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The debate within The National Gallery, pictured on Jan. 17, hinges on its efforts to cultivate more diversity in its staff.Blair Gable/Blair Gable Photography

An all-staff meeting at the National Gallery of Canada this week provided a glimpse of a public institution in upheaval, with staffers asking pointed questions about a $300,000-a-year contract for an outside consultant, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Globe.

Controversy erupted around the gallery in the fall, when four senior staff members were let go and tensions around the museum’s current direction went public. On Monday, Angela Cassie, the interim director and chief executive officer, told staff that she wanted to acknowledge that the scrutiny had been tough on everyone.

“I’m all for difficult questions and questions around approach,” she said. “I think that what we have begun to see, however, is something that starts crossing a particular threshold and starts moving into an environment that is more personal in nature.”

Staff in the visitor and membership departments had received e-mails that were “difficult to read” or even racist and misogynist in nature, Ms. Cassie said, and her inbox had been subjected to the same nastiness.

The debate around the gallery hinges on its efforts to cultivate more diversity in its staff, visitors and the art in its care, with a particular emphasis on “Indigenous ways of knowing and being.” Management sees this transition as necessary to correct historical wrongs and preserve the museum’s relevance for the future. Critics say that while the goal is commendable, it’s been executed poorly, leaving staff alienated and the institution in disarray.

It was clear from the questions and comments in the Zoom meeting this week that many staff feel in the dark about the reorganization of personnel and departments, and concerned about how the museum’s work is being prioritized.

One person asked why staff were not informed that a consultant had been hired on contract to fulfill two senior management roles at once, and why that person was paid more than the director. Tania Lafrenière, the consultant in question – currently serving as both VP of People, Culture and Belonging and COO – volunteered to answer. She emphasized that her contract, which pays up to $306,150 a year, was standard for government institutions.

Ms. Lafrenière added that her contract stipulates that at the end of April, 2024, she would “replace myself” in both positions, and they would remain separate roles. Later, some staff members objected to the fact that Ms. Lafrenière had fielded that question, and Ms. Cassie apologized.

Other staffers questioned why departments were being reorganized, new positions created and – in at least one case – a preliminary lists of candidates drawn up for a senior role, when a new director was about to be hired who should make those decisions. Ms. Cassie stressed that the candidate list was a starting point to let the new director hit the ground running, and that the new museum boss would be free to redesign staffing as they wished.

The org chart itself was the subject of multiple questions. A new one had been briefly posted to the gallery’s website the week before the meeting, but then swiftly removed, which Ms. Cassie said was because it contained errors. One employee questioned why they had not been provided with the new org chart when so much had changed, because staff members couldn’t ask questions about what they had not yet seen.

Ms. Cassie offered to convene another meeting after everyone had reviewed it.

Someone questioned what appeared to them to be a top-heavy staff structure, while rank-and-file positions were going vacant. “We’re lacking staff at staff-level positions to actually fulfill our mandate,” they said. “So I’m just questioning that and wondering why we need 16 director-level positions.”

Another employee said that much of the discussion around the gallery’s new direction has focused on the importance of having “brave conversations,” but staff members don’t feel like that’s happening because decisions are handed down that they don’t understand.

The National Gallery said in a statement on Friday night that its all-staff meetings are private and intended to be a safe space for staff to share their views openly.

“We provided update on staffing and discussed a version of the organizational chart that is currently under elaboration and has not yet been finalized,” the gallery said. “Generalizing the comments or concerns from a few people who expressed themselves in an all-staff meeting is misleading.”

During the meeting, Ms. Cassie told staff that employee surveys showed improvement in morale and engagement, but some areas remained “well below the average.” She characterized that as the normal growing pains of a place in transition. As for criticism of the gallery’s approach from outsiders, Ms. Cassie framed that as being rooted in resistance to progress, saying, “What we’re seeing is what pushback looks like.”

“We’re going to disagree, absolutely. What does it mean to be in a culture of accountability versus cancel culture? What does it mean to go hard on the topic, but soft on the people?” she said. “I recognize that there is a fear that comes with change and uncertainty. And when we’re talking about a sense of belonging, there may be people who feel that they belong somehow less, that they’re going to lose a seat at the table.”

Ms. Cassie said news coverage over the last few months had been hard on her own family and friends. She noted that her mother’s family had fled Stalin’s brutality in Ukraine in the 1930s, and her father’s family had suffered under the repressive regime of Duvalier in Haiti. And so it was “deeply hurtful and deeply insulting” to have her leadership of the museum compared to Stalin, she said, referencing comments Marc Mayer, the previous director of the museum, made in an interview.

“I share that because I’m not the only one with that lived experience,” she said.

Ms. Cassie told staff that the open posting for a permanent director and CEO had been extended by a few weeks, and the board of trustees hoped to name the new head of the gallery around the end of the fiscal year in March or soon after.

The meeting occurred on the final day of the museum’s annual two-week closing for maintenance work. The next regular all-staff meeting is slated to happen in approximately two months.