HALIFAX — Four years after the country’s largest collection of photographs by famed American artist Annie Leibovitz was donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the images of celebrity and pop culture icons remain in storage.
The impasse stems from a refusal by an independent federal board to certify the multi-million dollar collection as “cultural property” of outstanding significance, leaving many well-known portraits in the dark, including a naked and pregnant Demi Moore, and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia director Nancy Noble said the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board has repeatedly refused to certify the bulk of the Leibovitz photos.
“They basically have determined that it’s not of outstanding cultural significance and we disagree with them,” Noble said Wednesday. “Annie Leibovitz is a cultural icon across the world and she is the portrait artist of our times.”
Other famous images in the collection include actress Whoopi Goldberg bathing in milk, a brooding Queen Elizabeth II, and the haunting photo of a naked John Lennon and Yoko Ono snuggling on a floor five hours before the musician was gunned down in front of his New York apartment.
While the board certified Liebovitz’s “file collection” — the series of snapshots that led to final photographs — it has refused to certify the large-scale exhibition-style prints.
Noble said she’s at a loss to understand why only a portion of the collection would be certified.
A spokesman for Leibovitz said in an email she is out of the country and “just not commenting on this matter right now.”
Toronto art lawyer Aaron Milrad said the board made an error.
“I believe the board could have been more generous about understanding the importance of the artwork and the quality of the opportunity that would be available for students … to study that work and become a repository of note in Canada,” he said.
Milrad said for a small Canadian venue to obtain a collection of this magnitude was a “coup.”
“You don’t get too many women photographers of that calibre and nature … It’s been a man’s area with just a few exceptions. This is an archives, including the negatives, that’s irreplaceable.”
Meanwhile, the gallery submitted its fourth and final application to the board in June and expects to hear back in the coming months.
Museums and galleries only have five years to certify “cultural property” following a donation, so Noble said this will be the last attempt.
The certification provides important tax incentives to donors, she said, encouraging private collectors to donate artwork to public institutions that couldn’t otherwise afford the art.
”The price of art has escalated over the years and so it becomes very, very difficult without donations to build a collection,” Noble said.
However, it’s those tax incentives that may have raised red flags. In fact, Milrad said the laws around tax shelter gifting arrangements were changed two years after the donation was made.
He said the board got “all hot and heavy about the money part.” He said the works were purchased for about US$4.75 million but have a fair market value closer to $20 million.
The family of Al and Faye Mintz of Toronto donated the images to the gallery in June 2013 in what was the largest single donation of one artist.
“We are disappointed that this spectacular exhibition is tucked away and not available to the public,” Harley Mintz said in an emailed statement.
“The very reason that we agreed to participate was so that this specific collection could be viewed, shared and enjoyed by the public. Instead, what should have been a celebration has not occurred. All we can do is hope the issue is resolved quickly. … We remain confident the (board) course corrects.”
Canadian Heritage Department spokesman Jon Schofield said in an email that the board’s role is limited to certifying cultural property as being of outstanding significance and national importance, and determining its fair market value for tax purposes.
But he could not comment on why the bulk of the collection was not certified, citing privacy concerns.