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Features / April 23, 2018

Are Canada’s Municipal Art Galleries in Crisis? 

Public art galleries are changing, and what this means for funding models and audiences is up for debate
Visitors at the Tom Thomson art gallery with Thomson's <em>The West wind</em> (1917). Image via Facebook. Visitors at the Tom Thomson art gallery with Thomson's The West wind (1917). Image via Facebook.

Visitors at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery with Tom Thomson’s The West wind (1917). Image via Facebook.

Art galleries are in the news again, but not for their exhibitions. And the news raises some serious questions about systemic funding issues for public art galleries in Canada.

The National Gallery of Canada is deaccessioning Marc Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower (1929) to raise money—quickly—and the story has become a national news topic. It reminds me of the kerfuffle caused when, in 1989, Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967) was bought by the NGC for $1.76 million, an incredibly large sum at the time.

But I would like to focus attention on another story which has more urgency: the outdated funding models and precarious political economies in which Canadian municipal art galleries operate. This conversation has not taken centre stage in the national media, although it is directly related to the presentation of Canadian art.

Recent developments at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, for instance, have been alarming; earlier this year, the entire gallery’s board was disbanded and senior staff members, including the director and curator, submitted resignations. Ostensibly, the cause is a major deficit, and the outcome is that a committee directly reporting to the city manager will administer the gallery.

Local media, drawing on information from Kate Allen, the City of Owen Sound’s director of corporate services, has reported that “the deficit ballooned after various anticipated funding sources—including certain grants and donations—included in its 2017 budget didn’t end up coming to fruition. … The art gallery will now continue to operate as a city department and report to council through the city manager’s office.” Since 2014, the Tom Thomson Art Gallery’s board of management had been pursuing plans to expand the gallery and move it from being a city department to being its own standalone charitable organization. The impetus of this move stemmed from the nature of funding that the gallery is able to access given its relationship with the city. In its early days, the Tom Thompson Art Gallery received about 80 per cent of its operating funding from the city, which has been reduced to 25 to 30 per cent in the current scenario.

Here is a common refrain that I’ve heard from many directors of municipal art galleries across the country: “There are many funders and potential sponsors that our gallery can’t access because we are a department of the city.” To further exacerbate this shared challenge, donors often develop cold feet when they realize the ultimate beneficiary of their philanthropy is the city to which a municipal art gallery’s collection ultimately belongs.

This funding problem becomes even more explicit when we take a look at the policy context. In Ontario, arts policy tends to be rooted in the economic—as opposed to the cultural—contributions of cultural industries. The province places significant value on cultural tourism and the entertainment and creative industries as economic engines. This neoliberal underpinning is the legacy of the Progressive Conservatives’ 1995 platform (“The Common Sense Revolution”) and it continues to be the leitmotif for cultural expenditures in the province to this day.

Meanwhile, the Ontario government generally does not prohibit nor require municipalities to intervene in the cultural sector, although it encourages them to do so through initiatives such as the Municipal Cultural Planning Partnership. Monica Gattinger, a public policy specialist at the University of Ottawa, has observed that “Ontario feature[es] much higher levels of this form of decentralization, in keeping perhaps with its view of culture as a private affair. In Ontario, voluntarism, partnerships with non-government actors, and the use of alternative funding models such as foundations, matching grant programs, capacity building initiatives, and a focus on building self-sufficiency and self-reliance in the cultural sector are much more pronounced.”

Now, municipal art galleries running a deficit is not news, but a systemic reality that works against the very sustainability of these entities. It offers news value only to local politicians who, without understanding the systemic issues that these local cultural institutions are embedded in, are quick to call them out as “business failures.”

The news from Owen Sound draws our attention to the tremendous pressure, financial and otherwise, put on galleries that serve a local community as their immediate audience. (The Art Gallery of Hamilton is also a case in point, as it has averaged annual deficits of $500,000 since 2014.)

“A municipal art gallery is expected to operate under the auspices of what is expected of a municipality—this can sometimes cause conflict, as an art gallery is a different entity than a municipality,” says a former municipal art gallery director who wished to remain anonymous. The “public art gallery”—university, regional, provincial, national or independent—is not a homogenous domain, and there are a range of issues facing galleries at all levels: outdated collection mandates, changing audience needs, fluctuating expectations for the constituencies that they serve; funders’ or donors’ priorities; and public accountability.

Another example: the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) was once one of the smaller municipal galleries in Canada, with space limitations impacting its operations, and it is now about to open a major expansion—moving from 12,000 square feet to a new building of more than 55,000 square feet. Alexandra Badzak, director and chief executive officer of OAG, outlined its challenges in a presentation to a House of Commons standing committee in 2016: “In terms of donor dollars, let’s face it: there’s a lot of competition here in the national capital region. Although our national museums indicate that they have a national membership, a national sponsorship, and national donors, in fact, when you look at their donor walls, it’s simply not borne out. A lot of our community leaders and donors who would naturally come to us go to that national level. We’re often also overlooked by corporations, which only look at the region, in that they’re not making a distinction between local and national institutions. Again, that puts a real strain on what we can do for our own revenue-generating elements.”

These are not new issues for Canadian museums, but rather quite tired and familiar ones that have evolved over many decades of tight budgets, increased demands on gallery services, misaligned expectations, increased costs of operations, difficulty in retaining of professional staff, and infrastructure problems. Often, when discussing these issues we speak of familiar solutions as well: the “blockbuster exhibition” or the “service-fee model” or the too frequent and often contentious plan to deaccession works in order to prop up the gallery’s ability to survive.

Rhona Wenger, director at the Grimsby Art Gallery, faces these challenges directly: “We are 70 to 75 per cent municipally funded and [city] council is always concerned that we keep the taxpayer funded portion of our funding as low as possible, and that when we are setting our budget each year we respect the percentage increase (in municipal levy) that has been set by council. They also like to see Grimsby-centric and community programming, which we provide regularly in our community spaces and, when appropriate, in the main gallery.”

For others, the relationship with municipal bodies is more arm’s-length. Ana Olson, Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant director, says, “I would call Glenhyrst Art Gallery a public art gallery, but not a municipal art gallery. We are a registered charity, but receive less than 7 per cent of our funding from the City of Brantford and, although they are our landlords and provide the facilities we operate, we run independently, with very little or no influence from the City.”

Public funders, like the Canada Council for the Arts, often view municipal art galleries differently, with different eligibility requirements, Wegner comments that, as part of the municipality, there are a number of grants and foundation applications that the Grimsby Art Gallery is not eligible for, and people are not always aware of those limitations. “We’ve also started to get some [push]back from the funding bodies about being too closely linked to the municipality,” she elaborates. She points to “the fear being that [the city] will dictate our actions through our appointed (rather than elected) advisory board. But at the same time we need to adhere to the Grimsby’s structure, and method of running committees and boards in order to receive the majority of our funding.” She suggests a welcome change would be for the arts councils “to recognize that an organization can be well funded and respected by a parent organization (like the municipality) and still uphold its commitment to providing top-quality, professional-standard exhibitions, programs and care of the collection.”

There is a complex political economy that needs to be foregrounded here to throw light on systemic issues confronting the public gallery sector. A major issue is the downloading of support for culture from federal to provincial to municipal. The result is the widespread adoption of the “user fee model,” where user fees, rather than taxes, generate revenue. In government-speak, the focus is always on creating “service areas” and coming up with a corresponding revenue element, i.e. service fees.

This continues today, where these pressures are passed onto governments, and ultimately to citizens. Apart from getting people into the gallery, another issue of admission fees (one of the manifestations of user fee model) has brought in a sour note in the conversation. Charging admission fees should never replace public funding; it should be a supplement to that funding, and it is in no way an excuse for budget cuts.

Pointing to this irony, Wenger from Grimsby Art Gallery says, “there is a perception that we are well-funded by taxpayer money already, and some individuals wonder why they should pay more. In part, because of this, we do not charge admission fees and also have a number of significant events that are free admission. Council still expects us to self-generate funds, though, and would actually love to see us generate much more than we do.”

Demetra Christakos, director/curator at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, makes this pertinent observation: “The pressure to institute admission fees in Canada’s museums came about not only at a time of government funding cutbacks, but also when cable, digital and phone companies started piling on user fees. Museum trustee volunteers were often drawn from corporations that were increasing user fees and so user fees were implemented at the museum door. There was also a false parallel made between the performing arts box-office model and museums. Now those museums that were forced into the box-office model have had to become reliant on it, because government investment in museums stalled for more than three decades.”

How does this manifest in municipalities today? There is a greater demand on galleries to not appear to be exclusive and to be more open to the public—in other words, offering yoga or Zumba classes in gallery spaces has become the norm. Museums and galleries seek audience participation by incorporating extra-artistic events into their respective programs in order to address the financial challenges and demands of the municipal council. Thus a morphing act is currently taking place with the expansion of the idea of “recreation” as part of culture. Another director commented that their gallery “has taken on a number of ongoing initiatives/partnerships with many community groups. We have had pressure from the city to host events that pushed our capacity; trying to explain that we can’t have food in exhibition spaces has gotten push back.”

However, this shift isn’t always negative. In a recent essay, University of Lethbridge Art Gallery director/curator Josephine Mills pointedly states, “One good thing to come out of the major restructuring of funding to the visual arts—and by restructuring I mean massive funding cuts beginning in the 1980s to all public sectors—is that art galleries were forced to pay attention to their audience. As a result, there has been a shift to involve public programming, but also marketing, earlier in the process of exhibition planning. In view of this, the idea of ‘the public program’ as a curatorial practice has seen a demonstrable change in public galleries, evidencing a commitment to foregrounding their expertise in public engagement.”

Yet raising funds for a municipal gallery is still one of its toughest and most persistent challenges. If our cities are to thrive, it is high time that the heterogenous nature, and needs, of the public art gallery sector in Canada be recognized, and the specificity of their problems be decoupled from one homogenous funding narrative that presupposes a uniform public art gallery sector across federal, provincial, regional and local levels.

It is 2018, yet the federal and provincial funding model for many public art galleries is based on 1970s economics. It does not reflect or respond to the needs and realities of 21st-century public art galleries across Canada.

Zainub Verjee is an accomplished writer, critic, artist, arts administrator and public intellectual. Verjee was the co-founder and festival director of In Visible Colours: An International Film/Video Festival and Symposium for Third World Women and Women of Colour (1988–90) and is currently the executive director at the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, which fosters a sustainable, healthy, diverse, public art gallery sector to further the visual arts as a key component of the cultural life of the province.

This post was corrected on April 30, 2018. The original had the word “Thomson” mispelled in a caption.

Zainub Verjee

Zainub Verjee is a media artist, curator, writer, arts administrator and public intellectual. Her work has been shown internationally, including at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and the Venice Biennale.