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Harbourfront Power Plant gallery in Toronto, on Sept. 29.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

With only hours to go before a VIP opening at the Power Plant at Harbourfront Centre, technicians were working feverishly this week to finish installing the gallery’s big fall show. The controlled chaos in the galleries – art works still to place; video monitors to program; signs to be posted – seemed to reflect the drama in the back office.

Last week, mere days after long-time director Gaëtane Verna left for a bigger job in the United States, board members resigned en masse, saying interference from Harbourfront made it impossible to fulfill its duties. This weekend, the Power Plant opens an ambitious exhibition entitled Arctic/Amazon, about indigeneity and environmentalism in the Americas, in a leadership vacuum.

“There is no board, there’s no director. Where do you go from here?” asked Calgary art dealer Yves Trepanier, who fears for the future of a top Canadian centre for contemporary visual art.

Harbourfront is the Power Plant’s landlord, a major source of its funding, the employer of its staff, and has a role in its operations.

The resigning directors say Harbourfront was threatening the gallery’s independence, but Harbourfront says the Power Plant had serious governance and operational problems it was not addressing. Legal documents show it had asked the gallery to review the leadership of the much-praised Verna, who is headed for a job leading the prestigious Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus. In an interview, Verna declined to address the board resignations and wondered why Harbourfront Centre would wish to review her performance, since she introduced new programs, began touring successful shows nationally, and found additional sources of funding that increased the budget by more than 50 per cent.

“It has been a wonderful ride,” she said.

Sandra Brewster’s public sculpture A Place to Put Your Thing on display at Harbourfront Power Plant gallery.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian art world used to joke that the Power Plant at Harbourfront Centre is a Prada boutique at Walmart, and the dispute between the two does reveal mutual incomprehension. The Power Plant has an international reputation and has plugged Canada in to the very powerful contemporary art scene. Yet it reports to Harbourfront, a community organization that offers families and tourists multicultural programming, craft studios and a skating rink as well as its venerable literary festival.

“We have been communicating our concerns about transparency, accountability and oversight … through the chair of the Power Plant board for more than a year,” Harbourfront CEO Marah Braye said in an interview. “These governance and operational concerns were not being addressed by the board, despite multiple communications.”

She would not name specific concerns, but legal documents show that staff turnover was a major issue, while the new union representing Power Plant workers said its concerns were safety during the installation of exhibitions, and low pay. (Verna agreed salaries are low at the Power Plant and said jobs there were often considered stepping stones.)

Richard Lee, a former Power Plant director who is a spokesperson for the disbanded board, said the board was addressing Harbourfront’s concerns – it had undertaken a workplace review with an outside expert and was working on the issues it raised – but that Harbourfront’s complaints are not specific and keep shifting. “We tried to reason with them. There was court ordered mediation. They didn’t engage,” he said.

Harbourfront appoints 13 of the board’s 27 members; two more are employees of the centre; and the other 12 are independently elected.

The dispute came to a head in June, when Harbourfront sent an e-mail to the board chair dismissing 12 board members who were long-time community supporters of the gallery that the Power Plant had nominated and Harbourfront had approved. (The centre’s 13th seat was vacant.)

Gallery personnel work inside the Power Plant.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The replacements it named were members of the Harbourfront board or its senior staff. The remaining 12 independent Power Plant directors saw this as coup and tried to block the move, saying that written notice wasn’t a valid way of removing their fellow directors. Harbourfront then asked the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to back its written resolution or force the Power Plant to call a board meeting to vote on it.

(In its legal arguments, Harbourfront cited the precedent of last year’s Rogers vs. Rogers Communications, in which the court sided with Edward Rogers in his bid to name new members to the telecom giant’s board through a consent resolution over the objection of other board members.)

There has been no decision in the suit, but Braye said now that the rest of the board has resigned, the legal action is moot.

Whatever the disputes between current players, tensions go back years, and had only increased during Verna’s tenure as the Power Plant became more successful and raised more of its budget itself. Established in 1972 with the profits from developing federal waterfront lands, Harbourfront Centre was originally a Crown corporation that spun off its art gallery as a separate charity. Harbourfront became a charity itself in 1991, but maintained a significant role overseeing the gallery, which takes its name from the mothballed power plant it had turned into flexible spaces to show art.

“The model that was created 35 years ago doesn’t reflect the needs of today,” Mr. Lee said.

In addition to Harbourfront Centre providing the building and being employer of Power Plant staff, the two institutions share services such as payroll. As Verna found new government and private funders, Harbourfront’s contributions, including the rent-free facility, had shrunk to 32 per cent of the budget by 2021, yet the centre still, in theory, controlled the board. It is that muscle that Harbourfront flexed in its bid to remove a slate of directors it had approved but were effectively independent since the Power Plant board members recruited them.

Harbourfront’s intervention has shocked the Canadian art community. It views the Power Plant, which welcomed 265,000 visitors in 2019-2020 before the pandemic, as a stellar institution with strong programming and a diverse board that was successfully raising money.

Harbourfront Centre is the employer of Power Plant staff, and the two institutions share services such as payroll.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

“It would be a shame if the Power Plant closed or morphed into something like a community centre,” Trepanier said. “The programming under Gaëtane Verna’s leadership was outstanding. She put the gallery and many artists both from Canada and other places on the map.”

In an era when public galleries are being forced to reconsider their historic reliance on the work of white male artists, Verna was at the forefront of convincingly diverse programming, showing a range of strong global artists and matching their work with that of Canadian contemporaries. For example, the winter 2019 exhibitions gave the rising Senegalese artist Omar Ba his first institutional show, introduced Canadians to the veteran Black American artist Alicia Henry (a show that then toured to three Canadian venues) and added a major show for the Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona to that mix.

Behind the scenes, Power Plant staff were not happy, and voted to unionize in March, 2021. A union representative inside the gallery, whom The Globe and Mail is not naming because the staffer fears jeopardizing first-contract negotiations with Harbourfront, said the Power Plant board sent a letter to employees just before the vote, urging them to say no to unionization. The representative said neither Harbourfront nor the Power Plant board were addressing their complaints, and that gallery attendants – who are paid $15.50 an hour – and installation technicians were not invited to participate in the workplace review.

The Power Plant’s former board members defend the review, saying 14 people were interviewed – full-time staff number 25 out of a total of about 50 – and that issues of consultation and feedback were addressed. They were puzzled as to why Harbourfront discouraged them from pursuing the review. Braye said Harbourfront did not consider that the review followed proper procedures.

The remaining board members packed it in a few days after Verna’s departure.

“We felt the mass resignation was the only thing we had left,” said former board chair Jacques Bernier. “We resigned en masse to make sure the gesture would be looked at very carefully by the community and by stakeholders.”

Braye said that Harbourfront plans to reconstitute a much smaller board for the gallery, with a maximum of 15 members. She said there would no longer be an even split between independent and Harbourfront-appointed candidates, but declined to specify any further.

Meanwhile, Verna starts her new job in Ohio on Nov. 15, but her words to a CBC radio interviewer last week now sound prophetic.

“It’s always better to leave on a high note than to leave before someone kicks you out,” she said. “The next person who comes in, hopefully does not dismantle but takes it forward.”