The guest list read like a who’s who of Canadians. Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson was there. So were Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella and her former colleague Beverley McLachlin, who retired as chief justice a year ago.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his wife, Nancy McCain, attended, as did former prime minister Joe Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, and former B.C. premier and diplomat Gordon Campbell.
As well, galagoers included former tech executives Jozef Straus (wearing his trademark black beret), and Zita Cobb, who has successfully put the small Newfoundland community of Fogo Island on the map through her Shorefast Foundation. Also spotted were Rob Sobey, chair of the Sobey Art Foundation; prominent Toronto theatre producer David Mirvish; French Ambassador Kareen Rispal; Bruce Heyman, former U.S ambassador to Canada, with his wife, Vicki; and National Arts Centre president and CEO Christopher Deacon.
The evening began with a reception in the contemporary galleries before continuing into the Scotiabank Great Hall for a dinner that was sprinkled with tributes to Mayer by Thomas d’Aquino, chair of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation board; Françoise Lyon, chair of the National Gallery of Canada board of trustees; the gallery's former board chair, Michael Audain, who is also a distinguished patron of the gallery; and Karen Colby-Stothart, CEO of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation.
Capping off the evening was a powerful performance by young cellist Bryan Cheng, accompanied by his sister, classical pianist Silvie Cheng. They played one of Mayer’s favourites, Haydn's Adagio, which, explained Mayer, perfectly captured how he was feeling: bittersweet.
Mayer, 62, was first appointed director and chief executive of the National Gallery in 2008. He is stepping step down once his second term wraps up in January.
The time has gone by so fast, he mused in his remarks, which he mostly dedicated to thanking the many individuals with whom he’s worked during his time at the gallery.
“For those who are a little bit older than me, does it ever slow down?” asked Mayer, drawing knowing chuckles from the room. “Because, it just has gotten faster and faster and faster. You don’t even notice and then — the next thing you know — you’re gone."
The room heard how Mayer grew up in Sudbury but that his mother’s favourite sister lived in Hull. They visited her often and he became familiar with the National Gallery. “This is the place where I fell in love with art as I grew older,” he said, speaking in both official languages.
“I thought I had a good sense, and that’s why I applied for the job,” said Mayer, whose 33-year-long career has taken him to art museums and galleries in New York, Paris, Toronto and Montreal. “It’s a hell of an honour, the National Gallery of Canada.
“Do you know that while doing the job I realized I had no idea how important this institution is ... This is one of our key cultural and intellectual centres. I didn’t really understand that until I actually was responsible for making sure that it stayed that way. The role that we play in the world; we represent Canada on the world stage.
“All of you who have been so generous to this institution, so generous to me, who have helped me love my fate: be vigilant. Keep an eye out for my old beauty,” he said with emotion.
Mayer ended his remarks by telling everyone that he's leaving his position as director with the view that it's been "the greatest honour of my life".
The room immediately responded with a lengthy standing ovation.
Guests heard how Mayer played an important role in building a national collection of art from across Canada and around the world, and in keep the collection accessible to, and appreciated by, as many people as possible. Part of his legacy will be the historic re-imagining of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary, and the enhancement of the newly-restored Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which provides global exposure for Canadian artists.
D’Aquino thanked Mayer for leading with vision and passion. “Shepherding the fortunes of Canada’s leading visual arts museum, a global centre of excellence respected around the world, is no small task,” he said. “Deciding on acquisitions, working closely with the curators and donors, building bridges to other institutions and stakeholders, and being the voice of the gallery in Canada and abroad, carry with them significant challenges.
“Marc has responded admirably to these challenges, all the while vigorously defending the gallery’s professionalism and independence.”
Colby-Stothart expressed her admiration and appreciation for an arts leader who's shown passion, intellect, charisma and curiosity. She described Mayer as a man who's always reading, who watches every film, who follows politics, travels everywhere to see every exhibit, and who debates and deliberates.
“And he takes risks. This risk-taking aspect, both intellectually and managerially, I think is one of the most interesting parts of his leadership style,” said Colby-Stothart.