The National Gallery of Canada spent more than $2-million on severance payments over a period of two and a half years, not including payments to four senior staff members let go in the fall, as it parted ways with employees during a push to reorient itself around a new inclusion-focused mission.
The publicly funded gallery has been roiled by controversy in recent months, with current and former staff members and donors saying that its deep focus on diversity is a laudable goal whose poor execution has left the institution in disarray and weakened its commitment to art. Its patterns of spending, revealed in documents obtained through access-to-information requests, suggest high staff turnover and substantial outlays on recruitment, employee education and efforts to reshape the institution’s internal culture and organization.
The documents lay out all of the gallery’s spending on consultants and outside service providers between April, 2019 and October, 2022. From a total of $10.7-million spent on contracts over that time, $1.4-million went to human resources services, such as recruitment and training, and $1.2-million went to diversity, inclusion and change-management consultants. None of the museum’s other categories of contract spending consumed as much money, aside from exhibition costs of $1.3-million.
More than one-third of the spending on human resources was billed to Lafrenière Consulting Inc. The company is owned by Tania Lafrenière, who has been working on contract at the National Gallery for more than two years as both director of human resources and interim chief operating officer. She billed $512,762, making her company the second-largest overall line item in the gallery’s list of contractors over those two and a half years.
Her payments are eclipsed only by the $632,500 billed by NOBL Collective, a change-management firm contracted to provide “organization and culture design and strategic planning, new ideation.” Elevate Inclusion Strategies, another consultancy, hired for “development of staff cultural competency related to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion,” billed $364,915. The $1-million combined billed to those two companies represents the vast majority of the $1.2-million the gallery spent on diversity, inclusion and change consultants.
Victor Rabinovitch, a fellow at the school of policy studies at Queen’s University and a former chief executive of what is now the Canadian Museum of History, said $1-million is a large amount of money for one component of managerial costs at a cultural institution over two and a half years. The documents also show that the gallery’s human resources costs rose over that period. Those things combined suggest a certain momentum to him.
“That is the financial evidence of what you call cleaning house,” he said. “Clearly, this represents new leadership who are saying, ‘We’re going to have a big shakeup in this place.’”
The documents include information on all severance packages dating back to April 19, 2019, shortly after the previous director, Sasha Suda, took over. She was replaced in July by interim director Angela Cassie.
The gallery declined to provide details on the severance payments, on the grounds that they constitute personal information, but it supplied the aggregate total: $2,073,629 paid to former employees over the two and a half years leading up to October, 2022, when the access-to-information request was made.
The documents do not include any severance paid to four senior staff members who were dismissed a month later, including the Audain senior curator of Indigenous art, Greg Hill. Mr. Hill has been outspoken about his belief that he was let go because of a power struggle, and because he had criticized the way the gallery was going about the project of decolonization.
“We are fully operational,” the gallery’s director of communications, Douglas Chow, said in response to a question about the severance payments. “Like many major museums around the world, such as the Tate, the National Gallery of Canada has articulated a vision, through a five-year roadmap, for real and sustainable renewal and evolution in all aspects of our work.”
In response to a question about the patterns of spending, and the allegations that the gallery has lost its focus on art, Mr. Chow highlighted upcoming exhibitions and the value of artworks the institution has acquired by donation or purchased recently, as well as the fact that attendance has been above projections. He also pointed out that spending on contracts is a small portion of the gallery’s operating budget.
According to its most recent annual report, for the 2021-22 fiscal year, the National Gallery had total expenses of $75.8-million, up from $67.6-million the previous year. Only $22.4-million of that was covered by revenue. The difference was made up with a $56.2-million contribution from Parliament, leaving a small operational surplus.
“Let’s be clear: our strategic transformation is about art, namely, developing and preserving our collection for learning and enjoyment by generations to come,” Mr. Chow said in a statement.
Beginning under Ms. Suda and continuing under Ms. Cassie, the gallery embarked on a reimagining intended to cultivate more diversity in its staff, its visitors and the art in its care, with a particular emphasis on “Indigenous ways of knowing and being.” The gallery’s management sees this transition as necessary to correct historical wrongs and preserve the institution’s relevance. Gallery leadership has characterized the criticism of its approach as resistance to change.
Critics, on the other hand, say the upheaval and vacancies in key jobs are undermining the institution and its staff. At a staff meeting in January, employees peppered Ms. Cassie with questions about what they saw as a bewildering reorganization of personnel and departments.
In both absolute dollars and as a proportion of contract spending at the gallery, human resources services have grown substantially. The gallery spent $165,349 in the 2019-20 fiscal year on services such as recruitment, employee training and career coaching, and $294,471 the following year. Then spending surged to $578,619 in 2021-22. Proportionally, human resources services rose from 7 per cent of contract spending in the 2019-20 fiscal year to 21 per cent for the first seven months of the current fiscal year, up until the access-to-information request was filed.
Mr. Chow said that, as in other sectors, the pandemic “significantly disrupted” the gallery’s workforce, leading to higher than normal turnover. Now that things have stabilized, it is building its team with new hires, he added.
“We will continue to offer transformative artistic experiences, both in person and online, that are even more accessible, inclusive, and relevant to all,” Mr. Chow said. “Presenting and collecting art responsibly is about adding – not removing – voices to our existing rich collection.”
Other large categories of contract spending for the National Gallery include marketing and branding ($857,025 over two and a half years); the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale ($849,542); artist and reproduction fees ($745,102); and IT, apps and social media ($647,031).