, because everything’s in it: scandal, comedy, tragedy.
Shakespeare would have written about it if he’d been alive at that time, because it’s all there. You wonder how one guy could have done all of this.”
This was the irony of Lord Beaverbrook’s life.
Even though Lord Beaverbrook didn’t always “play by the rules,” and had his fair share of enemies, he was very generous.
He donated money to New Brunswick universities, scholarships for students and also gifted the Playhouse to the city of Fredericton in 1964. Graff joked the province of New Brunswick might as well be called Beaverbrook.
“Not only did he give a great gift, but he encouraged or cajoled his associates to also give works of art. So it was just an embarrassment of riches that came to Fredericton. He made TIME magazine and Fredericton was on the map internationally for this great gift, and world leaders were flying in.”
Graff leaned over his desk as he imagined it.
“What a party that must have been.”
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