The Rooms Act: Acting in Haste?

Bill 56, a provincial act redefining The Rooms Corporation (Rooms Act 2016) is moving quickly through the house of assembly and raising many questions in its considerable wake.

Bill 56, a provincial act redefining The Rooms Corporation (Rooms Act 2016) is moving quickly  through the house of assembly and raising many questions in its considerable wake. The Bill will essentially dissolve the 3 separate entities that constitute The Rooms, by “removing the requirement for separate divisions and directors for the archives, museum and art gallery.”

The bill went through its second reading today and was voted through committees. Both Lorraine Michael (St John’s East-Quidi Vidi) and Gerry Rogers (St John’s Centre), the only members of the House of Assembly (MHAs) from the New Democrat Party (NDP), raised questions and objections to the Bill itself and to the lack of public consultation that went into it.

Though Michael is the only member on record as voting against it, Rogers says she is “absolutely opposed” to it. According to Rogers, she had stepped out of the room briefly and while she was out the vote was called. Michael, apparently, asked the assembly to wait but the vote went ahead without Rogers present.

I spoke with Minister Mitchelmore earlier this evening and when asked about the vote he said “it was unanimous. Except for one vote from St John’s East” When asked if Rogers had not also voted against it he neglected to clarify that the vote was held during her brief absence and reiterated that there “was only one recorded vote” against it.

The objections raised about lack of public consultation are germane not only because The Rooms is a large and complex public institution that is touted in building sized letters as “our place” but also because not holding public consultation may put the government in violation of section 10(2)(b) of the current Rooms Act:

“The chief executive officer [CEO] shall, on the direction of the board, consult with the public with respect to the strategic plan and the ongoing activities and operations of the corporation.”

While this new Act would certainly seem to fall under “the strategic plan…and operations of the corporations,” the phrase “on the direction of the board” may be tricky. While I am awaiting an appeal for clarification from someone who speaks better legalese than I, I will say that on the face of it, this clause could be interpreted in two ways.

Either a directive of the Board of Directors (BOD) is being spelled out right in the act and is that the CEO shall consult with the public, in which case, the passing of the new act would be in violation, or it means that the CEO only shall consult with the public if they receive specific direction to do so by the BOD. In which case passing the new Act is not in violation of the letter of the law but is still surprising given that, as confirmed by the Minister himself, there was not only no consultation of the public, there was absolutely no consultation of any kind with any experts, stakeholders, private or public funders, or the current directors of the Provincial Museum, The Provincial Gallery, and Archives.

Minister Mitchelmore was very clear when asked about the lack of input on this bill, that no consultation was necessary because “there is no change in structure. [The bill is] just removing [a] barrier for change. […It is] premature to do engagement.”

Mitchelmore says they are, “getting rid of a proscribed operating structure” which will allow the Rooms Corporation to “take advantage of natural synergies.” In fact, the “proscription” of having separate directors for the Art Gallery, The Museum and The Archives is removed completely, as is any mention of any directors at all below the CEO.

When pressed on this change, Mitchelmore said that there will be no changes made to the structure of The rooms without public engagement. He said there will still be a director of the gallery, a director of the archives, and a director of the Museum. But he could not explain, if no changes will be made right away anyway, why Bill 56 needed to be passed quickly with no discussion with stakeholders or the public until after it had passed.

MHA Gerry Rogers responded to the idea that consultation would only be needed after the bill had passed and if the corporation takes advantage of its new autonomy to re-structure as a “really backwards way of doing it.” She further said she “does not believe the minister has a full grasp of the ramifications,” and called the Bill 56 a “knee-jerk, reckless bill.”

Minister Mitchelmore also went on record saying that the new act (or “the amendments” as he put it) “comes as a request from the Board Of Directors [of The Rooms] … They’ve requested the amendment to be made because the act of 2005 was prescriptive.” So, though this is not, a “structural change” it would allow future structural changes since the structure would no longer be prescribed by provincial act. I have reached out for comment via the “executive” email available on The Rooms’ contact page to confirm the minister’s statement that the BOD requested this bill. I will update if/when I receive a response.

The list of the board of directors on The Rooms website is not up to date and there are no individual contacts for the board president or other board members listed. I have obtained the full and current list of the board of directors: Tom Foran-Chair, Lisa Brown-Vice Chair, Kathi Stacey, Dawn Baker, Mary McCarthy, Jeff Pardy, Ian Patey and Stan Hill.

In addition to contacting MHAs and the Minister to ask further questions about the new Rooms Act, the public should be able to reach out to the board of this crown corporation and to the CEO, Dean Brinton, since the board has ultimate accountability for the actions of this institution, and if the Minister is correct, is the impetus behind these changes.

Minister Mitchelmore further explained that “the [current] act of 2005 siloed the approach” which echoes a line from the Liberal’s “The Way Forward” vision statement, “Problems straddle bureaucratic silos, which is preventing Government from solving them. The time is now for a Government-wide approach to improving outcomes. We can no longer afford to be fragmented. The Way Forward considers the interrelated impacts of our economic, social and fiscal decisions.”

The potential problem with de-siloing is that while it may “create synergies” it can also stifle editorial and curatorial independence. The Minister repeated over and over again that the new act was not a change of structure but simply a removal of barriers. But removing barriers is, in itself, a structural change. To use the proffered metaphor, removing barriers from silos would result in immediate structural changes manifest as silage spilling and filling any surrounding barns and fields rendering them unfit to perform their respective functions and reeking of rotting corn.

Currently, acquisitions of art by The Rooms are handled by an arms’ length acquisitions committee. With the new act acquisitions are “subject to the advice and direction of the chief executive officer.” If the proscription of barriers between the different arms of the Rooms Corporation (The Archives, The Museum, The Gallery, and any other functions of the facility such as its use as a corporate and social venue) is gone, then gone also is the protection of the unique aims of each arm.

The point of a museum housing historical artifacts is not always the same as a gallery showing current art works. The “objects of the corporation” themselves, as listed in the new act, are not an issue and they cover a healthy range of mandates from each wing. But what happens when one of these “objects” is at odds with another? If the Provincial Art Gallery maintains its own director and autonomy than it can be at healthy odds with an “object” of The Museum, or The Archives. Because “advanc[ing] and promot[ing] the works of contemporary visual artists” and even “collect[ing] and present[ing] provincial, national and international contemporary and historic art” may not always align with “enlighten[ing] and educat[ing] people respecting the history of the province,” in either vision or allocation of funds from within the budget.

The very view of what that history is may be different when presented from the mandate of the museum versus through an artist’s lens. Art is not an education. It is a connection, at times a challenge, a sensory and/or intellectual experience, sometimes sublime; sometimes disruptive. memorializing the soldiers who fought in “the great war” and curation of contemporary works of art that may challenge the very idea of what makes a country/family/province/building a home may create more “synergy” through the friction of respective freedoms than from any “straddling” of barriers.

Or maybe not. But why the rush to change the Act without asking some of these questions? Or at the very least without asking funders if the new act would inhibit future funding. Some artists, arts administrators and other experts in the community have expressed concern that changes to the autonomy of the Gallery or the de-specification of its current space could make it ineligible for some funding. I do not know if this is correct. No one seems to know. Including the Minister who confirmed that no funders were consulted to make sure that the new act did not inadvertently make The Rooms ineligible for future funds.

Pam Hall, an artist who has shown in The Rooms Art Gallery, made this statement:

“When we wrangled about this years ago, we (the arts community) actually argued for a separate BOARD for the gallery, as well as independence from line department budgeting and decision-making.  What was folded into The Rooms, was our only arms length PROVINCIAL ART GALLERY… and anything that would hinder, hobble or diminish its autonomy from a single non-art administrator, would be deeply problematic. The record is already bad considering the number of gallery directors the Rooms has been through… so YES, VANL…demand consultation to ensure that we retain decision-making by professionals in the visual arts (for the gallery) and in (archives (for the archives) and in museum p[practice( for the museum)!!!”

Another Newfoundland artist, Jason Penney, in a statement on Facebook, said, “Bill 56 could threaten the institution’s ability to secure federal funding from such sources as The Canada Council for the Arts, The Museum Assistance Program, and numerous more. With no public consultation process between the province, the arts community, and these funding bodies this process is highly ill advised.”

Another reason for the new act is to “increase transparency and accountability.” As the original act did not specify that all financial information must be available to the minister on request. It does say that minutes must be kept and a yearly audit must be done but the new act makes the record keeping of the board more prescriptive.

But, presumably, that could have been done by a simple amendment, or even a change to the board’s own by-laws, and did not need to precipitate a rushed and comprehensive new act: an act that changes the definite article of “The Provincial Art Gallery” to the indefinite “an art gallery” in its introductory definitions section. The Provincial Art Gallery is prescribed and definite. It definitely exists in permanent physical space and is supported and protected by its own director and staff. “An art gallery” is flexible and could mean just about anything. What future CEOs of The Rooms corporation, if this act passes, will imagine it to mean, I suppose we shall all see, but so far we have not been asked.

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