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People stand outside the new Emily Carr University of Art and Design campus in Vancouver on Sept. 1, 2017.The Canadian Press

A scathing open letter to the president and board of governors of Emily Carr University of Art + Design expresses concern about the future of the institution’s gallery after what it calls the sudden and ruthless dismissal of its long-time director. The letter has attracted prominent signatories from across Canada and around the world.

Cate Rimmer has been director of the Libby Leshgold Gallery since the university’s new Vancouver campus opened in 2017 and before that at the Charles H. Scott Gallery at ECU’s former home on Granville Island. She has been with the gallery since 1997. She was terminated as director, gallery and exhibitions, in late October. (Ms. Rimmer oversaw all of the gallery spaces and exhibitions at ECU, but its primary gallery is the Libby Leshgold, which also encompasses the on-campus art bookstore READ Books.)

The open letter warns the decision could have severe implications for the university and the visual art community – both local and nationally.

“At a time when the artistic community struggles to contend with serious challenges, it is alarming that the administration of Emily Carr has taken such inexplicable and unsupportable action, and that the future of the Libby Leshgold Gallery appears to be at fundamental risk. It is critical that the vision and autonomy of this essential cultural resource that has significantly helped to put Vancouver on a global artistic map be upheld,” states the letter, which calls upon ECU’s board to inform the artistic community of its plans for the gallery, which has been closed since March because of the pandemic.

Emily Carr University says the matter was a personnel issue and that the rest of the gallery staff remain in place. A spokesperson said a search for Ms. Rimmer’s replacement will begin in the new year after consultations with stakeholders and the community.

But the letter blasts ECU for its treatment of Ms. Rimmer, an award-winning veteran of Canada’s visual arts community, who had been with the institution for nearly 23 years.

“The termination of an esteemed professional without cause or rationale, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, breaches and undermines the trust placed in your institution,” states the letter, which was written by five stalwarts of the Vancouver visual arts community. “Furthermore, the ruthlessness with which Ms. Rimmer has been dismissed sends a message that the administration of ECU does not value its Gallery, nor the consequences of its action upon the communities it serves, let alone the negative impact on ECU’s reputation that the internationally respected gallery in no small way has helped to build.”

The letter was written by Scott Watson, director/curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia; the Belkin’s associate director Lorna Brown; Elspeth Pratt, the director of the school for contemporary arts at Simon Fraser University; and the Polygon Gallery’s chief curator Helga Pakasaar and director Reid Shier.

Prof. Watson told The Globe and Mail that the lack of transparency around Ms. Rimmer’s dismissal has been troubling. “The community is in the dark about this.” He also raised a concern that no acting director has been named.

Ms. Rimmer, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has curated shows involving hundreds of notable artists, including Brian Jungen’s first solo show. Born in Calgary and an Emily Carr alumna, Ms. Rimmer was the founding director of Vancouver’s art-run centre Artspeak Gallery, director of Calgary’s Truck Gallery and was a curator-in-residence at the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal. In 2015, she received the Alvin Balkind Curator’s Prize from the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation for the Visual Arts.

As of Thursday afternoon, the letter had attracted more than 280 signatories, including curators, academics and visual artists such as Mr. Jungen, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Rodney Graham and Turner Prize nominee Janice Kerbel. Other signatories include Toronto Biennial of Art senior curator Candice Hopkins, the University of Toronto Art Museum’s director Barbara Fischer and the director/curator of the Esker Foundation in Calgary, Naomi Potter.

A B.C. Arts Council program officer and retired B.C. Arts Council program officer also added their names.

In response to a request for an interview with ECU president and vice-chancellor Gillian Siddall or board chair Kim Peacock, the university’s director of communications e-mailed a statement to The Globe.

“ECU’s galleries play an incredibly important role, serving our university community while engaging with the cultural sector and the public. Although we can’t comment on individual employment matters, we are absolutely committed to a strong and vibrant future for our galleries and exhibitions,” Rob Maguire wrote.

“As we begin the search for new leadership in this area, we’ll be consulting with our community to learn how the university can best support the creation of inclusive and innovative gallery programs that reflect a wide diversity of voices.”