VANL-CARFAC’s Dave Andrews on Controversial Developments At The Rooms

"The issue isn’t just about single administrative changes within the organization, but a very reasonable fear within the wider community that, when taken together, the changes that are happening now are leading to a slow dismantling of the art gallery, even if that’s not what the administration intends."

On September 27th, The Rooms put out a press release announcing significant organizational changes to the corporation, which encompasses the Provincial Art Gallery, Museum and Archives.

Until recently, each division of The Rooms had its own respective director, now Anne Chafe, Director of the Museum division, is responsible for administrative leadership of the Provincial Art Gallery. We talked to Dave Andrews, Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador‘s (VANL-CARFAC) Executive Director about what these changes might mean for the future of the Provincial Art Gallery.

Why is it important that someone with a professional curatorial background represent the Art Gallery at The Rooms at the management  level? How might the elimination of the Director/Chief Curator position at The Rooms affect programming?

One of the main questions is who will be vetting Gallery programming at the Rooms’ management table?  Not having someone with the necessary content expertise to properly advocate for the programming curated by the staff amounts to a significant dilution of curatorial authority.

When we spoke with The Rooms’ CEO in September, we were told that one of the two curators who would be on the gallery staff would be appointed “chief curator,” and that this would partially address that. We’ve since found out that is not happening, and that no one is actually going to be appointed to that position. That said, even if it were to be put in place, that still wouldn’t address the issue of there not being someone with curatorial expertise at the management table, which is where budgetary decisions are made.

One justification that’s been made for this new structure is that other institutions around the country have a non-curatorial director.  While it is true that there are examples of gallery directors with non-specialist backgrounds or less fine arts experience, that’s a very small group when compared to gallery directors who do have that expertise, and there are good reasons for that.

What impact do you think the elimination of that position will have on working artists in the province? 

Given the responsibility of a Director/Chief Curator to interact with the community, both in the short and long term, it comes down to a question of advocacy, and the amount of time that will be dedicated to researching, supporting, and working with local artists.  Although I think the current Director has a real and sincere interest in engagement with the community, I think the new administrative structure is going to make that very difficult to achieve. By combining the gallery and museum directors into a single position, attentions are going to be divided between three divisions—the art gallery, museum, and regional museums – all of which were previously under the purview of three distinct full-time directors. It just doesn’t seem possible that a combined position will be able to provide the attention and stewardship to the cultural community that’s needed to properly meet The Rooms’ mandate.

 What do you think about The Rooms’ claim that “reducing administrative costs” will make it possible to offer more exhibits?

With the current financial difficulties that the province is experiencing, everyone has to tighten the belt. We hear a lot these days about administrative bloat in larger institutions, but that’s not the case here. This is not a reduction of multiple redundant positions, but the loss of a single position that serves a very important purpose to the gallery. While the new administrative structure may allow for an increase in money to the gallery, which is a very positive thing, it still doesn’t address the crux of the issue. Given the financial position that the province is in, those extra funds could disappear tomorrow, or next year, or the next and the gallery will still be without a dedicated director/curator at the management level.

What will it mean for our province if our Provincial Art Gallery does not have a Director/Chief Curator with a curatorial background?

I think this is a question of not only what it could mean in the short term, but even more so in the long term.  There’s a logical worry that this is going to threaten the autonomy of the gallery within the larger structure.  That was a point that we tried to raise during Bill 56. Whatever intentions the current Rooms’ administration might have for the gallery at the moment—in terms of allowing the gallery to function as it’s meant to—all of that seems like it can very easily change.

Just in the last few months, almost all of the plans and promises made by the administration have shifted: we were told that there were no plans to make any changes to the gallery’s structure following Bill 56, and that if there were any structural changes, there would be public consultations beforehand. The structure has changed and there were never any consultations. Following Vicky Chainey Gagnon’s resignation, it was said that a new curatorial director would be hired within six months, and that didn’t happen.  Most recently, it was said that a chief curator would be appointed, and that changed.

Abolishing the director/curator position diminishes the gallery’s position within the corporation’s structure, and considering the current fiscal state of the province, it’s very easy to see how the need to generate revenue could easily start to exert pressure on what gets programmed at the gallery, especially without an informed advocate operating at the management level. In the longer term, as the administration changes over time, if the people taking over those positions don’t see the same value in the gallery, that becomes even more of a potential concern.

Why do you think these changes were made without public consultation?

I can’t say for sure, but there does appear to be a deliberate shift in the institution’s perspective on its relationship and accountability to the community. There is a clause in the Rooms Act that clearly states a responsibility on behalf of the administration to consult with the public, not only with strategic planning, but specifically to the “ongoing activities and operations of the corporation.” And considering that, right from the moment that Bill 56 was tabled in the House of Assembly in December of last year, there have been widespread, sustained calls for consultations–from VANL, from the visual arts community and from the public—they still didn’t happen.

In terms of what we’ve heard from The Rooms’ administration, there seems to be a sense that these are internal matters, and that’s obviously true to some extent, but The Rooms is still a public institution. The Rooms’ CEO recently said that they want to hear from the community on what their priorities for The Rooms’ are and what’s most important to them, but the distinction that he made was that they want to hear input on the work that they do, but not on how they do it.

We’ve always made it very clear in our discussions with the government and The Rooms’ administration, that in calling for public consultations, we were not looking for a public referendum on individual decisions being made within the corporation, but that those decisions need to be made in light of what’s most important to the community, and one of the community’s biggest priorities is that the gallery maintains its position and autonomy within the larger structure, and that means having a curatorial director.

The issue isn’t just about single administrative changes within the organization, but a very reasonable fear within the wider community that, when taken together, the changes that are happening now are leading to a slow dismantling of the art gallery, even if that’s not what the administration intends.

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