Annie Leibovitz’s Blues Brothers photo

Nova Scotia taxpayers will have to wait a little longer to find out whether they’re on the hook for $2.3 million — about half the purchase price of the Annie Leibovitz collection of photographs donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS).

The 2,070 iconic images feature some of the world’s biggest celebrities (Mick and Keith in concert, Whoopi Goldberg in a milk bath, John & Yoko in a naked embrace, and Queen Elizabeth II – corgis and all).

But under a 2013 agreement Leibovitz made with the Art Gallery, she retains copyright and control over how those images are used, and they cannot be exhibited without the artist’s permission.

In April of 2013, Annie Leibovitz was deeply in debt. She agreed to sell her entire collection for $4.75 million to the Al and Faye Mintz family of Toronto. The photographer received half the money then and — under terms of a separate agreement with the Mintz family — she was supposed to receive the balance after (a) the family donated the collection to the Art Gallery and (b) received a tax break from the Canadian government.

But the artist has yet to receive (and may never receive) half the agreed upon purchase price from the Mintz donors because their requested federal tax exemption didn’t materialize. It appears that the Mintzes could now be legally off the hook for the remainder of the payment to Leibovitz. Last month, family spokesperson Bonnie Jackson told the Canadian Press the family is confident a solution will be found to display the work.

Maybe the family knows something we don’t.

The Halifax Examiner asked Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Leo Glavine if the McNeil government is prepared to consider paying Leibovitz the remainder of the purchase price she negotiated with the Mintz family in return for her consent to exhibit the photographs in Halifax. Here’s the email response I received from the Department:

“We will decline the interview request but can provide the following statement from Minister Glavine:

‘I know that Nova Scotians are eager and excited to see this collection. My understanding is the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia will reach out to the artist to determine the best path forward. Until that happens, any comment would be premature.’ ”

Colin Stinson handles communications for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. He said when executive director Nancy Noble returns from vacation she will be reaching out to the artist to schedule a meeting to determine “next steps” and “the best path forward.”

What’s transpired over the past four years is as murky as an under-developed negative. Two and a half weeks ago, the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board rejected — for a fourth time — an application to certify the entire Leibovitz collection for $20 million (based on three separate appraisals).  That’s nearly four times what the Mintz family offered to pay the photographer for the work. If the Board had accepted the higher valuations, the tax credit to the Mintz donors would have been millions of dollars more than what they offered  Leibovitz, according to court documents unearthed by CBC reporter Richard Cuthbertson. That information came to light in a lawsuit against the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board started and later abandoned by the Mintz family.

Which raises the question, WHO is going to pay the artist the remainder of the fee to which she feels entitled? And was that number a fire-sale price or part of a potential tax dodge (the latter having been flagged by the Canada Revenue Agency to the Cultural Property Export Review Board)? The Board decided the bulk of the work – except for 762 unpublished prints showing the artist’s process-  were not of “outstanding significance and national importance” to warrant the requested tax break. The Board certified the unpublished work at $1.6 million.

Many people in the art community disagree with that assessment of Annie Leibovitz’s oeuvre, and suggest the exposure of her images in a year-round exhibit would attract tens of thousands of cultural tourists to the Art Gallery and the province.

The questions that need to be brought into clear focus are what this tourist magnet might be worth to Nova Scotia and whether the 2013 agreement between the artist and the AGNS (which has never been made public) contains any language to make the Province responsible for paying the artist if the donors failed to receive their tax break.

As with a time-lapse photograph, we won’t get the full picture until we see the last frames.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Pack up all the photos and send them back to Liebovitz with a polite “thanks but no thanks” note.
    This clearly was an attempted tax scam, nothing more and the AGNS should hang its head low for having been a participant. Under NO circumstances should the Province of Nova Scotia pay a dime for anything to do with this collection.

  2. The agreement between AGNS and the artist should not be secret! What a joke I bet we’ll pay for

  3. the whole thing stinks. It was a complete tax scam for the rich toronto family. as far as I am conecrned the collection can collect must and be burned. Its dirty and it stinks

  4. It seems like the agreement between AGNS and Annie Liebovitz is absolutely key to the value of the collection – if the agreement is so restrictive that the images could be un-displayable and un-reproducible then the collection however interesting and significant would be nothing but a liability to the gallery.