Former staffers are sounding the alarm about recent layoffs at the National Gallery of Canada.
In a letter to the Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez shared with media late Friday, seven former senior staffers of the Ottawa institution warn him about the impact of four new layoffs, following on a stream of middle-management departures in the last three years. “The cumulative effect has created a high degree of internal uncertainty and instability. It is impossible to reconcile these actions with the gallery’s new strategic plan to ‘empower, support and build [a] diverse and collaborative team,’ ” said the staffers, who include several retired curators and collection managers.
This month, the gallery laid off chief curator Kitty Scott, curator of Indigenous art Greg A. Hill, director of conservation and technical research Stephen Gritt and communications manager Denise Siele. In an internal memo, interim director Angela Cassie told staff the layoffs were to align the gallery’s leadership with its strategic plan, unveiled in 2021, with a focus on making connections through art and respecting Indigenous knowledge.
Ms. Cassie was not available on the weekend to respond to the letter, but the gallery has previously declined to comment on the layoffs, citing the individuals’ privacy. Board chair Françoise Lyon said in a brief message this week “the reorganization announced is entirely consistent with the gallery’s strategic plan.”
The gallery is a Crown corporation with its own board, which operates at arm’s length from the government, but a spokesperson for Mr. Rodriguez said the ministry is reviewing the letter.
“Canadians have high expectations of their cultural institutions. We expect the gallery and all Crown corporations to be inclusive, safe, and reflect the best of Canada,” Laura Scaffidi said.
As well as these four layoffs, the letter alleges that at least 10 other managers were let go in recent years, most during the three-year tenure of director Sasha Suda, who left the gallery in July to become the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The writers also worry about the cost of buyouts for these non-unionized employees.
The letter is signed by former curators Charles Hill, Diana Nemiroff, Ann Thomas and Rosemarie Tovell, former chiefs of collections management Delphine Bishop and Greg Spurgeon, and former photography conservator and chief of conservation J.P. McElhone. Most of these senior professionals had left the gallery before Ms. Suda arrived.
The former staffers are concerned about what they identify as a hollowing out of specialist knowledge at the gallery, citing vacancies in key curatorial areas, such as contemporary art, Canadian prints and drawings, and historical European and American art.
“It is time to shift the focus from restructuring to rebuilding from the ground up, nurturing existing knowledge and the expertise of specialists who can mentor the next generation of museum professionals,” they write. “The gallery’s strategic plan affirms the critical role played by the past: ‘The path ahead will demand of us our well-honed experience, passion, and knowledge of art and audience.’ It is just this knowledge and experience that is threatened by recent dismissals.”
The letter also calls on the government to appoint a new director with a proven track record leading a major art museum. Ms. Suda had worked as curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario and research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum before she was appointed while Ms. Cassie had held various jobs at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. The gallery only began advertising the director’s job last week and does not include in the posting what specific qualifications it might require.
“We are looking for a leader who will complete the implementation of the strategic plan and model the values of the organization,” Ms. Lyon said. “In the interim, the board has full confidence in Angela Cassie and the senior management team to advance the objectives of the gallery.”