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There were smiles all around when the hero of the Canada's most recent cultural catastrophe stood beside Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda at the Canadian Museums Association's annual conference in Ottawa on Thursday. Cameras captured Oda congratulating Robert Steven, the quick-thinking curator of the Prairie Art Gallery in Grande Prairie, Alta., for saving art and, more importantly, human life when the gallery roof sagged under melting snow and collapsed on March 19.

When Steven arrived at the building (a heritage brick school rebuilt in 1984 as a public art gallery) at 8 a.m. that morning, he noticed a puddle on the floor of the exhibition hall, and a bulge in the ceiling tiles. While hauling paintings out of the gallery, he called to alert the pre-school daycare that used part of the building's space; he also called the city to shut off the gas. Thanks to Steven, who had attended a conference on emergency preparedness at the previous year's CMA conference, barricades were up before the roof came crashing down.

The images of the twisted wreckage -- screened to gasps in the convention hall at the Chateau Laurier -- reminded many of the 650 museum delegates of their own buildings' dire need of repairs. "Each one of you I know faces the same challenges," Oda told them.

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Still, the minister reiterated her government's position that cultural institutions must increasingly turn to the private sector for operating support. Canadian and U.S. museums get about a third of their revenues from the turnstile, she said. "Where we lag is in private-sector support . . . in Canada, it's just nine per cent. This is an area where significant growth is possible. And our government is committed to facilitating it."

Indeed, the Prairie Art Gallery is counting on the private sector -- in the form of insurance policies -- for its reconstruction. A $1.1-million federal cheque is en route, but it's not for repairs: It is earmarked for Grande Prairie's planned $30-million gallery expansion, a new public library and an underground parking lot. For directors of institutions with their own versions of sagging roofs, Oda's mention of this particular cheque offered scant comfort.

Oda reminded her audience that her government had come forward recently with money to help restore five national institutions, and staked a $10-million program over two years to enable museums to hire students as workers. However, there has been no move to restore the $2.5-million Ottawa previously trimmed from the Museums Assistance Program.

More troubling for the country's 2,500 museums is the fact that Ottawa has yet to produce a long-promised national museum policy. Instead, it all seems ad hoc. Last year, Oda and Prime Minister Stephen Harper handed over $30-million to a hitherto unknown institution, the Global Centre for Pluralism, still in the planning stage, while failing to deliver the $49-million that's needed to complete six major projects in Toronto. There's still no news on federal support for the proposed Ottawa home of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, or for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

After the minister's speech, CMA president Cal White presented Oda with a blue rubber boomerang inscribed with the words "museums policy" in both official languages. "You threw this boomerang out, but it will keep coming back until the promise is fulfilled," White told her. The minister looked surprised and tried to smile. But she left the boomerang behind.

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