Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mendel Art Gallery: City of Saskatoon and Saskatchewan Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport refusing to disclose records on proposed new gallery

On April 3, Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel Art Gallery board chair Art Knight announced that construction of a new art gallery at River Landing, to be known as the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan (AGS), is being proposed for federal infrastructure funding under the project category of sport and culture. The long-planned renovation and expansion of the current facility would be abandoned.

The proposal was developed in secrecy only becoming public at the last minute. The Mendel family, gallery members, donors and the public were not consulted.

It’s been nearly twelve weeks since the press conference and so far the only information that’s been made available is a news release, glossy brochure, and misleading two-page fact sheet. The discussions have moved back behind closed doors.

Atchison and Knight seem to have no qualms about spending an estimated $55 million to build the new gallery, most of which will be taxpayer money, and yet when the public tries to access information on the project the door gets slammed in their face.

On April 17, Mendel director Vincent Varga rejected a request submitted under The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for copies of any letters or emails between the gallery and the City of Saskatoon since February 1 regarding or relating to the proposed new AGS; and, also for a complete copy of the agenda and minutes for the Mendel board of trustees meeting held March 14. (This was the meeting where pursuing the construction of a new art gallery at River Landing was approved in principle.) Varga said the gallery was not subject to the legislation but did not explain why. Varga also rejected an informal request made on April 23 for the same information. The matter has been referred to the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner for review.

The Mendel is a publicly owned and taxpayer funded institution. According to the city’s 2009 preliminary operating budget the gallery’s operating grant for this year is $2,064,900. This is up from $1,864,000 million in 2008. It’s disturbing that Mendel management seems to think the public has no right to know its business.

On April 6, a freedom of information request was submitted to Saskatchewan Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport (TPCS) for copies of any briefing notes, memorandums, reports, or formal correspondence since March 1 relating to the Mendel Art Gallery. The ministry advised on April 27 that some of the records requested required third party consultation to determine whether they could be released. On May 21 the ministry gave notice that it had received “representations from the third party in regards to the records in question” and that “access shall be granted only to the announcement brochure.” Access to the remaining third party records was denied. The third party in question is the City of Saskatoon.

Finally, on June 3, the ministry responded to the balance of the request by disclosing only two pages of non-third party information: An April 9, 2009, letter from TPCS Minister Christine Tell to Mayor Don Atchison; and, a short undated briefing note for the minister titled “Key Messages.”

In an email on June 11 a ministry official advised that, “Three documents were withheld, amounting to eight pages of responsive material. An additional four pages were severed from a document which had the “A new time. A new place. A new destination.” attachment.”

TPCS is subject to The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Section 8 of the Act is mandatory stating: “Where a record contains information to which an applicant is refused access, the head shall give access to as much of the record as can reasonably be severed without disclosing the information to which the applicant is refused access.”

Asked whether this section of the Act was applied to the request the ministry said, “The records in question were withheld as no portion of the records could reasonably be severed without disclosing information exempt from release.”

So basically the provincial government is saying that every word on every page of the records being withheld is too sensitive to disclose. This file has been forwarded to the province’s information commissioner for review as well. Three additional requests with TPCS are still pending.

The April 9 letter from Minister Tell to Mayor Atchison was in response to a letter from the mayor dated March 18, 2009, summarizing information regarding the proposed new art gallery.

“Although the package you sent provides information of a preliminary nature, this is indeed an exciting proposal. However, as I am sure you know, there are many discussions and challenges yet to overcome before this concept becomes a reality,” Tell said.

“I have instructed my officials to contact your office to have further discussions regarding the concept. Mr. Scott Langen, Assistant Deputy Minister of Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport will have one of his staff contact your office to make these arrangements.”

One of the ‘key messages’ outlined in the briefing note states, “The Government of Saskatchewan appreciates the long-standing need for better facilities for Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery and sees the advantages of this proposal to build a new permanent home for the gallery.”

This comment ignores the fact that the long-planned renovation and expansion of the current gallery would also provide “better facilities” and that the province was fully supportive of those plans. Now it seems provincial officials won’t talk about them. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Equally disturbing is that neither Tell’s letter nor the briefing note mentions the estimated cost of the new larger gallery ($55 million) is nearly twice that of the renovation and expansion ($24 million). Apparently money is no object. Tell admits in her letter that the plans are “preliminary,” it’s not yet designed, but she seems completely supportive anyway.

On April 22, a freedom of information request was submitted to the City of Saskatoon for copies of any correspondence between the city and both the Mendel Art Gallery and the federal government regarding or relating to the gallery since January 1. The scope of the request was confined to the mayor’s office, city manager’s office, and the special projects manager. The city denied the request. In a letter dated June 4 the city clerk said: “The disclosure of any of the documents could jeopardize on-going negotiations of the City with the Federal Government for funding for a new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan and thereby prejudice the economic interest of the City.”

The City of Saskatoon is subject to The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Section 8 of the Act pertaining to severability is exactly the same as the legislation for provincial government institutions. The city has acknowledged that this is true but is still withholding the records in their entirety anyway. Like the other files, this one has been submitted to the province’s information commissioner for review.

As for the federal government three freedom of information requests have been submitted to Infrastructure Canada and are still pending. The StarPhoenix keeps telling readers that the Feds are not interested in funding a renovation project. Apparently it doesn’t carry as much pizzazz as a brand new building, one that offers better photo-ops for MPs and MLAs. The strange thing is since the controversy began on April 3 the newspaper has not published one interview with federal officials. The federal government has made no public statements on the project, yet somehow The StarPhoenix seems to know what’s going on. How does that work?

And then there’s the issue of funding and the decisions that have already been made.

On December 12, 2005, city council approved the Mendel renovation and expansion project subject to confirmation that all fund raising and third-party grants for the total project be in place or committed, based upon independent audit verification.

As late as December 15, 2008, when city council approved the 2009 capital budget, the renovation and expansion of the Mendel Art Gallery was still planned for completion in 2010, subject to approval from the Building Canada Fund.

“The Mendel’s ten-year capital plan addresses both the existing facility needs and the required capacity to see it through the next 30 to 40 years of operation,” the capital budget document states. [Proponents of the new gallery conveniently overlook this important piece of due diligence. It should be noted that in the article Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery a cultural gem with an open door (Canadian Press, Dec. 29, 2008) Vincent Varga is quoted as saying that the gallery’s “vaults are completely overflowing… In fact, we have about 20 per cent of our collection held off site.” He goes on to say that a major renovation and expansion project will nearly double the space. He calls the gallery “one of the great destinations in the city.” There is no talk about moving or that the renovation plans are too old and should be scrapped.]

“The total cost of renovation/expansion project, including preliminary design, detailed design and construction is $24,000,000. The renovation/expansion project is now into the development of detailed drawings stage in preparation for going to tender. The next stage will be the contract administration and construction; projected to take begin in 2009 as a Federal grant and Mendel Capital Campaign funding is secured.

“Preliminary funding includes City reserves, and a four-way funding partnership between the three levels of government and the Mendel’s Capital Campaign. The City has committed funding of $4,663,000 together with Civic Buildings Comprehensive Maintenance funding during construction phase ($153,000) and accessibility funding of $25,000. The Province of Saskatchewan has committed $4,092,877 to this project. The first installment of $1,023,219.25 has already been received. The Federal Government has provided $438,513. A grant application has been submitted to the Buildings Canada Fund in excess of $7 million. The development position added to the staff complement of the Mendel in the 2008 budget has been filled by a Manager, Resource Development who will also support the raising (funded by private donations) of approximately $7.6 million.” [City of Saskatoon, 2009 Capital Budget, p. 215-16]

As late as January 6, 2009, Knight and Varga were still promoting the Mendel’s renovation and expansion plans. In an open letter posted on the gallery’s website asking for the public’s help the two said the project was “shovel ready” and “can be tender ready by March of this year!” Clearly, this project is more ready to go than are the plans for the new gallery. But now, according to the fact sheet, “both the city and art gallery have outgrown that plan.” What nonsense. Do Mendel management and the mayor really expect people to believe that within a span of 67 days – from the date of the open letter to the March 14 board meeting – the plans that had been worked on for so long had suddenly become obsolete?

The provincial contribution was announced by Premier Lorne Calvert at a press conference in Saskatoon on July 18, 2007. According to a government news release the source of the funding was the Building Communities Program, a three- year, $100-million fund for cultural and recreational infrastructure that ended in 2008.

The news release said the additional funding will assist in the project in which the facility will be renovated and expanded by 1,542 square metres, or approximately 60 per cent.

“The Mendel Art Gallery is a local and national treasure, and this funding will help bring art to more residents and visitors alike,” Mayor Don Atchison said. “The Gallery will be able to showcase its phenomenal collection - some of Canada’s and the world’s finest art. We are very excited about this support and what it will bring to our community.”

Now Atchison is saying there’s not enough money to fund both the Mendel and his pet project River Landing which appears to be in trouble. As for the gallery’s stature as a “local and national treasure” the mayor now supports moving the gallery and stripping the Mendel name from the building.

With the province on board Mendel board chair Art Knight told reporters a source of federal money was now much more likely to come through.

“I think one of their requirements is always a firm indication that both the municipal and provincial level are in support of the project. So we’re very encouraged by that, and look forward to being able to talk to the federal government about the project. The plan is that our application to the federal government will be submitted early this fall and our capital campaign to draw on local and national donors will begin probably in September or October.” [$4M for Mendel expansion (StarPhoenix, July 19, 2007)]

So what happened? Did the federal government tell the city or Mendel management that it wouldn’t fund a renovation and expansion project? If the answer is yes then why hasn’t that information been made public?

The glossy brochure distributed at the April 3 press conference clearly shows provincial and federal involvement stating, “We’ve fully explored the implications of expanding our old home. With our partners in the City, Provincial and Federal governments, we have come to the conclusion a new building is the best fit for Saskatoon’s expanding future and our city’s amazing new urban riverfront.” When was the “conclusion” reached and who specifically in the three levels of government took part in the discussions?

To be clear, the money approved by city council and the contribution from the province was for the renovation and expansion of the Mendel Art Gallery and not for a new facility called the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. This is what the public was told. Atchison and Knight know this but the fact sheet seems to suggest they would rather see those funds spent somewhere else.

“How will the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan be paid for?” the fact sheet asks.

The answer: “The City and Province have already reaffirmed their financial contributions to the project. And the Gallery’s board remains committed to raising $6 to $8 million through a fundraising campaign. It is still early in the process and there are many financial issues to work through, notably the federal government’s contribution. So we’ve made a start, but there is still work to do.”

It needs to be explained how funds allocated to one project can suddenly be shifted to another.

Two reasons that are given in the fact sheet for moving the gallery to River Landing are: “A destination centre is needed to attract people on a year-round basis, and the art gallery is a natural fit for that. Availability of stimulus funding from the federal government is also a factor.” This comes closest to revealing the real reasons why the mayor and Mendel board want to move the gallery. It’s political and will help save the struggling River Landing from becoming an even bigger embarrassment than it already is; and, it exposes the federal government’s desire to dictate where any stimulus funding will be spent. This is indeed a travesty.


Previous posts:

April 6, 2009 – Mendel Art Gallery: Mayor Don Atchison and Board of Trustees hypocrisy and betrayal appalling; gallery move planned in near total secrecy

April 8, 2009 – Meewasin move to Mendel site revives aborted 2005 plan; Lamb & Knight serve on secretive River Landing destination centre steering committee

April 26, 2009 – Mendel Art Gallery rejects freedom of information request, refuses to disclose records; federal government part of covert plan to move gallery

May 13, 2009 – Meewasin Valley Authority refusing to release CEO reports; board votes behind closed doors to investigate possible move to Mendel Art Gallery site


At 11:51 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Good work Joe. As I mentioned, the closed door, "we know best" approach does not work at City Hall in Saskatoon. The history of poor management, lack of true representation and lack of creativity as the City has managed the Mendel at an "arms length" has wiped out the value of private sector interest in arts and culture. The proof of this is the comment made by one that "people with money do not want to give to the old building but will give to new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan" is ignorant and a temporary fix to the wonderful legacy that the Mendel family left for art lovers in Saskatoon. Just like accessibility issues, River Landing, and a whole host of other issues,it's proving obvious that someone needs to challenge the style of governance this October.

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