Monday, July 28, 2008

As the World at the National Gallery of Canada Turns... (Updated)

Over the weekend, it seems the plot at the National Gallery of Canada has thickened--at least in the eyes of the national and international press. (I was sorry to see the Ottawa city daily Citizen didn't follow up with a story, as they broke the thing in the first place and are closest to the ongoing gallery politics. Maybe they've got a weekend spread/TV deal in mind? Or decided the whole thing's ridonk?)

Okay, I'll admit, the story is one with many strange twists and turns indicating major mismanagement on the part of the gallery board and executives--having an HR person command you to delete emails? That's a strange and inappropriate turn of events whether you're working for IBM, PetroCanada, the Department of the Environment, or any smaller-scale operation, non-profit arts or otherwise.

Then firing someone for following orders like that? Not kosher either. So it's basically a big soap-opera-style mess, internally speaking, both on Franklin's part and the gallery's.

I'm still left a little befuddled, however, about what all this really means. Here are some ventures:

a) The Richard Florida-ite interpretation: Canada's national gallery has finally reached "world class" status thanks to "world class" headaches and internal mishaps like this one. See the esteemed Smithsonian Institution's own significant record of staff and HR strife. It seems--hurrah!--that our own creative class economy must be alive and well!

(b) The conservative-gov interpretation: The Gallery is being mismanaged--just as anything that is not the oil industry is being "mismanaged"--and therefore deserves a big budget slash. A great rationale for bringing in Ralph Klein as the new culture commish. It seems--hurrah!--that at last those lilywhite Eastern creeps and bums will have to work the oilpatch like everyone else. (Actually, this may not be such a bad performance piece idea.)

(c) The art insider interpretation: Ooooh, nice to see a little dirt come out on the big guys. But what's the big deal? The art world is rife with these kinds of power struggles and management gaffes--a degree in art history is no guarantee of leadership ability, dontcha know. But we wouldn't have it any other way. So it seems--hurrah!--that all is "normal" by art standards at the NGC after all.

My concern, in the end, is how mismanagement affects public use of and benefit from the gallery. And I'll admit that, even to sound like Stephen Harper himself, squabbles like this do make a waste of public funds. But really, I'm more interested in what they're programming, whether it's meeting the needs of the public, whether it's economically and socially accessible, and so on.

On that latter count, the gallery has been a mixed bag for the past number of years. The admission used to be free, and is now $9 for the permanent collection, extra for special exhibits. Not bad compared to some museums in Canada, but still could use improving. The acquisition of the Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture for the outdoor plaza was a terrific move in terms of collections... but also wouldn't the collections benefit from fixing the roof properly too?

I'd like to see more address of these issues in the press--or at least more consistent coverage of the "toxic" environments in arts orgs across the country. But are there enough column-inches to fit it all in...?

Update: This afternoon (Tuesday July 29th) the National Gallery sent out a press release proclaiming, effectively, that all is well. Text reproduced below.

Statement from Donald Sobey, Chair of the Board of Trustees
of the National Gallery of Canada

Ottawa, July 29, 2008 – In light of recent media reports, the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) wishes to speak to the continuing exceptional standing of a great national institution that continues to be an icon of the visual arts in Canada, as well as to comment on certain recent events. This year’s exhibition program is being well received.

The Board of Trustees has been aware of the issue and acted as facilitators to resolve this matter. This has resulted in a mutual agreement between the Director, Pierre Théberge and the Deputy Director and Chief Curator David Franklin to all parties’ satisfaction.

Pierre Théberge has been an outstanding leader of the Gallery for 11 years and his reputation in Canada and abroad is unassailable. Under his direction, the institution has blossomed through magnificent acquisitions with thousands of generous gifts made by Canadians. The collection remains one of the most prestigious in the world. The outreach program, which sends exhibitions to public galleries across the country, has been a phenomenal success and has made the institution truly national. All of this has been achieved within balanced budgets certified by the Auditor General.

Similarly, Dr. David Franklin has been involved in directing the curatorial achievements of the Gallery over the past seven years. His knowledge of art and art history is well-recognized nationally and internationally. He is a great asset, not just to the National Gallery but to Canada, and we look forward to his continued work on the Gallery’s Collections and the many important exhibitions planned for the future.

As Chairman, I have spoken with Dr. Franklin following resolution of this issue. He deeply regrets the recent events and is pleased that he and Mr. Théberge, whom he regards as his supporter, are now moving forward.

Mr. Théberge’s term expires in five months. Last fall, the Board began the process of selecting a new director. A Committee of the Board, along with external advisors, will be interviewing candidates within the next three weeks, and the Board anticipates announcing the new director, in due course.

The only operational change brought about by management agreement is that Mr. Franklin is currently concentrating his efforts on the Gallery’s 2009 summer exhibition “From Raphael to the Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome” exclusively. This exhibition is an area of deep expertise for Dr. Franklin and he is a key part of its successful execution.

The Board considers this matter resolved and it our sincere hope that the collective focus of all can once again be directed to showcasing the excellence of the National Gallery of Canada.

I suspect the statement was issued to quell muttering from MPs on the issue, such as was reported in the National Post today.

Don't know if I buy it, but it would be good if they indeed did get on with their jobs. I've realized since blogging on these issues that part of my laissez-faire around this particular drama derives from the fact that Franklin's specialty in historical art doesn't really float my boat. Maybe if he was into more contemporary stuff I'd be more shaken. "Art Critic's Bias Results in Tragic Case of Near Indifference"... I can see the headlines already.

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