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Catastrophe or Opportunity?

author: Denny Manchee

Watersehd Magazine Cat or Opp spread1

Criminal charges against its former director have put the Art Gallery of Northumberland in debt and in the spotlight. The current board is hell-bent on recovery, but given the gallery's many challenges, maybe it's time to reframe the conversation.

OCTOBER 15, 6:40 P.M. Cars pull up and park near Victoria Hall, Cobourg's architectural landmark on King Street. Silver-headed folk – dressed casually this night, not for a gala in the ballroom – emerge from their vehicles, cross the road and, without hesitation, pull open the large green wooden doors. They enter the beautifully restored foyer (that whispers "Hush"), nod at the security guard on the right and make their way to the West Wing and the line-up at the elevator. Intent and perturbed, they know where they are going and they are looking for answers.

The Art Gallery of Northumberland (AGN) on the third floor is already humming with conversation, but there's an edge of wariness in the room too, a whiff of fear that this meeting could get ugly. By 7 o'clock, most of the 60-odd seats are filled, people's backs to the large, arresting dress paintings of Jane Eccles, their faces towards the luscious, provocative work of Frances Ferdinands, their eyes zeroing in on the lectern.

After a quick introduction, the two newest board members (as of June), Dr. David Laycock and Rick Miller, advance to the microphone. They are sincere, exude competence and appear seasoned at damage control, which is no surprise since both are senior executives: Miller is a vice-president at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Laycock is a scientist, analyst and strategy consultant to the chemical industry.

Miller stresses "this evening is about looking forward not back," then signals helpers to distribute a two-page hand-out summarizing the recovery plan, the main pillars of which are regular communication, elimination of the deficit, improved governance and a plan to engage guest curators until there's budget for a full-time hire. "Those of you who would like the full 26-page report can leave your email address with us and we'll send it out to you later tonight," he says, skillfully managing the flow of information.

WHY ARE WE HERE?

If you missed the newspaper coverage in July, here's a quick recap of the events that led to this meeting. Dorette Carter was hired as the gallery's director/curator in November of 2000 and the gallery perked along, struggling for adequate funding like every arts organization, yet seemed to keep the balance sheet in the black. But in 2012, new board members, including then-Councillor Donna Todd, began to ask questions about finances and the status of the permanent art collection. There were "irregularities." One unanswered question led to another and, in February 2014, Carter resigned ("retired") from the gallery.

Then the Criminal Investigation Branch of the Cobourg Police became involved and, after a six-month, in-depth investigation, arrested Carter on July 16, charging her with fifteen offences: two counts of fraud, two counts of theft by conversion over $5,000, two counts of uttering a fraudulent document, three counts of uttering a forged document and six counts of forgery.

Theft by conversion, in case you're wondering, is when someone lawfully acquires possession of the personal property or funds of another, and then converts the property into funds for his or her own use and without the other person's permission. Detective Constable Jamie Baggaley reportedly said that the Carter investigation did not uncover evidence of personal financial gain.

Carter was released from custody and was scheduled to appear in court on August 27. Her lawyer, James Hauraney of Peterborough, was able to get the case adjourned until September 17, and again until October 8, October 29 and now until November 26. Carter has yet to appear and the matter is still before the courts.

At the June annual general meeting of the AGN, the board revealed an operating deficit of $32,511 as of March 31, 2014, as well as a litany of other problems: art from the permanent collection had been sold without board knowledge to cover operating expenses, the director had failed to apply for the 2013 three-year Ontario Arts Council (OAC) grant, and two art works, totalling about $45,000, had been commissioned for the Cobourg Community Centre and paid for out of AGN funds without board approval.

Following the revelations that evening, the board stressed its commitment to rectifying the damage to the gallery's finances, its art collection and its reputation, and promised to proceed with discipline and transparency towards a new strategic plan.

Comforting words, yet people in the audience were still in shock and purple with questions. How could this have happened? What motivated Dorette? Where was the board oversight? As many people in the area have said – museum professionals and members of the public – it seems like the board was "asleep at the switch" and either didn't understand or was unaware of its responsibilities, fiduciary and otherwise. High on the list of board responsibilities should have been knowledge of the gallery's key asset, the permanent collection – what came in and what left. Regular audits should have been completed. At other museums, an external financial audit also includes spot checks of the art and/or artifacts. (It's important to note that it's the current board, which has completely rolled over since 2011, that began asking questions of Carter, who had become increasingly uncommunicative about details.)

REDEFINING SUCCESS

Back to the October meeting. Miller speaks directly to the hand-out. The first sentence read, "While cognizant of the urgent need to build a strategic plan for the next three years, at the present, our highest priority is 'to stay in business.'" I venture everyone in the room would have agreed, the members and longtime volunteers who have put their hearts, souls and cheque books into the gallery.

Time and again as I researched this story I heard "success" would be simply – and sadly – just keeping the gallery open, the lights on. But with annual attendance at barely 6,000 people (see "AGN Numbers at a Glance,") and the majority of Northumberland residents not even knowing where the gallery is, isn't it time to think outside the boxes that cramp its evolution?

The largest of these is the location itself, tucked away on the third floor of an historic building that is, quite frankly, scary to the uninitiated. To enter is to be observed by security, to stand alone in a cavernous space and not know where to go or whether you're trespassing. Sure, the gallery has a friendly sandwich board outside saying "open," yet who but the folks who already know where it is would venture in?

The board admits this in its well-intentioned and synoptic recovery plan: "The existing Cobourg Gallery location, while linked to an important Canada heritage site, presents a number of constraints:
• the building is difficult to access by people with disabilities;
• the amount and layout of space constrains the amount and nature of programming and exhibitions that can be mounted;
• there's a lack of street visibility and access."
It plans to address this challenge by improving the visibility of the AGN and maybe eventually moving it to a better location in Cobourg. As well, it will look for opportunities to increase the AGN's presence in Northumberland County by opening art boutiques (such as the one in Port Hope) in places such as Brighton or Campbellford.

But why is the gallery located in Victoria Hall to begin with? Bear with me: it goes back a ways. When the dream of restoring (as opposed to tearing down) this 19th century Palladian gem became a reality in the early 1970s, The Cobourg Art Gallery, which then cohabited with the library at 18 Chapel Street, applied for a grant from the Canadian Museums Association. The $100,000 it received was the first big donation to the Restoration Society and guaranteed space for the growing gallery in Victoria Hall.

Marion Hagen, ever acute at 92, was one of the founders of the original gallery in 1960. In an essay she describes the 1977 move into Victoria Hall as a flurry of "painting, scrubbing, fetching and carrying" by devoted volunteers. Some of those people are still involved and are deeply invested in the space and the collection. But the invisibility of the gallery was a challenge from the start and is now its greatest obstacle. Plus, the rent is $45,000 a year! Time to bust out of that box. Just ponder what a street presence could do for the AGN: visible art, an inviting and accessible space – transparency on so many levels.

NO MONEY, NO LEADERSHIP

Even Marion Hagen admits, "without money you can't hire a good director." This in no way disparages the heroic work Frances Clancy has been doing as Acting Director in 2014. The artist and graphic designer is running ragged just trying to keep up. She has taken all the print production in-house, designs everything herself and works off her own laptop in the cramped office space on the north side of the building. Frances and Collections Chair Charles Funnell also conducted a painstaking audit of the permanent collection this year. Frances is the only full-time paid staffer at the AGN (the Art Gallery of Northumberland in name only since it has yet to receive a dime from the County). She relies on volunteers to run the gift shop in Victoria Hall and attend to visitors, operate the boutique gallery in Port Hope, hang the shows, distribute publicity materials, manage the website, etc.

Again, the board acknowledges this in its recovery plan: "The staffing model is fragile, with only an (Acting) Director, no dedicated curator, and a part-time bookkeeper, who together are responsible for all administration, educational programming, exhibitions, marketing and publicity, finances, fundraising, membership and volunteer staffing."

Ideally, there would be at least three staff members: A full-time managing director, a part-time curator and a part-time administrative assistant. But this would require stable funding and the immediate priority is to get rid of the $22,000 operating deficit. So it's guest curators for the time being.

The funding model for public galleries and museums is like a game of Snakes and Ladders – the Bureaucracy Version – to get to the pot of gold. Advance three squares and, oops, "Application filled out incorrectly. Go back four." You need to have all your paper ducks in order to play well, and the game itself stifles creativity. In the case of the AGN, two of the big funders, the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council, have expressed concerns about the gallery. In fact, the OAC has spelled them out in detail. Those concerns are:
• gallery management
• the variety and presentation of exhibitions
• engagement of people with the exhibitions
• lack of curatorial vision for the organization
• failure to address OAC priorities, i.e., priority groups, cultural diversity
• financial issues
• the lack of a marketing plan

That said, the OAC wants the gallery to recover and is willingly offering its help. This is encouraging, but a box is a box, and it's time to step out of this one and explore the wider world of corporate sponsorships, private foundations and increased private donations.

Then there is the issue of the permanent collection. The 930 works of varying quality need a current appraisal for insurance purposes, as well as an updated storage facility that includes proper climate control. Both are expensive undertakings, especially when the overall relevance of the gallery in the digital age is being questioned.

On October 15, the real future of the AGN was not in the room. For, as the new head of the Canada Council for the Arts, Simon Brault, recently told The Globe and Mail, traditional arts organizations "need baby boomers as subscribers, yet they have to engage a new generation or they will die." At 56, I felt like the youngest person at the meeting – by a significant margin.

WHY THE GALLERY MATTERS

Port Hope artist and art educator Melanie Browne is a passionate, eloquent voice for the value of a public gallery like the AGN: "It's among the markers of a thinking society. We need paintings because that's where we feed our souls, that's what makes us human."

Its purpose is also to cultivate emerging artists and expose people to challenging ideas. "It widens people's world," says painter Ron Bolt. "Artists hold up a mirror to society." In the digital age, a gallery must also offer an immersive, creative experience to engage young people for whom "maker spaces" are the new norm.

Tracy Berry, a teacher who's developing a new education and outreach plan for the AGN, is a gust of fresh energy and is on track with her ideas for making the gallery more relevant to youth, like holding a workshop series for teens (ink art, board art, street art, gaming design); hosting Family Days once a month on Saturday afternoons; increasing school visits, tying exhibits to the curriculum and enriching the gallery experience with smart technology.

All good, but the gallery in its current incarnation needs money to do any of this and, first up, it has to eliminate the deficit. And so we're back to Snakes and Ladders. Maybe it's time to step back and ask: is this a winnable fight? As Buckminster Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

What if you started with a clean slate and imagined what the Art Gallery of Northumberland could be? Close your eyes for a minute and dream. We asked Port Hope architect Phillip Carter, an innovator in library design, to do just that: "It would be downtown, not sure what town, an ultra modern building with lots of glass, a participatory space with up-to-date technology where people could not only look at important art, but create things themselves. It would be a lively hub. It would say more than 'we're counting on our heritage' to draw tourists. Put the entrance in the front!"

Here are some other ideas to kick off a county-wide conversation:
• Shut the gallery down for a year to save money and allow time to create a dynamic plan and build partnerships.
• Recruit a visionary. (Look what Antonio Sarmiento is doing at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope.)
• Sell (deaccession in gallery parlance) the collection and start over.
• Update the vault with proper climate control, close the gallery and just do mobile exhibits.
• Move. A quick scan of the Town of Cobourg's available land and buildings shows there's lots of property for rent on King Street that would be cheaper than the current space.

As the heated Q and A part of the October meeting came to an end, there were still many questions hanging in the room, along with the exhibit "Mining Beauty." The court case will undoubtedly provide some answers, if it ever goes to trial. But as winter descends on the region, let's look forward not back. It's our gallery. Time to claim it and reframe it.

Editor's note: Just before press time, we heard from Dr. David Laycock. He said he had resigned from the AGN board.

Art Gallery of Northumberland
Numbers at a Glance

• Cost of annual membership – $50 (family), $35 (single), $30 (student)
• Number of members – 320
• Number of volunteers – 80
• Location of gallery – 3rd Floor Victoria Hall, Cobourg
• Total number of visitors in 2013 – 5,264
• Per day – 21
• Projected number of visitors in 2014 – 6,125
• Per day – 24
• Number of art works in the permanent collection – ~930
• Number currently unaccounted for – 10
• Estimated value of the permanent collection – > $1 million
• Operating budget 2013/2014 – $263,896
• Deficit at March 31, 2014 – $32,511
• Projected deficit at March 31, 2015 – $22,000
• Amount "borrowed" from the Permanent Collection (through unauthorized sales of art) to cover operating costs prior to January 2014 – $207,675
• Annual compensation for Director/Curator – ~$45,000
• Amount received from Town of Cobourg in 2013/2014 – $75,000
• Amount paid to the town in rent for that period – $45,000
• Amount received from the Municipality of Port Hope for the same period – $8,260
• In 2014/2015, the grants were respectively – $55,000 and $8,000
• Amount contributed to date by Northumberland County – $0
• Combined rent for Victoria Hall 3rd floor and Port Hope boutique space in 2013/2014 – $56,667
• Amount generated through fundraising events in 2013/2014 – $18,384

Sources: http://www.artgalleryofnorthumberland.com/;
AGN Financial Recovery Plan 2014/2015 (presented to members on October 15, 2014); current board
members; Acting Director Frances Clancy.

 

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