Monday, November 10, 2008

Cancelling the National Portrait Gallery: A Picture of Conservative Mismanagement

This weekend, web commenters went nuts over government's suspiciously timed late-Friday announcement to cancel plans for a National Portrait Gallery.

Their rationale? The gallery would cost too much money in these tough economic times.

Whether individual Canadians like art or not, there's no way they should buy this flimsy rationale.

First, the Conservative Government considerably increased the costs (both money and time-as-money) of the project as a whole when they halted building the gallery in Ottawa in '06 and began a process of asking for bids from other cities. If they hadn't done this, the gallery--originally slated as a reno of a former American embassy--would probably be complete by now.

Second, since 2006, the bids received on the project (from Calgary and Edmonton as well as Ottawa) have depended heavily, if not entirely, on private funds. Where's this taxpayer burden Harper's so concerned about?

Commentary online surrounding these events has, as usual, gone both pro-arts and anti-arts.

Some commenters have said "just put the dang collection online for all Canadians to enjoy." You know what? I think this collection should be online too. But to put a collection online still takes money. And a fair bit of it, especially if you are going to present information in a well-designed, accessible way. And if you're going to promote it for all Canadians to be aware of for their enjoyment--that takes money too.

Plus, seeing a painting online is nothing like seeing it in person; if that were the case, perhaps we could suggest the Louvre would save money by just putting the Mona Lisa and all its other famed treasures online and closing up its bricks and mortar shop. Everybody okay with that? Is that pretty much the same? I didn't think so.

Some commenters have also said that this really is saving money in tough economic times. But as has already been pointed out, much of the money was to come from private, rather than public, coffers. And if the conservatives really cared about overall cost of the project in the first place, they should have let it go ahead in Ottawa, where plans were already in place, as well as the collection and staff needed to care for it.

Further, an argument could be made that in these tough economic times, the project would provide much-needed construction jobs, as well as jobs in education, service and design. It would also provide, when it is complete, a low-cost-to-free form of recreation to hardworking Canadians.

Some commenters have also insinuated that the Harper gov is suppressing the collection to keep Canadians from being aware of their left-leaning history. I don't want to tag them with such divisive philistinism at this point in time--though the fact that Harper only hangs images of himself in the Conservative offices does much to support this thesis. (Thanks to Simpleposie for the link.)

Rather, I chalk up this sheepishly timed announcement as evidence that the government is continuing to use culture as a wedge issue. This is highly regrettable, because even if the Conservatives aren't trying to "keep Canadians from their history" that is the ultimate result.

I won't even get into the PM's own elitist double standard of being able to hang publicly owned works in his residence while keeping them from the public's own view. After all, I'm sure he'll be putting a stop to any repairs at 24 Sussex for financial reasons soon too... right?

Image of the former US embassy originally slated to be Canada's National Portrait Gallery from Canwest News Service/National Post

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