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News / October 25, 2017

Artists Alarmed by Changes at Newfoundland’s Rooms Art Gallery

“We consider these changes to be part of a larger agenda to strip the gallery of structure, autonomy and its vital role,” says one artist.
A view of the Rooms in St. John's. Photo: Werner Koehler via Wikimedia Commons. A view of the Rooms in St. John's. Photo: Werner Koehler via Wikimedia Commons.

The arts community in Newfoundland and Labrador is concerned about the future of its provincial art gallery.

Just a few weeks ago, the Rooms—which encompasses Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial art gallery, provincial museum and provincial archives—announced controversial changes to its organizational structure.

Most significantly, it eliminated a dedicated director/chief curator position for the art gallery.

“We consider these changes to be part of a larger agenda to strip the gallery of structure, autonomy and its vital role in the visual arts community,” says Diana Chisholm, a local artist and representative of the artist-run Eastern Edge gallery.

A government news release dated September 27 states that administrative leadership of the provincial art gallery, which had previously been managed by a dedicated director/chief curator, would become an additional responsibility of Anne Chafe, the existing director of the Rooms’ provincial museum division.

The release went on to say that the Rooms plans to hire a second art-gallery curator and increase the budget of the provincial art gallery by $50,000, making it possible to offer more exhibitions.

In this latter light, the Rooms tried to pitch the loss of a dedicated art gallery director as a positive.

“The hiring of a second curator of visual arts and the significant increase in the art gallery’s exhibition budget will result in more exhibitions and support for the province’s visual artists,” says Tom Foran, chair of the Rooms board in that release, “thereby strengthening the mandate of The Rooms to engage both visitors and residents with the extraordinary visual arts of our province.”

But key members of the arts community aren’t buying it.

Shock and Frustration About Lack of Transparency

In the local arts community, this announcement has caused shock and frustration about a lack of transparency at the Rooms.

The organizational changes announced in September contradict prior assurances from Rooms CEO Dean Brinton and Minister of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation Christopher Mitchelmore that the provincial art gallery would maintain its autonomy within the organization.

“It just doesn’t seem possible that a combined [museum and art gallery director] position will be able to provide the attention and stewardship to the cultural community that’s needed to properly meet the Rooms’ mandate,” says Dave Andrews, executive director of VANL-CARFAC.

In June 2017, Vicky Chainey Gagnon, then director/chief curator of the provincial art gallery, left her position. But the expectation until recently, for most, was that she would be replaced.

Chainey Gagnon may have anticipated the changes in the wind, however. She says she left in spring because she experienced a lack of consultation and communication when changes were made to the provincial Rooms Act months earlier, in December 2016—changes that removed a legislated requirement for the provincial art gallery, provincial museum and provincial archives to each have their own respective directors.

“I was on a business trip outside of the province and I started receiving texts that the Rooms Act was being debated in the House of Assembly, and that was brand new information to me,” Chainey Gagnon says of that period in December.

Minister Mitchelmore was questioned during the December debate in House of Assembly about whether there would continue to be someone with expertise overseeing each division of the Rooms at the management level.

He replied that the corporation would ensure each division had the appropriate staff and expertise to meet the Rooms’ mandate and added, “should there be any organizational change, there would be consultation with the public.”

That promised “consultation with the public” didn’t seem to happen in advance of the September org shift.

And more recently, Rooms CEO Dean Brinton had also reportedly told CARFAC-VANL that a new director/chief curator of the provincial art gallery would be hired within six months of Chainey Gagnon departing. Given the org shift, this does not seem likely.

(Brinton did not respond to requests to comment on this article.)

Concern that Funding Might Be at Risk

Members of the arts community are worried about what these changes will mean for programming and funding at Newfoundland and Labrador’s only provincial art gallery.

To thrive, artists say, the provincial art gallery needs a director/chief curator with curatorial expertise, someone who has time to research exhibition proposals and connect with artists, as well as seek out funding opportunities for the gallery.

And in order to qualify for Canada Council for the Arts core funding, they say, a public art gallery of this type must employ a full-time director and a full- or part-time curator responsible for contemporary programming. Without a director/chief curator devoted to the provincial art gallery, it’s unclear whether the gallery will continue to qualify for this vital funding.

“A dedicated art gallery director can provide context and vision while advocating for a gallery that allows space for experimentation, exploration and challenging practices,” says Diana Chisholm.

Chisholm says the current restructuring of the Rooms means one person at the management table is also being asked to advocate simultaneously for the provincial art gallery and for the provincial museum, along with three regional museums.

“How is it possible that this can be done in a fair and unbiased manner when presumably these departments are, at times, in competition for resources and funds?” Chisholm asks.

Can Excellence and Criticality Be Maintained?

Chainey Gagnon says during her time in the position, she attended weekly Rooms managerial meetings where she advocated for the vision of the provincial art gallery’s curatorial team.

She worries that not having someone with a visual-art background to represent the vision of the gallery at the managerial level will have serious repercussions on programming at the provincial art gallery.

“How will excellence and criticality be maintained?” Chainey Gagnon asks.

There is also skepticism in the arts community about the claim in the Rooms’ news release that reducing “administrative costs” at the corporation will make it possible to offer more exhibitions.

Programming at the provincial art gallery was already robust, varied and challenging under the former structure. In Chainey Gagnon’s final year at the provincial art gallery, the curatorial team and technical team worked on mounting more than a dozen exhibitions.

“This [goal of increasing exhibition volumes] is by no means a small or unambitious undertaking, and with more exhibitions comes more research, responsibility and administration for everyone involved in making an exhibition happen.” Chisholm of Eastern Edge says. “So do we need more exhibits in the art gallery, or do we need more resources put towards the current exhibition schedule?”

Chisholm says the gallery had already created a strong reputation in which Newfoundland and Labrador could take pride. She says the Rooms’ current contemporary art curator Mireille Eagan and former director/chief curator Vicky Chainey Gagnon are both respected curators, whose opinions are sought after, noting that they have served on the selection juries for several major Canadian art awards and funding bodies.

Under Chainey Gagnon and other dedicated directors, the Rooms art gallery made strides in growing a national audience for the province’s artists. In 2017, the Rooms debuted the national tour of the first-ever survey of Labrador Inuit art (“SakKijâjuk”) and in 2013 it also curated a retrospective of Mary Pratt’s work which toured nationally.

“To see the gallery’s successes makes us question why you would want to restructure a department that seems to be flourishing,” Chisholm asks.

Eva Crocker is an editor and staff writer at The Overcast, an arts and culture publication in Newfoundland. Her short story collection Barrelling Forward was published by House of Anansi Press in 2017.

Eva Crocker

Eva Crocker is a freelance writer based in St. John’s. Her short story collection Barrelling Forward was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBTQ Authors and won the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel All I Ask will be published by House of Anansi Press in spring 2020.