Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Art Gallery of Saskatchewan secrecy continues; Mendel Gallery Group members attend private meeting, asked not to talk about city’s plans

Secret discussions continue to be held on the City of Saskatoon’s despicable plan to move the nationally recognized Mendel Art Gallery to the city’s troubled River Landing development.

According to the minutes of a meeting of the Mendel Gallery Group on March 8, 2011, the chairperson, Alison Lawlor, reported that a meeting regarding the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan took place on February 23, 2011, at city hall “with a group of people to review the plans for the AGS.”

Lawlor and another group member, Gwen Barker, were invited to attend.

The meeting was “very informative.” Lawlor and Barker “had the opportunity to look at the plans of the AGS, and provide feedback to the group.” They “were asked not to talk too much about the plans.”

The document states that the AGS information was scheduled to go to an in-camera meeting of the executive committee (city council) on March 28, 2011.

The Mendel Gallery Group, comprised of volunteers, meets each month at the gallery to discuss and organize annual events, fundraisers and special events. All funds raised by the volunteers assist in purchasing new acquisitions for the gallery’s permanent collection. The group appears to have at least 64 members, 14 of which were at the March 8 meeting where the AGS plans were discussed.

It would be interesting to know who else participated in the private meeting at city hall in February and who it is was that told the group about the in-camera executive committee meeting in March, because not even the public is told what items are on the committee’s agenda. Clearly, some citizens are more privileged than others.

The agenda for the gallery group’s April 12, 2011, meeting shows that the AGS was once again up for discussion. The group was also to receive correspondence from Mendel board chair Art Knight.

The city is refusing, at least for now, to release any information on the two meetings held at city hall.

On May 10, 2011, the city clerk denied an access to information request made in April for the following records:

1) Copies of any agenda (or agenda package), minutes, list of attendees, reports or materials circulated regarding or relating to a meeting that occurred at city hall on or about February 23, 2011, to review the plans for the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

2) Copies of any reports that were considered by an in-camera meeting of the executive committee on or about March 28, 2011, regarding or relating to the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan as well as an excerpt of the minutes for any agenda items concerning the AGS that were considered at the same meeting.

The city’s refusal was made pursuant to sections 15 (documents of a local authority) and 16 (advice from officials) of the Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“The records which you have requested relate to issues such as the design of the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, issues which are still under active consideration and review by City Council, and to release the records while this review is still taking place would jeopardize the successful completion of the project. There will be a report submitted to City Council in very short order, and certainly once City Council has made all of its decisions (which will, of course, be made in public) we will be happy to release most, if not all, of the requested records,” the city clerk said.

It’s true that final decisions are made at a public meeting of city council. However, it’s the secret discussions and closed-door meetings where resolutions are passed in the months leading up to the decision that are the problem. By the time a particular item reaches city council the final vote is a formality.

A perfect example of this was in early 2009 when the gallery’s board and city council stabbed the Mendel family in the back at two closed-door meetings. On March 14 the Mendel board passed a resolution to pursue the construction of a new gallery at River Landing. The city’s executive committee approved the plan in principle on March 23. Both decisions were the culmination of secret discussions and back room dealing involving the provincial and federal governments. The public, Mendel family and gallery donors were never consulted.

The deplorable decisions were made for two reasons: the availability of federal Building Canada funds and the city’s desperate need for a year-round attraction at the cost-plagued River Landing development.

It wasn’t until a press conference on April 3, 2009, when Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight, in a stunning act of betrayal and breach of trust to the gallery’s namesake, Fred Mendel, announced plans to move the gallery to a proposed new $55 million building located at River Landing, that the public was finally informed.

The cost of the project has now reached $66.5 million, with more spending to come. It’s wasteful and unnecessary. The Mendel can be renovated and expanded for less than half that amount.

The so-called ‘final decision’ by council wasn’t made until November 30, 2009, when councillors approved, in principle, the development of the Destination Centre with an expanded art gallery (Saskatoon Art Gallery and Conservatory Corporation) as the anchor attraction. Councillors didn’t even have the guts to call for a recorded vote.

The obvious reason for the extreme secrecy is that the city wants maximum control over the way the new gallery’s design gets rolled out to the public. With the media’s help, the city will dazzle residents with colorful diagrams and pictures hoping to sucker enough people into forgetting what happened in March and April of 2009. With any luck the plan will not succeed.


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