Art Gallery of Northumberland board must resign – reboot necessary for success

northumberlandBy Robert Washburn

The Art Gallery of Northumberland is in very deep trouble, needing huge support from municipalities, businesses and the public, if it hopes to survive.

Sadly, it is caught up in a complex set of circumstances that must play out before its final fate will be determined. This involves some very unpleasant, possibly controversial steps.

The first must be the resignation of the entire board, without exception.

The gallery needs to be turned over to Cobourg or another municipal body to be run until all matters are settled. There are no federal, provincial or municipal policies or laws allowing Cobourg council to intervene since the art gallery is an independent body sitting at arm’s length. The town’s only involvement is financial, with its $75,000 per year grant, along with a seat on the gallery board, currently filled by Councillor Donna Todd.

While it may appear drastic, even dramatic, it is a vital step.

Throughout its annual report presented publicly at a meeting on June 25, the board outlines its current fiscal crisis. It faces a $46,000 deficit for 2014, along with a $61,000 deficit it carried over from 2013. Its projected expenses for the current year are $263,000.  This does not include a number of other transactions leaving the board in even further debt.

The report is filled with claims based on the financial audit, but the board takes little or no responsibility itself. Herein lies the problem for the future.

Regardless of who is responsible, ultimately it is the board. Cobourg police expect to conclude their investigation into various allegations within the next few weeks. If charges are laid, then the details of what has occurred will be made public.

But, this would be a long, drawn out process and will not address the short-term future of the board’s deeper problems: trust and credibility with the community.

Until the board is removed, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ask for donations.

Its strategy to approach municipalities for greater funding at this time of the fiscal year is folly. All budgets are set and most politicians will not likely consider new spending until deliberations starting in the fall. Final budgets are usually not set until the winter, so it will not solve any problems right now.

From the public’s perspective, there must be a full, impartial review of policies, procedures and governance demonstrating transparency and openness of all findings. This does not for a moment suggest anyone on the board or in any staff is doing anything illegal. That is for the police to decide.

Still, by turning over the gallery to the municipality, a review of all aspects of the gallery over an extended period of time, not just the past year or two, will allow a neutral body (possibly a consultant or town staff) to provide a clean slate.

This is critical.

Once the public can be assured the gallery is functioning, a new beginning is possible. Then, the public can be rest assured the donations and financial support will be handled appropriately.

Todd is misguided in her strategy to allow the current board to go it alone. While she openly challenged the mayor and deputy mayor for their desire to see a business plan, it is not a helpful path.

Certainly, the deputy mayor wants to assist by providing funding to keep the gallery open. But, the questions surrounding governance loom large. A business plan, like the one the mayor is requesting, is not sufficient.

The art gallery board must swallow a bitter pill. The passion and commitment of its members is undeniable and praiseworthy. However, if the gallery is going to survive, it must completely reboot, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind there is a clean slate for the community to support as a vital and significant cultural institution.

Originally published: July 16, 2014