Remai Modern Resignations Don’t Paint a Pretty Picture

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Up, down, blue, brown. So many weighty decisions.  

It bears repeating that major civic facilities are built primarily with civic, provincial and federal tax dollars, and most of these facilities receive operating subsidies paid from the civic purse.  

Each facility was built with a specific purpose and vision in mind. SaskTel Centre is primarily a sports arena and concert venue, TCU Place is a performing arts/banquet facility and the Remai Modern Art Gallery was built to replace the Mendel, although each of these venues may also host other types of events throughout the year.  

For convenience, council appoints a board, largely comprised of people with appropriate skill sets to manage and implement the vision of council, together with a couple of councillors to act as liaisons between the board and council.    

However, if you file a Freedom of Information request, or contact councillors or city hall looking for financial or policy information regarding these civic facilities that operate using independent boards, in all likelihood you will get the maddening response that such information is not available because these civic boards operate separate and apart from the city.  

There seems to be an abdication of responsibility by council for these tax-funded public facilities regarding both function and financial status. It is important to remember that the city owns and finances these buildings and is ultimately responsible for oversight.

We need to get a few things straight. 

In responding to the chaos unfolding on Remai Modern’s board, Mayor Charlie Clark responded that this was a routine turnover. No, it is not.  

The city’s policy for civic board appointments is for two-year consecutive terms, with a maximum limit of six years of service. The appointments are staggered to ensure that there will always be continuity on the board and that the majority of the board will still have at least a year left in their terms when new members are appointed. Having significant numbers of the board depart at once, when none have reached their six-year limit, is not “routine” turnover.

Clark has also stated in the past that the city’s budget is not council’s budget, but administration’s budget. I beg to differ. 

Council creates a budget and administration implements it as directed by council. And when council doles out millions of tax dollars to independent boards, it has a responsibility to ensure that those dollars are spent as intended, that city policies are followed and that the vision for the facility is fulfilled.

Clearly something has gone awry at the Remai and some board members have hinted at political interference by council. 

Normally the civic board appointment process is quick, and current members with time left on the maximum limit are automatically re-appointed and resignations are few. Normally only under circumstances where a board member is flagged as dragging the institution into disrepute would council consider removing that member.  

So, after postponing the Remai board appointments in December, and after nine hours of an in-camera meeting  when council announced, without any explanation, that at least five members were leaving, it created a whodunit mystery for a city full of sleuths.

What adds to the mystery, after touting the extreme success of the Remai earlier this year, is why council would replace so many board members who contributed to that success? 

Hmmm.  

Maybe it wasn’t quite the success story that we were told it was. If there were 450,000 visits in its first year, why did the Remai only generate $850,000 in revenue, given the hefty general admission fee of $12 ($10 for youth, students and seniors)? 

Could it be that most came to dine at the restaurant, use the public washrooms or just warm up when frolicking at River Landing, rather than being gallery patrons? If that is the case, then we only needed the equivalent of a rink shack with a snack bar and public toilets.  

The 450,000 visits are a red herring and have nothing to do with the actual success, or lack thereof, of the gallery. What we need to know is how many people paid admissions and/or bought memberships and the viability of the business plan.  

In 2018, the city gave the Remai a $5.474-million operating subsidy and approved an increase to $5.930 million for 2019. Foolish me, I thought the celebrated success meant the gallery would become more self-sustaining rather than more reliant on public money. The presentation of the 2018 financial statements will be the test of success.

In all mysteries, clues are left for the sleuths.  

Generally, when closed-door mysteries occur, city hall is like a sieve for leaking information. In the case of the Remai board mystery, everyone seems to be under a cone of silence, leaving speculation and rumours to flourish. 

I dislike dealing with rumours, but we play the cards we are dealt. Rumour has it that council’s “problematic and political interference” relates to the gallery’s exhibition policy. (I have to rely on rumour as all attempts to track down the said policy have failed.)

Apparently, since the chief executive officer and the board introduced “modern” into the gallery name, they formed a policy directing that only modern, contemporary and interactive art would be displayed. Mayor Clark would know about this because he represented council on the board at this time.  

That policy, if it exists, would mean the massive collection of art accrued by the Mendel Art Gallery, and passed on to the Remai, would remain in storage as the bulk of it would not be considered modern or contemporary art. I doubt that much of the traditional Indigenous art would qualify, either. 

The public thought it was getting an expansion of the Mendel when, in fact, it was getting a gallery with art that appeals to a limited audience. The pride citizens took in promoting and showcasing Saskatchewan and Canadian artists in their various mediums has gone by the wayside. Again, rumour has it that council wants that policy changed and exhibitions to include the full collection. If there is any truth to this rumour, then I applaud council for the interference.  

A board of 10 appointed citizens, two councillors, and a CEO with a bent for modern art should not be entitled to change the vision and expectations the public had for its art gallery.

The other, less-titillating rumour is that the business plan and financials may reflect the inflated optimism of the departing CEO Gregory Burke.  

This intrigue is better than a game of Clue. I’m guessing it was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.  

 ehnatyshyn@gmail.com