Monday, June 06, 2011

Art Gallery of Saskatchewan cost soars to $84M; closed-door meetings continue; Remai donation changes little; StarPhoenix misleading public

More spending, more secrecy, more sham meetings and more lies. In other words, it’s business as usual on the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan (AGS) file.

At a press conference on May 25, 2011, Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel Art Gallery board chair Art Knight unveiled a series of schematic drawings for the new gallery by architectural firms Smith Carter Architects and Engineers and Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB). It was also revealed, almost as an afterthought, that the estimated cost of the new building has soared to $84 million, a 52.7 per cent increase from the $55 million price tag that was originally announced on April 3, 2009.

The size of the project has grown as well, going from 104,000 square feet to 125,000 square feet. The fundraising goal has been increased from $8 million to $20 million.

According to the StarPhoenix, Atchison tried to downplay the controversy surrounding the move of the Mendel Art Gallery from its Spadina Crescent home to River Landing and the removal of the Mendel name from the building that has plagued the project since day one.

This is no surprise, since it was Atchison and Knight that started the controversy two years ago in the first place.

One of the more outrageous comment belonged to Doug Hodson, chair of the capital fundraising campaign, who said, “Our city and community is eager to see an art gallery emerge as the centrepiece of the south downtown.” [Gallery price tag jumps (StarPhoenix, May 26, 2011)]

It’s hard to believe someone could be so oblivious. Either Hodson has been living under a rock the last couple of years or he’s simply not being honest. The new art gallery has seen nothing but controversy since April 1, 2009, when the StarPhoenix first reported that the Mendel was moving.

Within months a website called Save the Mendel was launched and has collected almost 2,100 names and comments, including Fred Mendel’s grandchildren Camille and Chip Mitchell. City council and the StarPhoenix have received well over a hundred letters and emails on the subject. And it was even an issue during the 2009 civic election.

The StarPhoenix reported that roughly 40 city officials and dignitaries attended the news conference at River Landing.

The building received rave reviews at the unveiling of the concept drawings, with politicians, officials and members of the public variously describing it as cosmopolitan, connected and balanced, the newspaper said. [Reaction mixed to first look at $84M building (StarPhoenix, May 26, 2011)]

Of course the people at the unveiling were excited, they were invited to attend. Events like these aren’t spontaneous affairs. They’re carefully orchestrated. Nothing is left to chance. The last thing organizers wanted were protesters.

The Mendel sent out an email late on May 24 urging friends of the gallery to attend the news conference the next day at 11:00 a.m. at River Landing.

“Look for the white tent, southwest of the Prairie Wind sculpture and due south of the new AGS site at Spadina Crescent @ Second Ave.,” the email stated. “Mayor Donald Atchison, Mendel Art Gallery and AGS Board of Trustees Chair, Dr. Art Knight and AGS Capital Campaign Chair, Doug Hodson will be sharing some exciting news and you are invited to be a part of it all.”

There was no advance press release for the general public.

City council approved the schematic design concept for the new art gallery and underground parking at a special meeting held May 30, 2011. It was also decided that administration will report back to council by the end of June 2011 regarding the capital cost estimate and the funding strategy, including confirmation of the amount of community contribution through the capital campaign, as well as operating costs.

In a presentation to council, Hodson informed councillors that an expected major donor announcement would be made near the end of the week. As a result, councillors passed a last minute resolution instructing administration to enter into a naming agreement for the new gallery if there is a significant contribution made to the capital campaign and report further to council at the appropriate time.

The use of closed-door meetings to move the process along continues to the plague the project.

The recommendation to approve the design for the new gallery is contained in a report from city manager Murray Totland dated April 21, 2011. The report notes that the Saskatoon Gallery and Conservatory Corporation (Mendel Art Gallery), at a special meeting held on March 27, 2011, approved the schematic design for the AGS. The Persephone Theatre Board of Directors, at its meeting held on March 14, 2011, approved the schematic design for their theatre shell expansion which is included as part of the AGS contract. What Totland doesn’t say is that both meetings were conducted in-camera.

Furthermore, in an email dated May 27, 2011, the city clerk’s office confirmed that Totland’s report had already been dealt with by the executive committee — consisting of all council members — at a private meeting on May 16, 2011. None of this was reported by the StarPhoenix.

Other private meetings that have been held recently include a secret get together that occurred on February 23, 2011, at city hall “with a group of people to review the plans for the AGS.” The meeting included members of the Mendel Gallery Group who were asked not to discuss the plans with others. The executive committee considered the same issue at an in-camera meeting on March 28, 2011. The city is refusing to release any records regarding the meetings.

The next step in the so-called process is an open house on June 22, 2011, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at TCU Place. According to a news release by the city on May 25 the purpose of the meeting is so the public can “offer their feedback on the gallery design.”

The open house is a sham. Council and the Mendel board approved the design weeks ago. Council’s decision on May 30 was a formality.

Regarding the open house, Totland said in his report that administration “will provide information on the public’s response to the schematic design in a future report to City Council.”

Citizens are being asked to comment on a plan it had no hand in creating. This is the way the public has been treated since 2004 when the city first began developing the concept plan for River Landing behind closed doors.

On June 3, 2011, a news conference was held to announce that Saskatoon resident Ellen Remai had donated $30 million to the gallery, including $15 million toward construction and $500,000 annually toward programming and exhibitions for 30 years.

Because of the donation, which is believed to be the largest private donation in provincial history, the new gallery will be known as the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

According to the StarPhoenix, the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation made the pledge, the foundation’s largest-ever contribution. Ellen and her late husband Frank made their fortune in real estate and have made a number of significant donations around Saskatoon during the last decade.

Atchison thanked Remai for “(coming) to the rescue of everyone in Saskatoon.

“There are a lot of naysayers who keep saying you can’t raise $20 million, it’s not possible,” Atchison told reporters after the announcement. “Quite frankly, negative connotations like that don't help a fundraising campaign. . . . I think (this) should really put those people’s thought process to rest.” [$30M for art gallery (StarPhoenix, June 4, 2011)]

If Atchison is right about Remai coming to the rescue and basically bailing the city out you have to question the project’s stability.

It’s also embarrassing to see Atchison use the donation to try and silence critics and buy the public’s support. The man appears to have no shame.

Remai’s donation certainly makes Hodson’s fundraising job easier, but it doesn’t change the fact that the project still costs $84 million, three times more expensive than expanding and renovating the Mendel which city administrators say will serve the gallery’s needs and the required capacity to see it through the next 30 to 40 years of operation.

The cost of the new facility could go even higher. AGS board chair Art Knight said on May 25 the $84 million is “a good firm estimate.” The project hasn’t even broken ground yet.

Furthermore, Remai’s donation does not excuse council’s deplorable conduct over the past two years or justify its decisions.

One thing the donation does is skew the level of support the public might have for the project. We’ll never truly know how many citizens really do back it. Thousands of people still support the Mendel and are concerned about the new gallery’s price tag. And what about admission and parking fees for the new gallery? The city hasn’t addressed these issues yet. The Mendel is free on both counts.

The StarPhoenix’s support for relocating the Mendel to the south downtown dates back to at least October 2005 when the city first floated the idea. Unfortunately, the newspaper’s most recent editorial advocating the move resorts to lies and twisting facts to bolster its case.

In New gallery will maintain Mendel’s vision (SP, May 28) the StarPhoenix accuses what it calls the “naysayers and detractors” of the new gallery of comparing the current $84 million price tag with “an almost decade old estimate” for expanding and renovating the Mendel. The fact is city administration updated the estimate every year during the capital budget process.

In 2007, the cost to renovate the Mendel was $18.3 million. In 2008, it was $21.3 million. And in 2009, the price was $24 million. The Mendel was not listed in the 2010 capital budget. Had it been included, the figure would likely have been about $27 million, less than one third the cost of the new gallery.

The editorial was incorrect to say the city’s share of the new gallery is $21 million, including $13 million for underground parking. The cost of the parking is separate. Saskatoon taxpayers are actually on the hook for $34 million.

The StarPhoenix claims that Saskatoon couldn’t get senior government support for the Mendel expansion. On the contrary, in April 2005, the gallery received $438,513 in funding from the Government of Canada to undertake Phase 1 of its facility renovation and expansion project. The assistance was provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage through its Cultural Spaces Canada Program.

In July 2007, the city received $4.09 million from the province through the Building Communities Program for the renovation. The current federal government has never publicly stated its position on capital funding. However, as late as April 1, 2009, Infrastructure Canada was indicating that the Mendel expansion was still “potentially eligible” for Building Canada Funds. This was the same day the StarPhoenix first reported that the Mendel was moving to River Landing.

The StarPhoenix says the reason why Saskatoon couldn’t get senior government support for the Mendel expansion was because they have little desire to get into supporting the renovations of local facilities.

This is a lie. The Government of Canada website is littered with cultural projects that are receiving federal money. Here’s a small sample:

▪ Beaverbrook Art Gallery expansion and renovation project – $1,878,564

▪ Renovation of a performing arts facility in the City of Barrie – $2,500,000

▪ Malton community centre & library expansion – $3,333,333

▪ Interior renovation of the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery – $1,428,934

▪ Renovation and upgrades to Laurel Packinghouse in Kelowna – $1,100,000

▪ Renovation of the Manitoba Children's Museum – $3,750,000

▪ Expansion of the Maison Saint-Gabriel – $3,297,003

▪ Upgrade and expansion of the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum – $1,500,000

▪ Modification of the Woodstock Art Gallery and Community Arts Centre – $1,683,333

▪ Restoration, preservation and rehabilitation of the York Theatre – $1,790,000

▪ Jasper Municipal Library renovation and expansion – $1,500,000

▪ Expansion and renovation of an arena - Town of Smiths Falls – $2,183,426

▪ Renovation and expansion of the Maritime Museum – $1,660,000

▪ Expansion of the Wellington County Museum and Archives – $1,522,800

▪ Expansion and renovation of the Lloydminster Agricultural Exhibition Association facilities – $3,540,886

For years the public was led to believe that the city could not afford to expand the Mendel without federal funding. Recent events, however, show that this is nonsense.

This spring the city announced that the cost of the new police headquarters could top $130 million. Council has no qualms about borrowing every penny to pay for it.

The Shaw Centre, a state-of-the-art aquatic and fitness facility that opened in 2009, cost $47.2 million, with $34.1 million coming from the city. The facility was budgeted at $23 to 25 million in 2005.

The city’s share of the new art gallery is $34 million, which is galling because it’s more than enough to cover the Mendel’s plans.

Then there’s River Landing. What began in 2004 as a $42.1 million project has ballooned to more than $145 million today. The development has become too big to fail, which is the main reason why the Mendel is being sacrificed. City council desperately needs a year-round attraction at River Landing to make it successful.

It’s clear, now more than ever, that the cost of the Mendel project was low enough that the city could have handled it on its own.


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