The Thursday Q&A with Marc Mayer

National Gallery Canada Mark Mayer

Marc Mayer (Photo: Pat McGrath/Ottawa Citizen)


Marc Mayer is the director of the National Gallery of Ottawa, but that isn’t the only impressive item on his resume. He’s quadrilingual — he speaks German, Italian, and French in addition to English. If you think that being in a position of authority and power in the art world makes one a snobby elitist, banish the thought. Mayer is at peace in the park, on any sidewalk, and in bed. He has a habit of cracking open several tomes at once, or clicking through them on his iPad. No surprise then that he thinks the sexiest thing is intelligence. Katia Dmitrieva talks to the man who opts for classic threads and innovative artists.

OCS: Who are your style icons?

MM: Paul Smith. I like him a lot. I’ve had his stuff since I was 19. His tweed jackets and his socks are great.

OCS: Best recent fashion find:

MM: A dark green plaid jacket that I bought in San Francisco at Nordstrom, by Hickey Freeman. I’m wearing it right now, actually, with a white collared shirt. I have been wearing the same white shirts for 12 years. They’re Brooks (Brothers) cotton, no iron. I’ve got a few pale blue ones, too.

OCS: Your biggest fashion faux-pas, when, where and how?

MM: I finally was talked out of wearing white socks. I’m very embarrassed by that. I saw someone the other day wearing a suit with white socks and it was bad. I’ll tell you about some other people’s fashion faux-pas. No socks with sandals. No boxer shorts with shorts.

OCS: Person, place or thing that makes you proudest/happiest that you live in Ottawa?

MM: That’s really tough… There seems to be a level of courtesy here that is a little bit more dependable and reliable. Ottawans are more good-humoured than people in other cities. Other cities are high-strung, or don’t care as much about fellow people.  There’s also the ease of exchange between French and English. It’s a city that occurs in two languages. I like working in two languages.

OCS: Qualities you most admire in a person?

MM: Optimism, enthusiasm, and realism. I don’t think optimism and realism are opposite because the more you know about the world, the more optimistic you become. And if you’re going to be optimistic, you might as well be enthusiastic! I’m enthusiastic about possibilities, change, improvement, and intelligence. Intelligence is really sexy.

OCS: Best restaurant in Ottawa?

MM: My favourite was Totoya. Raw fish is my favourite food. I’m very particular about my raw fish. I like variety and I don’t like my pieces to be too big. I miss the restaurant, and I miss going there once a week. I have to find a new restaurant. Oh — then there’s Sweet Grass, which I miss because they also closed. All my favourites have closed! I’m also cooking for myself these days. Lots of vegetables, chicken and soups.

OCS: Who would you invite for dinner if you could choose anyone in the world?

MM: That’s so hard! That is really, really hard. George Eliot. She was a genius, she was ahead for a very long time. She wrote about life in small towns and whatever she wanted to talk about. Middlemarch is genius.

OCS: Fine dining or plain old diners?

MM: Not plain old diners. I like vegetables. And you don’t tend to get vegetables in diners.

OCS: Favourite food?

MM: Raw fish. And vegetables!

OCS: Wine, beer or both?

MM: Wine. Red.

OCS: Favourite visual artist, living or dead?

MM: I don’t have a favourite. Piet Mondrian, Claude Tousignant, Geoffrey Farmer, (Henry) Raeburn, (Paul) Gauguin, James Wilson Morris.

OCS: Favourite local artist?

MM: I haven’t lived here long enough to pick one.

OCS: What’s on your bedside table?

MM: Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman. It’s sociology. I always read several books at once. I read these on my iPad for the most part. I’m also reading — I’m always reading — the new Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child. Also the Steve Jobs biography (by Walter Isaacson.) An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, I’m halfway through. I follow an author on Twitter and learn how to cook, that’s another thing I read. Then there’s Open City by Teju Cole. They’re macro stories and they’re wonderful.

OCS: Best home accessory?

MM: iPad. Absolutely. I’d have to go back and find it if I left it at work.

OCS: Favourite piece of furniture?

MM: The bed in my house. It’s the most useful: I like sleeping, I like reading in bed, I like breakfast in bed. I’m very happy with it. It’s got a good solid mattress and it’s a bit old- fashioned because it’s nickel-plated.

OCS: Mac or PC?

MM: Mac. I’m a former PCer and switched over about a year and a half ago. My iPad did it.

OCS: Most-oft-played song on your iPod or MP3 player?

MM: I look up opera singers on YouTube.

OCS: Fave blog or website?

MM: Twitter. There’s also an arts journal guy in Edmonton that I read.

OCS: Twitter, Facebook or both?

MM: Twitter. I don’t do Facebook. It’s too much information.

OCS: What’s your guilty pleasure?

MM: Cigars. I don’t smoke otherwise. I celebrate personal victories with cigars.

OCS: Favourite place to spend time?

MM: I spend an inordinate amount of time in bed. I walk a lot. The sidewalk is my favourite place in the world.

OCS: Describe a perfect day off (it can be anywhere in the world):

MM: Walking around a park with my camera at any time of the year. Just wandering around the world with my Canon.

OCS: Best book you read in the past year?

MM: It was an old book: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

OCS: What’s your earliest memory?

MM: Watching my father on TV. He had his own talk show in Sudbury. I used to hear his voice on TV, crawl up behind my mom’s chair, and I would watch my dad on TV. When the show was over, she would say “your dad’s finished talking now. Go to bed.” It was called Gil Mayer’s House Party.

OCS: Proudest moment?

MM: I’ve got two of those. When Donald Sobey called me up to offer me a position at the National Gallery is one.

When I was 11, we had a school race. The whole school was there to sprint from one end of the schoolyard to the other. It was a big schoolyard. There was me, and another little kid, and we were tied — we won the race and we won by quite a long distance. That was the first time I remember I could do something exceptionally. It’s a really interesting experience to share with another person.

OCS: How would you like the world to remember you? What would your eulogist ideally say?

MM: That I was useful to art. I would like to have achieved helping people become art lovers; that’s the whole point of what I do.

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