Monday, April 06, 2009

Mendel Art Gallery: Mayor Don Atchison and Board of Trustees hypocrisy and betrayal appalling; gallery move planned in near total secrecy

(L-R) Don Morgan, Minister of Justice, Dr. Art Knight, Mendel Board Chair,
Christine Tell, Minister of Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport and Mayor Don Atchison at press conference on Apr. 3, 2009

The hypocrisy and betrayal exhibited by Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel Art Gallery Board of Trustees is appalling.

When the city floated the idea of moving the gallery in Oct. 2005, Atchison was unapologetic that the matter had become public stating, “We’re being transparent. If we did all of this behind closed doors and then announced a decision, we’d make a lot of people angry. We’re not trying to hide anything.” [Mendels threaten to pull cash gift (StarPhoenix, Oct. 12, 2005)]

The latest attempt to move the Mendel was planned in near total secrecy only becoming public at the last minute. To illustrate how complete and well hidden the scheme was Persephone Theatre had already been booked for a press conference and glossy brochures printed.

For Atchison it’s always been about River Landing. It’s has been since he was first elected mayor in Oct. 2003.

On Sept. 19, 2005, city council approved, in principle, a destination complex that would include the Meewasin Valley Authority, Tourism Saskatoon and Persephone Theatre. Council also voted to officially ask the federal government for capital assistance through the Centenary Funding Program. The Mendel was not mentioned in the administrative report considered by council that night.

In a letter to council dated Oct. 6, 2005, the Mendel’s designated board representative, John Hampton, said that trustees “met on Sept. 30 and heard, for the first time, of the City’s interest in discussing a possible move of the Gallery to River Landing.” Council received the letter at its Oct. 17, 2005, meeting.

The first newspaper account of the gallery’s possible move appeared on Oct. 8, 2005, in The StarPhoenix article ‘Mendel on the move?: Art gallery asked to consider possible River Landing home.’

The Mendel issued a media release on Oct. 11, 2005, stating it had not received a formal development plan from the city to relocate to River Landing. A “sudden, short discussion” was held on Sept. 27, 2005, between city officials and Mendel management regarding the potential move.

“At that time, Mendel management indicated a willingness to hear and discuss options, and began their due diligence by informing the Board of Trustees and staff of this initial meeting. Formal talks between Mendel management, its trustees, and the City of Saskatoon have not occurred to date, nor have widespread consultations with Mendel stakeholders, such as staff, volunteers, members, donors, trustees and Foundation board members, artists, museum colleagues and design experts, our core municipal, provincial and national funders, or most importantly the public we serve,” the release said.

The same sense of loyalty and respect for its members and the public that guided the previous board clearly means nothing to the current one. The board is not acting in the gallery’s best interests and its decision to move is an act of betrayal and breech of trust to the gallery’s namesake, Fred Mendel.

In his Oct. 15, 2005, column ‘Leave Mendel out of the mix’, The StarPhoenix’s Randy Burton noted that: ‘All the available evidence suggests that putting art galleries into multi-use complexes is a good way to undermine the stature of the galleries. It’s been tried elsewhere, and the results have been mixed at best, says Michael Lundholm, a Toronto-based architect and museum planning specialist.

“Art galleries that are buried in mixed-use developments don’t tend to do very well,’ he said in an interview.

“When you’ve got something that’s working that well, you don’t fool around with it,” Lundholm says.’

The same holds true today.

According to an Oct. 12, 2005, Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) briefing note obtained under freedom of information legislation, in “the week following the Council decision, City officials put forward the option of relocating the Mendel Art Gallery… to the cultural centre.” (This would have been the week of Sept. 26, 2005).

“On balance, WD is of the view that the latest proposal has the potential to leave a credible legacy project with potentially strong “critical mass” for the river bank in south downtown Saskatoon,” the report states.

WD convened a meeting of all prospective participants on Oct. 17, 2005, to try and bring the matter to some kind of resolution. The attempt failed and the minutes of the meeting were not made public.

On Oct. 20, 2005, the Mendel board advised the city that, after careful consideration, it “determined it is not in the best interests of the Mendel to move from its current location.”

“The Mendel Art Gallery has developed an outstanding architectural design, by Kindrachuk Agrey Architecture in association with Lundholm Architects, for upgrading and expanding the existing facility, that addresses the Gallery’s future needs and respects the integrity of one of Saskatchewan’s most significant modernist heritage buildings. The Mendel enjoys a stand-alone identity and is a recognizable landmark situated on an exceptional waterfront site in Saskatoon. The legacy of Fred Mendel and his family is integral to the Gallery’s public and cultural identity, and long-standing mandate. The existing Facility Renovation and Expansion Project is supported by the Mendel/Mitchell families, the Gallery Group Volunteers, the Mendel Art Gallery Foundation, and by numerous stakeholders in Saskatchewan and across the country,” board chair Wade Heggie said.

Atchison distributed copies of the letter at a public meeting of the city’s executive committee on Oct. 24, 2005. It’s obvious the city and the federal government never forgave the Mendel for not playing ball.

During the federal government’s biased and deeply flawed centennial funding fiasco, the then city manager, Phil Richards, sent WD a letter dated Nov. 3, 2005, requesting that centennial funding be dedicated to the reconstruction of the Victoria Bridge, which had recently been found to have serious structural damage. Richards also requested that $2.5 million be dedicated to Persephone Theatre’s new facility. The Mendel was not mentioned as a priority.

The city had submitted the Victoria Bridge as a possible centennial funding project even though Richards, on Nov. 2, 2005, met with WD’s Daniel Watson and, according to a Nov. 3, 2005, email from Watson to WD staff, and was told that there would be “problems” with the proposal in the context of the federal government’s RFP process.

On Dec. 7, 2005, city council chopped the Mendel off at the knees when it approved a list of federal centennial funding priorities to WD that had the gallery listed third behind the Victoria Bridge and Persephone Theatre. The city also reduced the funding request from $7.5 million to $4.5 million. The report to council did not explain why.

It should be noted that the city does not own Persephone and to this day the federal government has never explained why it allowed the city to submit the project as a priority. WD has never explained either why it held the Mendel to higher standard than other applicants when it came time to assess the 19 proposals it received. For example, the Mendel was required to confirm 30 per cent of its funding when the RFP guidelines said 20 per cent.

Furthermore, to meet eligibility criteria, the Mendel was apparently required to confirm provincial funding.

This even though the submission guidelines did not say provincial funding was an eligibility requirement.

It appears the Mendel was required to secure provincial funding but other applicants, like Prairieland Park, were not. The federal government has never explained why.

On Mar. 24, 2006, when WD revealed the winners of its sweepstakes debacle, the Mendel lost out to Persephone Theatre, Prairieland Park, Wanuskewin Heritage Park and the River Landing Phase I Riverfront Park, which had been listed fourth on the city’s list of priorities behind the Mendel. WD never revealed the point scoring results of its decision.

A few months later the Mendel was undermined further when Atchison sent trustees a letter dated Aug. 18, 2006, telling them in no uncertain terms that they were not to get involved in “efforts to obtain Federal and Provincial capital funds for an expanded” gallery.

“To ensure that there is no future confusion as to who negotiates capital funding for the expansion, I will be initiating all contact with elected Federal and Provincial Government officials. Mr. Phil Richards, City Manager, will be contacting the Federal and Provincial administrators on this issue and will co-ordinate the provision of all information to them, as is the practice for all capital projects,” Atchison said.

What kind of message is this to send to the gallery’s executive director and CEO, not to mention the other highly qualified staff that work at the gallery and who know far more about the facility than the mayor and could have communicated the concept and details of the Mendel expansion project more effectively?

Although the Mendel was eventually able to secure support from the province, when the gallery’s initial request to the provincial government failed, the province reportedly told Mendel management that the city had intervened and wanted to use the funds elsewhere.

On Oct. 31, 2007, Mendel executive director Terry Graff resigned after the gallery’s board informed him his contract would not be renewed. The board said Graff’s qualifications were not the issue. The board never told him it was concerned with the direction he was leading the gallery. They had, in fact, just recently approved a five-year business plan that he developed. To this day the board has not revealed the real reason for Graff’s unfortunate departure.

One can clearly see now why Graff was pushed out of the way by the board and city. His strong advocacy for renovating and expanding the existing Mendel Art Gallery stood in the way of the mayor’s displaced obsession with River Landing.

Clearly it is the city that manages the Mendel, not the board. Board members are appointed by the city, not elected by the citizens of Saskatoon. They take their orders from the city and simply fill a token position. The board’s allegiance is to the city’s administration, not to the citizens of Saskatoon.

Ironically, according to newspaper article ‘Mendel forced to look for alternative funding (StarPhoenix, Nov. 1, 2008) the Mendel board in June 2008 reaffirmed its position that the gallery remain at its present location.

At the Apr. 3, 2009, press conference Atchison applauded the Mendel trustees for its unanimous vote to move the gallery, but failed to tell the audience that this occurred behind closed-doors on Mar. 14 without any input from gallery members or the public.

The idea of moving the Mendel to River Landing is a cop-out by the Mendel board, city council, and the city’s administration. The renovation and expansion of the existing building is “shovel-ready”, and therefore a perfect fit for the federal government’s economic stimulus program. It’s clear that the federal government can only give so much to Saskatoon’s infrastructure (there are too many competing projects), and we all know that the city’s priority for spending federal funds is River Landing. The decision to move the Mendel to River Landing is not based on the federal government not wanting to support the renovation and expansion of the existing Mendel building; it’s strictly a political decision by the city to direct federal infrastructure dollars to River Landing.

The mayor and the Mendel board have a lot to answer for.


At 1:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great idea! Love seeing a creative mind work and gain success!!!!!! Hope it continues to grow!



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