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News / December 8, 2016

Artists Question Proposed Changes at Newfoundland Art Gallery

Artists have "serious concerns about the impact that this restructuring could potentially have on the art gallery" at the Rooms, says one representative.
Visitors at the Rooms look out over St. John's Harbour / photo Kenny Louie (kennymatic) via Flickr Visitors at the Rooms look out over St. John's Harbour / photo Kenny Louie (kennymatic) via Flickr

Artists’ organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador are expressing concern over imminent changes to legislation governing the Rooms—the province’s official archive, museum and art gallery.

According to Bill 56, scheduled to be discussed in the coming days by provincial lawmakers, these changes would include “removing the requirement for separate divisions and directors for the archives, museum and art gallery.”

Currently, each of the archives, museum and art gallery have their own dedicated spaces and directors within the Rooms’ structure: Vicky Chainey Gagnon is director/chief curator of the art gallery division, Greg Walsh is director of the archives division, and Anne Chafe is director of the museum division.

The bill could be passed as early as this afternoon, the Telegram reports.

“There are some disturbing omissions in the new act that raise serious concerns about the impact that this restructuring could potentially have on the art gallery,” said David Andrews, executive director of Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador, in a release on Tuesday. “We would like to know the reasoning behind such a major change, and how the community was consulted…The Rooms Act was originally created, in part, through a major public and stakeholder consultation process, and there is an article, written into the Act itself, stating the need to consult the public regarding the strategic plan and major activities.”

Eastern Edge, an important St. John’s artist-run centre of long standing, is also worried.

“As an artist-run organization deeply invested in supporting diverse, rigorous and independent artistic activity, we’re concerned over how these changes may jeopardize the autonomy of arts programming within our provincial art gallery and negatively impact professional positions and artistic opportunities at the Rooms and within our arts community at large,” said Alex Noel, chair of the Eastern Edge board, in a statement released today.

An email from Eastern Edge also expresses concern over a variety of questions it says are unanswered, including: “How will these proposed changes affect the mandate of the gallery and in turn impact the requirements of substantial funders to the gallery such as the Canada Council for the Arts? Were these funders consulted in this process?”

When contacted for comment, Hon. Christopher Mitchelmore, minister of business, tourism, culture, and rural development, stated by email on Wednesday that the changes to the act were actually requested by the Rooms’ CEO Dean Brinton as well as its board of directors. (The board at one time included Zita Cobb, the millionaire driving force behind Fogo Island Arts.)

“We are effectively updating the legislation to allow The Rooms to provide enhanced programming and services,” Mitchelmore stated. “This proposed amendment does not intend to limit creative control or dilute the expertise within the organization in any way.”

The reason for so little public consultation to date on the changes? Mitchelmore says it would have been “premature.”

“Any discussions prior to any proposed amendments would have been premature, and likely frustrating for the arts community and other interested individuals/group,” Mitchelmore states. “This is because the current Rooms Act does not allow for any change to structure or operations.”

Mitchelmore suggests that consultations on the Rooms’ strategic plan and other matters would, under the new legislation, be able to take place in the new year.

Still, after a meeting with Mitchelmore’s office this morning, David Andrews of Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador says that he remains concerned about the impact of the proposed changes at the Rooms—and the way they have been carried out so far.

“It’s hard to say that they are definitively and categorically going to damage the Rooms immediately, or in the short term,” Andrews reflects, “but it is opening up possible problems in the future.”

Andrews says that during the meeting, he got the sense that the board and CEO have the best of intentions with the changes, but that good intentions are not enough when it comes to dealing with such a complex and important arts institution.

He is heartened, however, by responses of support for artists and dialogue that have come over the past 24 hours from local, regional and national arts organizations.

“The response from the community—from local and provincial associations and from outside of the province—the level of response in such a short time should give them [the provincial government] pause, and point to the fact that we really need community consultations,” Andrews says.

Andrews recommends that anyone concerned about the changes to the Rooms Act, or lack of consultation around them to date, contact the office of Minister Mitchelmore or that of their local elected representative.

This post was corrected on December 12, 2016. The original copy indicated, based on a board list on the Rooms’ website, that Zita Cobb was still a member of the board of directors at the Rooms. That list on the Rooms’ website is out of date, resulting in an error in the original article. Zita Cobb is no longer on the board of the Rooms.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via