A few days after the dismissal of four senior staff members at the National Gallery of Canada in mid-November, employees trudged into an all-hands virtual meeting.
Angela Cassie, the gallery’s interim director and chief executive, spoke about a mandate for change, building collaboration and fostering a sense of belonging. She only glancingly acknowledged the terminations, saying “change is never easy.”
In the online meeting, questions started to pile up in a chat window that was visible to the entire group. How many more positions would be made redundant? Who else is going to be terminated? And how did the people who had just been let go – including Greg Hill, the Audain senior curator of Indigenous art, with 22 years of experience at the gallery – not “align” with the gallery’s focus on inclusion and Indigenous ways?
Ms. Cassie responded to some of these questions the same way she had fended off journalists asking about the departures: by declining to answer owing to privacy concerns. Other times, she offered to meet individually with people. Staff members began to lose patience.
The meeting, which was described to The Globe and Mail by an employee who was present, had been scheduled to run for 90 minutes. Instead, it ended abruptly after an hour. The Globe is not naming the employee to protect their job.
Late that same day, an e-mail went out to staff with Ms. Cassie’s speaking notes in memo form. “Please don’t be shy with your questions,” she signed off.
The issues at the National Gallery did not start with these recent terminations. Rather, interviews with 10 donors and current and former staff members reveal that resentment and disaffection among employees has been simmering ever since Sasha Suda, Ms. Cassie’s predecessor, became the gallery’s new director and CEO in 2019. Ms. Suda soon embarked on a wholesale reimagining intended to improve Indigenous representation at the institution and address a host of other historical wrongs.
Ms. Suda left a few months ago for another job. Under Ms. Cassie’s leadership, backlash to the changes has only grown.
The scale of the upheaval now puts the future of the NGC – Canada’s premier visual-arts institution – at risk. Some key donors have been so dismayed that they’ve made changes to their philanthropic plans, steering support away from what seems to be an institution in utter disarray.
Both Ms. Suda and Ms. Cassie defended their work at the gallery in separate responses to questions about the changes from The Globe.
“What we’re doing at the gallery is more than words on a paper, it is about deep transformational work that requires us to examine all of our work processes for bias, for exclusion,” Ms. Cassie said. “We’re moving beyond the performative to transformational change.”
In addition to Mr. Hill, the senior staff members dismissed most recently included deputy director and chief curator Kitty Scott, director of conservation and technical research Stephen Gritt, and senior manager of communications Denise Siele. Ms. Cassie described this in a memo to staff as a restructuring that would “better align the gallery’s leadership team with the organization’s new strategic plan.”
Former curator at National Gallery of Canada on decolonization, dismissals at the institution
Mr. Hill went public on Instagram with a less euphemistic explanation. “I want to put this out before it is spun into meaningless platitudes,” he wrote. “The truth is, I’m being fired because I don’t agree with and am deeply disturbed by the colonial and anti-Indigenous ways the Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization is being run.” He was referring to a department the gallery established in February to lead its work on Indigenous inclusion.
The strategic plan that guides all of this – titled “Transform Together” – was unveiled in 2021. It focuses on nurturing more diversity in the gallery’s collections, programs, audiences and staff, building connections between people through art and placing “Indigenous ways of knowing and being” at the centre of everything. The document was intended to “ensure that the gallery’s transformation efforts are inclusive, anti-racist, and disrupt its roots in colonial museological practice,” the NGC said when it was released.
Management has framed this evolution as necessary in order to course-correct the gallery’s past and move it into the future. But critics say that while the aims are laudable, the implementation has left staff feeling profoundly confused, undermined and alienated. Current and former staff members told The Globe that the strategic plan and its goals are so vague that the gallery is no better off in its efforts to become a truly inclusive art institution.
“There’s a lot of flowery words about respecting and supporting staff, yet staff are living a culture of fear and intimidation, afraid to speak out, afraid that they’re going to be restructured at any moment with no explanation,” Mr. Hill said in an interview. “It’s a really toxic environment.”
Mr. Hill, who is Mohawk and a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, said it was “bizarre” to be let go for not fitting with the gallery’s present direction. His entire two-decade career has been about advancing inclusion and Indigenous art, he said.
He was co-curator of Sakahàn in 2013, and 2019′s Àbadakone, groundbreaking and critically revered exhibitions of global contemporary Indigenous art staged at the NGC. On the acquisition side, Mr. Hill said, he and his team doubled the number of Indigenous artworks at the gallery, which has existed since 1880. They added 1,300 pieces to the permanent collection over his tenure.
“You can say that every work brought into a collection that was hostile to Indigenous artists for much of the institution’s existence, every acquisition is an act of decolonization,” he said. “So we had 1,300 of those acts.”
Mr. Hill said he believes he was let go because he was asking unwelcome questions about what the gallery was really accomplishing in terms of inclusion and representation. In his view, as society shifts, institutions go through a box-checking phase in which merely nodding at an issue is supposed to be enough. “Creating a Department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization really sounds like you’ve done something,” he said.
Underpinning that was what he described as a power struggle with Steven Loft, who became vice-president of the newly created department in February.
“I think I was pushed out because I was an annoyance. And I was pushed out because I could be, so it’s an exercise of power,” Mr. Hill said. “My understanding of Indigenous ways from the Haudenosaunee perspective is that power comes from the people. You’re chosen to hold a leadership position, and you’re accountable to those people that put you there. It’s not the other way around, that you grab a position and then exert your power over all the people that you want to control. That is about as far from my understanding of Indigenous ways as we can get.”
Through the gallery, Mr. Loft declined to respond.
Ms. Suda arrived in April, 2019. She had previously been curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but had no managerial experience when she became director and CEO of the National Gallery. Soon after arriving, she terminated several senior staff members, and many more followed them out the door by force or by choice over the next few years. (The gallery won’t discuss details, but estimates of the number of departures range between 30 and 40.)
Then she set about implementing her change agenda, which she and Ms. Cassie have both framed as a self-evidently necessary overhaul of an ossified and exclusionary institution that didn’t even know it had its eyes closed.
The road map for that evolution is the “strat plan,” a document that soars with ambitious language wrapped around the gallery’s new core purpose: to “nurture interconnection across time and place.” But it’s difficult to wrestle the plan down to earth and discern what it would actually do, or even what it means.
“We work at the speed of trust – fostering relationships built upon mutual respect and compassion, which honour individual hopes and histories,” it says.
“They’re saying we have to stop doing things in the old way, but they don’t say which things they’re going to leave behind and what they’re going to replace them with,” said Charles Hill (no relation to Greg Hill), a former curator of Canadian art at the NGC and one of seven former senior staff members who signed an open letter to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez, raising concerns. “We know what you’re destroying, but what are you building?”
Five current and former employees said new management is uninterested in anything that came before, and that this is compounded by a lack of curiosity or knowledge about even fundamental concepts of how art museums work. “There was a kind of sense of being threatened by these things, rather than working with them,” said Ann Thomas, a former interim chief curator who overlapped with Ms. Suda.
In July, Ms. Suda announced her departure from the National Gallery, three years into her five-year term, so she could become director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Before Ms. Cassie became interim director, she was chief strategy and inclusion officer at the NGC, responsible for crafting the strategic plan. There appears to be seamless continuity in the vision for the gallery. Ms. Cassie has no art background. She came to the gallery from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.
The strategic plan mentions art only a handful of times. The gallery is currently hosting mainly travelling exhibitions organized by other institutions rather than planning its own. There has been no mention of the sort of big summer show that gets audiences excited. And, except for an obscure books display, the exhibition calendar is entirely empty past mid-March.
The current and former employees who criticized the strategic plan each mentioned that management kept touting it as the gallery’s “first ever” such document, when it was no such thing. “As it happens, by law, we have to provide a strategic plan every year to Parliament – every single year,” said Marc Mayer, who was director and CEO before Ms. Suda.
As John McElhone, who was chief of restoration and conservation until he retired in 2017, puts it, that “first ever” claim suggests that before Ms. Suda, the gallery was “aimlessly wandering around through the landscape of art, not really with any plan at all.”
All of this has been unfolding in an environment where morale is abysmal, the current and former staff members said, even while the gallery maintains it is focused on building a trusting workplace. “Change is hard” has become a mantra of NGC management, and staff have come to resent what feels like condescending deflection rather than empathy, they said. Prior to the latest terminations, two of the unions that represent the vast majority of gallery employees also wrote to Mr. Rodriguez, the Heritage Minister, to raise the alarm.
On Wednesday, Mr. Rodriguez said he had written to the chair of the gallery’s board “expressing my sincere concern” about the work environment at the gallery.
“What I want is a response from the Board of Trustees to my letter to know exactly what is going on and to know what solutions they’re proposing to move forwards,” he said. Mr. Rodriguez emphasized that the NGC is a Crown corporation with arm’s-length distance from the government.
The gallery’s board is appointed by the government, and the board in turn appoints the director of the gallery, with the approval of the federal cabinet. There is currently a job posting up, open until January, for a new permanent director and chief executive of the NGC.
In a statement on Thursday, Françoise Lyon, the board chair, expressed full support for Ms. Cassie and decried the “disturbing tone of intolerance and a distinct lack of understanding about the need to advance initiatives around racism, diversity, and decolonization” in news coverage and public criticism of the gallery. “These are not politically driven platitudes,” she added. “These are programs that reflect the deepest values of the National Gallery of Canada and the sentiments of the Government of Canada.”
Greg Hill, too, takes issue with the notion that the progressive new direction or the strategic plan itself are to blame. “It’s too much a kind of nostalgic view of the glory days of the gallery,” he said. Completely abandoning those changes, he said, “would be such a dark reversion of progress that has been made and the potential that I believe is still there.”
Rather, he thinks opaque management practices are responsible for the gallery’s problems.
The NGC has gone into a defensive crouch as its difficulties have gone public. After The Globe contacted several members of the board, the gallery intervened, declining to allow interviews and saying Ms. Cassie was the gallery’s spokesperson. In a lengthy interview, Ms. Cassie did not engage with direct questions about the criticisms of the gallery and her leadership.
“It has been a long-time concern that there have been many voices that have been historically excluded by the institution and by society in general,” she said. “And that’s why when we’re talking about creating transformative art experiences that strengthen community connections, that’s what we’re working to try to achieve.”
In response to a list of questions about criticisms of her own tenure, Ms. Suda offered a statement. “The process of change is a difficult one for all institutions at any time, but perhaps especially in the context of the profound social evolution and enlightenment of recent years,” she said. “While it is personally disappointing to hear some of the more entrenched criticism of change, I am grateful to know that change is the chosen direction.”
But many of those concerned about the present state of the National Gallery dispute the idea that the turmoil is being caused by resistance to progress. Rather, they say, the gallery is pursuing commendable aims in ways that are damaging.
“It needs to be constantly reiterated that it’s the methods, not the goals,” said Diana Nemiroff, a former curator of modern and contemporary art at the gallery.
A second current employee at the gallery, whom The Globe is not naming because they fear job-related repercussions, rejects what they see as the emerging narrative that it’s only a defensive “old guard” that is raising concerns. Staff members relish challenges such as thinking about how to draw in visitors who have typically been absent from the gallery, the source said, but the net result of all this change has been to push out very skilled employees and destabilize the whole institution.
Michael Audain, the philanthropist who endowed Greg Hill’s curatorial job, lays responsibility at the feet of the board, who approved all these moves and still stand behind them.
“It was a considerable surprise” to learn of Mr. Hill’s termination after the fact, Mr. Audain said, and he has since received a proposal from Ms. Cassie for re-allocating the funds. He said his family foundation needs time to decide.
“I’ve had contact with some very, very important philanthropists, donors to the gallery – very important ones – who told me that they are making changes in their estate arrangements or their giving arrangements until things become clearer about what’s going on,” Mr. Audain said. “No one wants to be associated, let’s put it that way, with an organization in which there seems to be so much internal strife.”
David Thomson – whose family investment company owns The Globe and Mail – donated $20-million worth of historic photography to establish the Canadian Photography Institute at the gallery, but it was shuttered in 2020. A statement on behalf of Mr. Thomson’s collection at the time blamed “managerial obstruction.”
About 25 per cent of the gallery’s annual funding comes from donations, but three-quarters of it comes from parliamentary appropriations, including its $8-million annual acquisition budget to purchase new works of art.
“It has to be reapproved every year by Parliament,” Mr. Mayer said. “You get a couple of parliamentarians saying, ‘We’re sick and tired of Wokenstein’s Monster at the National Gallery, we’re tired of this neo-racist, decolonization program, we are voting against any funding of the National Gallery.’ They may negotiate at least some money to save the furniture, but that $8-million is absolutely officially at risk today.”
But Mr. Mayer detects a more existential threat. Artists don’t work on “ideological commission,” he said, and forcing them to do so will burn the gallery’s credibility in an instant.
“These are artists who have for generations been fighting to be autonomous, and to not have people tell them what to paint or even to paint at all. Now they’re being told by the National Gallery, ‘Well, no, we want you to be very kumbaya, or we’re not interested in showing your work or acquiring it,’” he said. “It’s really, really dangerous for Canada.”
Mr. McElhone was another of the signatories on the letter from former senior staff. They wrote it because they had fantastic careers at the NGC and loved the institution, he said.
He, too, worries about damage that cannot be undone. He often finds himself thinking about the “move fast and break things” approach Elon Musk has taken since buying Twitter.
“That may or may not work for high-tech companies. But it’s a really bad idea for a national gallery with a historic collection of art,” Mr. McElhone said. “Once you break things, they don’t get fixed.”