New Remai Board Needs to Be Accountable

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Watching the gong show behind the scenes at the Remai Modern play out in public has been a fascinating reminder of what, or more specifically who, makes the world go round. 

When I was 21, I moved to London, England with a friend. Being one of the only four Canadian children of baby boomers who does not have a grandparent born overseas (slight exaggeration, but it’s close), I was on a Commonwealth tourism visa, the premise of which was to fund further travel. In other words, I was supposed to work at pubs, or fill in as a receptionist, make a few bucks and then move on to the next English locale and start over.

I opted to sign up as a “temp” and got an assignment within a couple of days to fill in for an office manager at a burgeoning new financial dotcom. I was there for a year. From there I upgraded to a management position at the corporate headquarters of a British bank. 

Keep in mind that I had absolutely zero corporate or office experience. Back in Saskatchewan, I had only worked as a server or in retail. I had not taken any business-related post-secondary education. Entering a corporate work environment was an entirely new experience for me, and one I had not prepared for. 

At the first job I was predominantly surrounded by twenty-something software developers — my most important job was making sure we had breakfast cereal on hand, to help the staff come down off whatever high they were still experiencing from the club they had just left to come to work. It was a corporate environment, but not a particularly rigid one. The bank, however, was a classic hierarchy — aka a schoolyard sandbox. 

You had the bully — the one who’s constantly calling the shots, driving the meetings and generally making everyone’s life miserable if his or her way isn’t had. The weaklings were easily pushed around and cried, sometimes in board meetings. 

There were the jocks, who didn’t excel in athleticism as much as they did in their industry knowledge and ability. The office mean girl, who was sometimes a boy, who made it her daily mission to gossip and conspire to take others down a peg or two to make her feel good about herself. 

And finally there was the teacher, otherwise known as the boss, who forced everyone to pretend they were working whenever he or she strolled across the floor, hands clasped behind her back and generally disapproving of all of us.

The latter was likely more a British thing. But you get the point — all these people were extremely well educated and experienced in the finance industry, but they were all just people, and how they handled their emotions and their ability to relate to one another is what drove every aspect of the business and our day-to-day productivity. 

As the youngest manager, by a lot, perhaps I was naïve to expect otherwise, but it really shocked me how the basic skills we learned as children were as, or even more, important than what we knew about the industry and its mechanics.

Which brings us back to Remai Modern. No, it’s not a corporation, but it is a professional environment with the same expectations of how it should function — except it’s not. I mean, the gallery itself, as a service space delivering an experience, has proven spectacular, with far more guests than expected moving through it in its last year. But just like the human body, no matter how good it looks on the outside, if the inside is sick and untreated it’s not going to last.

I’m no life coach, but I’ve been working in corporate environments for 20 years; the only thing I’ve ever seen cure a dysfunctional secular environment is a combination of a cleanout and heightened accountability. 

Last week, in what was undoubtedly one heck of an awkward meeting, the old board of directors and the new board of directors met for a handover meeting.

Awkward, because most of the old board either quit or were told they’re not coming back. So, that takes care of the cleanout. The new directors will be where accountability comes into play — they’ll need to inspire the gallery’s staff to want to be accountable to both the board and to each other. 

Further, the new board will need to be willing to attempt to a heightened standard of accountability to the public, and to Saskatoon City Hall — not always an easy thing to do when one is volunteering. 

The $100-million Remai Modern has been an undeniable public success. Let’s hope that success eventually extends to behind closed doors, so we can fully appreciate the gallery’s contribution on all fronts to our beautiful city.