Broken brand or new beginning at the AGC?

Some members of Calgary’s arts community say the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC) is a dysfunctional space, where art is physically compromised, working relationships are difficult and corporate events and fundraisers are considered more important than the work on the walls. The gallery counters that fundraising is a necessary exercise, accounting for 79 per cent of its budget, and denies allegations that art has been damaged or compromised. It is a serious rift in Calgary’s art community that artists say threatens the city’s reputation on the national arts scene.

ANGRY ARTISTS

A number of artists openly complain about problems they have experienced at the gallery. When Naomi London’s textile installation piece One Gargantuan Optimistic Metaphor was shipped back to her after an exhibition at the AGC last year, she says it arrived in Montreal without appropriate packing and was badly soiled as a result. Local media artist Joe Kelley is one of several artists who tried to protect his works during a large annual fundraising event. Kelley was worried that his work could be damaged by the steam and heat from the four temporary kitchens set up in the gallery for AGC Cooks, and covered his work with plastic sheeting. Then there is the splash of soda pop that conservators found on a painting featured in Alex Janvier’s 30-year retrospective at the gallery. Amidst rumours of damaged works, the AGC eventually paid to have all the paintings in the Janvier show professionally cleaned.

Sitting in the middle of Calgary’s historic Stephen Avenue, surrounded by chic restaurants and nestled within two old sandstone storefronts, the AGC, with its four levels and newly installed environmental controls, is a well-polished poster child for contemporary art galleries in the city. However, below its clean facade, white walls, and the Jugo Juice that rents a lower portion of the building, lurks a lingering art fight that is preventing the organization from working with many in the community it purports to serve.

Many artists who have exhibited at the AGC since 2004 as well as several former staff members are highly critical of gallery operations. One called their treatment by the gallery “unprofessional” and “disappointing.” They complain of breached contracts, late payments, unreturned and damaged work as well as a lack of communication between gallery administration, curators, exhibiting artists and the arts community at large. There is also the perception that fundraising and corporate gallery rentals are more important to the AGC than the art it exhibits.

One former employee describes working conditions as “Machiavellian” and “excruciating,” and past chief curators Alexandra Keim and Donna Wawzonek are involved in separate legal battles with the AGC. Both former curators were advised by their lawyers not to comment for this article, and the AGC declined to comment on the legal proceedings. However, artists critical of the gallery are careful to note their gratitude for the good work of departed curatorial staff. They are also cautiously optimistic about the new senior curator, Marianne Elder. However, as one artist laments “There’s something really at the core that is preventing good people from functioning.”

The AGC is trying to distance itself from its troubled past, recently rebranding itself by launching a new website and a new curatorial direction. At a private event on October 9, a small group of AGC supporters and press were greeted with mimosas and cupcakes as AGC president and CEO Valerie Cooper publicly announced her renewed five-year contract and Elder’s appointment as the gallery’s third new senior curator in as many years. Cooper also addressed the gallery’s challenges: “There have been naysayers along the way that have doubted the credibility and role of the organization in the community, and I feel bad about that,” she said. “Because really what is happening is that they are missing out on an organization that is becoming a stellar organization nationally and internationally. And hopefully we will be able to do that in our own backyard in a way that people want us to be.” After four challenging years, “We are now at ground zero,” Cooper told Fast Forward in an interview one week after the launch. The AGC, she claims, is ready to put the past behind it and “lift off.”

TROUBLED HISTORY

The gallery has deep roots in Calgary’s artistic community. In 1977, the Muttart Art Gallery was opened in the old Memorial Park Library, the result of 14 artist associations coming together to provide a space for contemporary exhibitions in the heart of the city. Twenty years later, the growth in staff, exhibitions and community support led the gallery to purchase its two buildings on Stephen Avenue. It opened its doors in 2000 under a new name, the Art Gallery of Calgary.

By the time Cooper took over in 2004, the organization was well respected for its forward-looking contemporary art exhibitions, yet it was literally on the brink of financial collapse. Hearing of the gallery’s dire financial situation, its hired contractors abandoned their work in the midst of its multimillion-dollar renovation. It was an ugly time for the fledgling space. Cooper says the key challenge when she was hired was simply paying employees on time. She arrived to find 11 bank accounts with about $50 between them and two weeks to make payroll. “And there was over $1 million worth of debt that had been accrued by the previous two directors,” she says. The AGC’s troubles, however, were more than financial. The gallery’s detractors contend that while working to keep the building open and attempting to keep up with salary payments, lease payments, artist fees and promotion, its top decision-makers lost sight of the art they were supposed to focus on.

Some of these problems started before Cooper was hired, a distinction she is careful to highlight. Some incidents, however, occurred after she established a new board of directors and was entrenched in her current position. Regardless, the gallery must overcome a mountain of distrust. As one Alberta artist suggested: “If you don’t have the support of the artists that you’re showing, that’s a bad sign.”

BAD SHOWS

Naomi London exhibited at the AGC in 2006, and says her work was damaged and compromised to make way for private functions. London’s installation consisted of large, upholstered letters that spell out the word “hope” in four languages. She was shocked when she received a request from Keim, the chief curator at the time, to write a letter to the gallery, asking that her work not be misused during fundraising events. The letters that make up her installation were allegedly rearranged without her permission to spell out corporate names, threatening the safety and integrity of the work. “I assumed that all the artwork would be treated with due respect, and I thought it a bit odd at the time that I needed to write a letter,” she says. “I was surprised this was even an issue for such a gallery. The letter stated that I wanted the work to be off limits during corporate events.” A former staff member says the e-mailed letter was read out loud by Keim during a general staff meeting when Cooper was in attendance, and Kein was “reprimanded for defending the integrity of the work.” Cooper says she was not aware that the letter was written, and that it is not normal for a curator to take this step.

“So, obviously, the curator was operating on her own accord,” says Cooper. “When you mention the year (2006), it’s probably part of what has piled up against those curators as inappropriate professional practice with artists,” she says.

Cooper also denies that there was a valid concern about compromising the work. “That might have been the way that the curator positioned it,” she says. “I would say that is something that that particular curator decided to do, for what reason, I have no idea.”

After the show was complete, the work was shipped back to the artist in Montreal. “The artwork was not [emphasis London’s] properly wrapped for the return trip, so the works were soiled upon their return,” says London. “The work was stained, soiled, they needed to be cleaned and repacked.” She adds that she had to pay approximately $400 to remove the stains. Cooper says she is unaware the work was damaged.

While London’s work was damaged in transport, another artist who showed at the gallery in 2006-07 faced another kind of shipping issue — her work wasn’t returned for over a year. Linda Duvall, a video installation artist who lives in Saskatchewan, says she tried several times to recover her lost work, Tea and Gossip , and made numerous phone calls. “There was some problem — it did finally get returned, and it was because of a particular staff [member]. They just took it on and did it,” she says.

Elder — who was not at the gallery for the Duvall installation — and Cooper were not aware of this problem. In fact, the pair were not aware that Duvall had even shown at the gallery. “No, that’s impossible,” says Elder, “because I’m not even familiar with that title.” The AGC lists the exhibition on its own website, in annual reports and in archived press releases.

Being missed appears to be a common thread in Duvall’s experience. In addition to the problem she had recovering her work, she also dealt with three AGC curators from inception to completion of her exhibition, something she describes as “very unusual.” “Because [my] show was organized three years ahead, I actually didn’t know that the first curator had left,” says Duvall. “The next curator knew nothing about it, so I actually had to send her the correspondence.”

Elder admits that “every time a curator left, our scheduling went into the pit,” and acknowledges that the community has been supportive of her predecessors. “They did the hard work to make my life easier.”

Still, Duvall holds no hard feelings for the gallery, and says she would show there again. She enjoyed her well-attended opening and working alongside the “hands-on staff.”

Elliot Mealia and Dayna Van Harten, artists who now live in Toronto, showed their work at the gallery in 2004 when its finances and organization were in chaos. “The gallery was closed by the city during this time due to construction permit violations and ended up pushing our show back,” says Mealia. Like most standard exhibition agreements, “the terms of the contract included artist fees, documentation of the show and invitations for the show.” When the artist fee was not received on time, he was told that the gallery’s accountant was out of town.

“After a week, I contacted her (Cooper) again in regards to the artist fees and she said that we were in breach of the contract, as we did not have the show installed on the date specified on the contract,” says Mealia. “This made me quite upset, as the gallery had been locked by the city and the show postponed due to the gallery’s actions.”

Mealia says he would exhibit at the AGC again, but would be more cautious. “I have learned from my experience there, and it is unfortunate that artists have to go through such experiences to learn how to protect themselves.”

Many artist complaints have arisen from the gallery’s fundraising efforts — gallery rentals, which pack partiers into the space, and AGC Cooks, where some of Calgary’s best chefs prepare food in the gallery. A former staff member who was responsible for facility management and curatorial work backs up many of the rumours circulating in the art community about dangers to art works. “During the first AGC cooks, there was open food and, yes some of the works got damaged. During the second one… stoves started coming in through the door,” he says, “and all of a sudden, half of the show had to come down because a catering company wanted [to use] that space.” Moving work compromises its safety and breaches the trust artists put in an institution to respect the integrity of the work.

Four years later, AGC Cooks is no longer held in the gallery while work is present. Cooper is quick to point out “we have stanchions (stands with ropes), security cameras, trained gallery staff that come in. We’ve got policies and procedures and processes that happen, it is all in the client… contracts.”

Elder says she “would love nothing more than to never have to hold another event in the space,” but they are a necessary function of the gallery’s fundraising activities. She says that fundraising events are now either held offsite or scheduled to take place when the gallery is between exhibitions without work in the space, and that the stanchions the gallery invested in after the Janvier incident are now used to protect artwork during rental events.

PAYMENTS

Timely payment of artist fees and negotiation of fair payment has been another sticking point for artists. All organizations that receive public funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and other levels of government are required to pay artists, but one current staff member says, “there was a time, to be perfectly honest, when they didn’t know they should be paying artist fees.” Cooper says the AGC has paid artist fees as long as she’s been with the gallery, adding “I sign every cheque here.”

Four artists interviewed by Fast Forward, however, claim they were not paid in a timely fashion. Like Mealia, two of them claim they were told the accountant was “away” or “out of town,” when they asked about their fees. One says, “I had to literally hound them on a weekly basis for four months to get paid.” Another artist, who exhibited in 2008, says, “[My] dealings with the directors of the gallery were unpleasant and involved a complicated negotiation process to get artist fees which were somewhere close to acceptable.” Elder now confirms that AGC is meeting the national standards for payment of artist fees outlined by Canadian Artists’ Representation, an organization that sets professional guidelines for artists and the organizations that exhibit their work.

A NEW BEGINNING?

When Cooper addressed the “naysayers” in her October 9 speech, she says she was referring to the gallery’s financial critics. Many thought the gallery should sell its space and try to salvage what it could of the organization. She is cautiously optimistic that those critics have been proven wrong.

She also acknowledges that there are critics in the arts community. “I think there was concern about the type of exhibitions that were being curated, and some of it tied to exhibition scheduling regarding… how many artists we showed here, those kinds of things primarily,” she says. While Cooper says she heard most of these complaints “through the grapevine,” the gallery’s 2006 annual report also stated that it undertook “a strategic assessment of the AGC’s position within the visual arts community.” The document was never made public, and Elder admits “I’ve never seen a full copy of that report.”

However, this report, compiled from direct consultations with prominent artists, curators, commercial art dealers, collectors and colleagues in other arts institutions, may have, at least temporarily, hit home. The gallery responded to it by appointing artist Brian Flynn to its board of directors, but he didn’t last long. He was later replaced by representational painter Janine Hall, who also left after a brief stint. No professional artist has been elected to the board of directors since. A past staff member who saw a copy of the report says that, like many of the recommendations it contains, “the information was absorbed by their administration to appear as though they were actually doing something to develop a working relationship with the community at large, but in reality, they were only paying lip service to this effort.” Elder says she “believes in transparency” and urges artists who have concerns to speak with her. “I cannot right past wrongs, but I can look and see what we can do going forward.”

THE FUTURE

Not all the artists who exhibit at the gallery, nor all the artists who spoke with Fast Forwardbegrudge the institution or had bad experiences while exhibiting there. Many commended the gallery’s curatorial staff for their dedication and for the great experiences they had there. Unfortunately, many feel the AGC is not living up to its potential.

Is the gallery’s rebranding a spin job that lacks substance? Or does it represent an important step in the evolution of the AGC? Artists express hope that the gallery will succeed in establishing itself as a significant local, national and international institution and truly incorporate itself into the community. A prominent Albertan artist who exhibited at the gallery in 2003 concludes, “…there’s some kind of internal problem there, whether that problem originates with the board or the mandate of the gallery even, with some sort of discrepancy between what their funding is and what their aspirations are, I don’t know. I hope that they can make something of it.”

Anthea Black is an artist, writer and cultural worker based in Alberta. She has served on the board of directors of several artist-run organizations and worked as the director of Stride Gallery.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

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