The National Gallery of Canada’s interim director is leaving her post, an announcement made just days before the museum is expected to name a new permanent director – its third leader over the past four years of upheaval amid a contentious transformation.
The NGC on Wednesday sent a memo to staff with news of Angela Cassie’s departure. In the internal e-mail, obtained by The Globe and Mail, Françoise Lyon, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, praised Ms. Cassie’s work at the country’s premier visual-arts institution and said that her last day will be June 9.
Ms. Lyon also indicated that an announcement was coming “soon” about the federal appointment of a new permanent director and chief executive officer for the NGC. The update had originally been expected around the end of March, but has been delayed. Ms. Cassie took over as interim director in July, 2022, after her predecessor, Sasha Suda, left three years into her five-year contract.
A few days before Ms. Cassie’s departure was announced, the results of a workplace survey were released internally that showed employees’ feelings of confidence in the leadership of the NGC had declined since a previous staff survey in 2018.
Ms. Suda became director in 2019 and initiated a sweeping new inclusive vision for the NGC. Outside consultants working on contract helped to craft a five-year strategic plan to serve as the backbone of an overhaul of the entire institution that was intended to cultivate more diversity in the museum’s staff, its visitors and the art in its care, with a particular emphasis on “Indigenous ways of knowing and being.”
Management saw this transition as necessary to correct historical wrongs and preserve the museum’s relevance for the future. Critics, including donors and current and former employees, said that while the goal was commendable, it had been executed poorly, alienating staff and throwing the institution into disarray.
Ms. Suda quit the NGC to become director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art last summer. Prior to taking over as interim director, Ms. Cassie had served as the NGC’s chief strategy and inclusion officer.
As board chair, Ms. Lyon has been a staunch ally of both directors and the renewal process they have undertaken. Management and the board have characterized criticism of the museum’s new direction as being inherently about resistance to change, and Ms. Lyon took aim at that pushback in her memo.
“The board has overseen this transformative direction and supported it throughout the public and internal challenges we’ve endured,” she wrote. “Because it is necessary.”
Ms. Lyon highlighted a “collection gap analysis” that suggested the gallery’s vaults were short on work by women artists, and the fact that less than 10 per cent of the museum’s visitors are Indigenous, Black or racialized – compared with 22 per cent of the population and 33 per cent of people who live in Ottawa. She also pointed out that as of 2021, less than 9 per cent of the NGC’s staff identified as visible minorities.
Ms. Cassie had come to the NGC from a decade at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
“Angela was looking for an opportunity to return home and will be moving back to Winnipeg, after a year of being in Ottawa, to start a new leadership position in Manitoba,” Ms. Lyon said in response to questions from The Globe. The NGC said it could not disclose Ms. Cassie’s job as her new employer has not yet announced it.
The results of an NGC workplace survey released internally earlier this week hint at the tension that has been building behind the scenes.
In response to the statement, “I have confidence in the senior management of the NGC to lead the organization to achieve its stated goals and priorities,” only 26 per cent of staff agreed. Another 28 per cent felt neutral, and 47 per cent disagreed.
A minority (45 per cent) of staff were satisfied with how “interpersonal work issues” were resolved in their department. Asked if they received useful feedback from their supervisor about their performance, 57 per cent agreed, and on the issue of whether “unsatisfactory employee performance” was managed effectively, just 33 per cent of employees agreed.
The proportion of employees who felt positively about every one of those statements declined between three and 19 percentage points from a staff survey five years ago. The largest drops were in employees’ feelings of confidence in the leadership of the NGC and in the usefulness of feedback they received from their supervisors.
Over the same time period, the proportion of employees who said they had faced any kind of harassment on the job rose from 21 per cent to 28 per cent this year.
Over the past few years, the NGC has spent more than $2-million on severance payments for departing employees as it pursued its inclusion-focused mission. It also spent significant sums on outside consultants who shaped nearly every aspect of the gallery’s new identity and approach.
Staff have questioned widespread vacancies, particularly in jobs that directly deal with the museum’s collection, leading to concern that the institution has lost its core focus on art.