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Kathleen Bartels in Vancouver, British Columbia, Oct. 1, 2019.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

In the midst of a big battle, Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art has brought in a big gun. MOCA announced Thursday that it had hired Kathleen Bartels, former director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, as its new leader. She starts work – remotely, of course – April 14.

The hiring is a provocative one, pairing a struggling local institution with an ambitious national arts executive in the middle of a global crisis. Bartels may be taking a pay cut: MOCA board chair Brad Keast will not disclose her salary, but a smaller institution could be expected to offer less than a major provincial museum. Still, she is moving into a well-paid job just as MOCA lays off 18 front-of-house staffers because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Bartels left the VAG abruptly last year after 18 years at the helm, a period during which she greatly expanded the institution but ultimately could not get its much delayed $380-million new building off the drawing board and into the ground. She earned a reputation as an efficient administrator and highly polished professional, but Vancouver began to question whether her single-minded pursuit of the new home was the right strategy. Her relations with potential donors seemed fraught and some complained she had squandered goodwill when, in the weeks after the Chan family’s $40-million gift toward the project last year, she failed to prevent a strike of gallery staff.

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In Toronto, she is moving to a much smaller gallery with no permanent collection, but at least in this case the new building is done and it is the aftermath that needs firm leadership.

Since it left Queen Street West and moved into much larger premises in the Tower Automotive Building in 2018, MOCA has been trying to find its feet in the Junction Triangle. Naturally, the renovation and move took longer than planned and the launch of a bigger and better MOCA certainly has not been helped by the loss of two executive directors (Chantal Pontbriand in 2016 and Heidi Reitmaier in 2019) after less than a year on the job each. The departures of senior staff – managing director Rachel Hilton also recently left – hinted at an overweening board of directors, as did the decision not to immediately replace Reitmaier. That left Hilton and curator November Paynter to run what was effectively a brand new institution: MOCA has been trying to distinguish itself as something more nimble and folksy than either the Art Gallery of Ontario or the Power Plant, in a west-end neighbourhood that itself is still working on the transition from industrial base to millennial hub.

Not surprisingly, the results have been uneven. Some programming, such as 2019’s Douglas Coupland Age of You exhibit, which tried to turn a high-concept text into an art show, has approached the task of engaging audiences with flat-footed literalism. On the other hand, it is a real tragedy that more people will not get to see the series of evocative installations by artists Carlos Bunga, Shelagh Keeley and Megan Rooney that were on show when MOCA was forced to close last month.

Programming at MOCA has felt, most of all, like a project that needs clearer direction and more time. Bartels’s job will be to provide that direction, and support the effort both by fundraising – MOCA, thankfully, needs much less than $380-million – and expanding audiences, as she did at the VAG where memberships and attendance surged during her tenure. Meanwhile the board, where Keast has replaced Julia Ouellette as chair, will stand back – well back, one hopes – and advise. Keast is a developer who helped oversee the Union Station renovation, so you cannot doubt his taste for tough turnarounds. In an interview Friday, he argued passionately for MOCA’s potential as an institution of national stature that would add to Toronto’s prestige as a welcoming multicultural community and international business and research centre.

On that score, it may not be Bartels’s most recent experience in Vancouver that will make the difference but rather her memories of Los Angeles: Before coming to Canada, she was the assistant director at MOCA LA for a decade. With an impressive permanent collection of 20th-century and contemporary art, MOCA LA is certainly a more staid and established institution than MOCA Toronto would ever want to be, but its Geffen Contemporary warehouse space in Little Tokyo is filled with the vitality the Junction is seeking.

So, Bartels is well placed to work on MOCA Toronto’s pressing need to define itself and reach its community – once she has faced down the same crisis plaguing every cultural institution in the country.

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