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U.S. First Lady Jill Biden and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau visit the 'Uninvited' exhibit, celebrating Canadian women artists, at the National Gallery in Ottawa on March 24. The nation's premier visual arts institution has been in turmoil since it initiated a diversity and inclusion overhaul.ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Consulting companies had profound influence on the National Gallery of Canada’s reimagining over the past few years, with senior management relying on hired guns to help craft the new identity of the country’s premier visual arts institution, documents released through access-to-information requests reveal.

The documents paint a picture of the extent to which two consulting companies – one headquartered in Vancouver and focused on diversity and inclusion, the other a California-based change management firm – shaped the gallery’s new focus, operations and culture.

The contracts began in the spring of 2020, shortly after Sasha Suda became director of the gallery (she left last summer to run the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Under Ms. Suda’s leadership, and under current interim director Angela Cassie, the gallery embarked on a reinvention intended to make the institution, its collection and its staff more diverse and inclusive.

Management viewed this as an overdue step toward restoring the gallery’s relevance and correcting its blinkered past. Current and former staff members and donors have criticized the project as well-intentioned but poorly executed, and they have said it left the institution in disarray.

In May, 2020, the gallery signed a contract with NOBL Collective, a change management consultancy based in California, for strategic planning work, at an initial cost of $95,000. As the scope of its work expanded, NOBL would eventually bill the gallery $632,500 over two-and-a-half years, making it the single biggest line item among the museum’s outside contractors during that time.

The documents, which were obtained by researcher Ken Rubin and shared with The Globe and Mail, include an initial proposal in which NOBL wrote that the gallery was “in the midst of a sea change” that represented “a moment of uncertainty but also of rebirth.”

“You have many of the right ingredients: a dedicated team, hungry for direction and empowerment; a rich history and story; a world-class collection; a new Director willing to do what it takes,” NOBL wrote. “We would be honoured to help your team make it happen.”

The documents detail a program of one-on-one interviews with senior management and other team members, as well as surveys and strategic planning sessions focused on topics such as “Sensing, Vision and Bet Making.”

Eventually, the scope of NOBL’s work became all-encompassing. The consultancy laid out plans and timelines for defining the museum’s values and crafting its “change narrative.” It said it would create working groups and synthesize for the gallery what it heard from them; communicate with the board of trustees, department heads and team leads; align blue-sky strategic ideas with budgets and staffing; even design and help to deliver the all-staff meetings in which the new vision would be shared.

The result was a strategic plan titled Transform Together. Unveiled in 2021, it is the spine on which the museum’s new direction rests.

“The Gallery’s strategic transformation is about how we can better develop, preserve and present our collection for the learning and enjoyment of generations to come,” said Douglas Chow, the gallery’s director of communications. NOBL “did not have the expertise required” to incorporate a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) approach, so NOBL recommended Elevate Inclusion Strategies as a subcontractor to its own work, he said, and the two jointly helped to craft the strategic plan.

Getting some specialized help with strategic development is fine, said Richard Powers, who teaches governance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, but it should always be an institution’s own management that does the heavy lifting.

“It appears that management has handed off all the work to the consultants: tell us what we should do,” he said of the gallery. “Any consultant will never know as much as management – that is why management must be intimately involved in the development of the strategic plan.”

In August, 2020, Ms. Suda wrote a confidential memo explaining the gallery’s reasons for embarking on this work, and why it required sole-sourced contracts rather than the usual competitive bid process. When the pandemic struck, the gallery was forced to close and most employees shifted to working remotely, she wrote, and at the same time the gallery was affected by “various social movements that catapulted the necessity of diversity and inclusion review and reconciliation with BIPOC groups.”

The unusual pandemic circumstances and the “extremely sensitive nature of the subject matter” justified an exception to the standard procurement processes, Ms. Suda concluded. The following month, she wrote a virtually identical memo laying out the need to sole-source work from Elevate, which is based in Vancouver.

One year later, in September, 2021, Ms. Cassie – then vice-president of strategic transformation and inclusion at the gallery – wrote a more detailed confidential memo explaining the reasoning for an additional sole-sourced contract with Elevate.

Elevate had conducted an assessment of the gallery’s inclusion environment, and “significant differences in the level of knowledge and understanding amongst the team” became apparent, Ms. Cassie wrote. Among the key recommendations from Elevate was that the gallery remedy this. Because Elevate staff had already built a relationship with gallery employees, Ms. Cassie wrote, the company was “well positioned to create a safe and positive environment” for the ongoing work.

Mr. Powers said this process – with Elevate conducting an assessment of the gallery, then producing a report that effectively recommended further services provided by Elevate – appears odd.

“They are in a clear conflict of interest and the National Gallery should have gone to a competitive bid to avoid the conflict or the perception of a conflict,” he said. “Elevate may be the best company to do this type of work – and a competitive bid could have come to that conclusion.”

Asked for additional context on the sole-sourced contracts, Mr. Chow replied with sections of the internal memos on that topic. He added that the board was aware of the contracts. “The Elevate team had built that trust using a trauma informed approach and had the knowledge and expertise to carry on the next phases of work without requiring employees to retell stories of their trauma and racism experienced within the workplace to new people,” he said.

The gallery subsequently signed a contract with Elevate for $352,200. That fee included a retainer of $10,000 per month from September to February, 2022, for services including the development of a “JEDI working group,” meeting with gallery leadership or other consultants as needed, attending staff meetings and assisting with the onboarding of new staff. The hourly cost and hours of work covered by the retainer are redacted in the documents, because access-to-information laws permit public bodies to withhold those details about their private contractors.

Elevate’s contract also included a coaching program described as “a deep dive for senior leadership and management who wish to develop and practice critical inclusive leadership skills,” and the development and delivery of a suite of inclusive workplace training modules.

In June, 2021, the gallery again turned to NOBL, this time for a more targeted project that hinted at tensions behind the scenes. There had been near-total turnover among the gallery’s senior leadership since Ms. Suda’s arrival.

In its proposal, NOBL wrote that the gallery had evolved a great deal over the previous year, and now, with its new team members in place, it was time to focus on “engaging in productive, courageous conversations.”

“While conflict is a necessary part of our day to day existence on a team, both emotions and assumptions take the lead when we’re not paying attention,” NOBL wrote. “You’d like the team to improve their ability to separate the people from the problem and create space for learning for all involved.”

To that end, NOBL would design and deliver a four-hour team-building workshop for the seven members of the gallery’s senior management committee, at a cost of $15,000. The topics included conflict style, giving and receiving feedback and empathy perspective.

“Even though the session will be half a day, we’d request that SMC members clear their full day calendars to allow time to process conversations and bring their full presence to the session,” NOBL wrote to the gallery. “Development experiences should feel like an opportunity to slow down and set yourself up for success.”

Embedded below is the full set of documents the Globe and Mail reviewed on the National Gallery of Canada’s contracts with NOBL Collective and Elevate Inclusion Strategies. The documents also contain contracts with AREA 17, a New York-based design agency, for the gallery’s rebranding.

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