There are days when I almost feel sorry for Angela Cassie – as sorry as I do for Michael Melling. Both are executives who have been roundly criticized for dismissing prominent cultural figures, but employees’ rights to privacy mean the castigated bosses can never tell their side of the story.
Melling is the CTV exec. who, a senior CTV official told The Globe in August, was once heard asking why broadcaster Lisa LaFlamme had been allowed to stop dyeing her hair. So, commentators concluded the main reason she lost her job last summer was that she was a woman over 50, and launched international defences of the right to go grey.
Cassie, interim director at the National Gallery of Canada, laid off four senior staffers last month and made the mistake of telling staff in a memo that this aligned with the strategic plan – a plan dedicated to making community connections and respecting Indigenous knowledge. Again commentators in the press and on social media put two and two together, came up with five, and have concluded that the National Gallery is firing curators who won’t toe its new political line.
Only CTV management really knows why LaFlamme was let go – she took up a post in the fall as CityTV’s special London correspondent after the Queen’s death, while Melling was recently reassigned outside of the newsroom – but the true story is probably a lot more complicated than her hair colour. Similarly, only Cassie and a few other gallery managers know why they laid off four staffers, but the “get-woke-or-get-fired” narrative that has emerged from the controversy – particularly in the Quebec press – is demonstrably false.
The National Gallery launched its strategic plan in mid-2021 under former director Sasha Suda, who left the job a year later. Responding to social change, from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, the idea was to modernize and democratize the institution, especially by emphasizing Indigenous knowledge. Many have complained the resulting plan is laudable but vague and, for someone dedicated to empowering staff, Suda oversaw a surprisingly large number of senior departures, including the heads of design, education and public affairs, and a chief operating officer.
When Cassie, Suda’s interim replacement, laid off four more staffers – Indigenous curator Greg Hill, chief curator Kitty Scott, communications manager Denise Siele and head of conservation and technical research Stephen Gritt – she sent out an internal memo saying the layoffs would “better align the gallery’s leadership team with the organization’s new strategic plan.”
That itself was a bad strategy because it allowed commentators – the memo had leaked within a few hours – to package the four layoffs as one conspiracy. Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux even raised the issue in Parliament in December, accusing the gallery of pursuing an ideological agenda and quoting former gallery director Marc Mayer, who had characterized the situation as “a coup.”
Setting the panic aside, if you look at the four individual cases it seems unlikely they were all laid off because they failed to fit an ideological vision. Hill, the only one of the four to speak publicly, says he was dismissed because he questioned the methods of the gallery’s department of Indigenous Ways and Decolonization: He thought it was moving too slowly and needed to work by consensus, setting an example that could be used to break down hierarchies across other departments. Not sufficiently “woke?” On the contrary, sounds like Hill wanted the gallery to wake up faster.
Meanwhile, Scott was one of Suda’s most prominent appointments, a highly respected curator of contemporary art lured away from the Art Gallery of Ontario to become the first woman to serve as the National Gallery’s chief curator. Suda had been hired to bring change; it seems very unlikely that Scott wasn’t on board with her agenda. Similarly, Siele, the communications manager, had only been at the gallery two years: Why would she have been hired if she didn’t align? That leaves the veteran Gritt, long-time head of conservation, as the only question mark.
Hill, who has dismissed the gallery’s explanations of the layoffs as “meaningless platitudes,” has said in interviews with The Globe that the four layoffs are individual cases that should not be lumped together.
The gallery has a long history of flubbing its public communications. Back in 1990, it defended its controversial purchase of the Voice of Fire with emotive descriptions of the spiritual delights offered by the Barnett Newman canvas – without discussing why postwar art adopted abstraction. Similarly, the Chagall controversy of 2018, where the gallery was caught trying to sell off a pretty and accessible painting, made it look elitist and remote while battering staff morale. Suda was supposed to fix this but clearly she didn’t succeed and Cassie seems to be making things worse.
The social-media water cooler leaves many with the impression they have a right to know why somebody lost a job. If they haven’t signed nondisclosure agreements, employees occasionally want to talk, but employers simply can’t. If Melling and Cassie have good reasons for their actions, we’ll never know.