Heritage minister asked to step in amid staff departures from National Gallery

Earlier this month, the National Gallery of Canada told its employees via a brief internal memo that four senior staffers were leaving due to a restructuring. (Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Earlier this month, the National Gallery of Canada told its employees via a brief internal memo that four senior staffers were leaving due to a restructuring. (Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada - image credit)

A parliamentary committee member is calling for transparency from Canada's premier art institution following recent and very public staff turmoil — and he's imploring Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez to step in.

"It's important that the minister, because [he] has an overseeing role for our cultural institutions, get the answers to questions that many people are asking," said Peter Julian, the NDP MP for New Westminster-Burnaby and a member of the standing committee on Canadian heritage, in an interview Monday with Radio-Canada.

Earlier this month, the National Gallery of Canada told its employees via a brief internal memo that four senior staffers — including its long-serving senior curator of Indigenous art, Greg A. Hill — were leaving due to "a restructuring within the organization."

In the memo, which surfaced on social media the gallery's interim director and CEO Angela Cassie said the "workforce changes" would help the publicly funded arts institution "better align the gallery's leadership team with the organization's new strategic plans."

News about the four staff exits came less than six months after the departure of Sasha Suda, who left her role as the Ottawa institution's chief operating officer and director in July.

In addition to Hill, the gallery's chief curator — the first woman to permanently hold the position — its director of conservation and technical research, and its senior manager of communications were also said to be affected by the restructuring.

Hill told CBC he felt he was pushed out for asking questions about the gallery's approach to Indigenous ways and decolonization.

The gallery declined a request last week to provide more information about the staff departures and stated in the memo that it could not discuss personnel matters for privacy reasons.

7 ex-staffers pen letter to minister

Julian called on Rodriguez to become involved after seven former gallery employees expressed their concerns about the recent staff changes. They co-signed a letter to Rodriguez last week that was also sent to the media and the chair of the gallery's board of trustees.

The letter stated that, combined with at least 10 prior "dismissals," mostly under Suda's tenure, the recent departures left a number of key positions vacant and created a "high degree of internal uncertainty and instability" within the gallery.

It also complains about money allegedly spent on consultants, retirement packages for people who took early retirement in 2022, and non-disclosure agreements for dismissed employees, saying the alleged expenditures represent "a significant burden for a Crown corporation."

None of the allegations has been proven.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

A spokesperson for the gallery told CBC on Saturday that it was still reviewing the contents of the letter and that an interview would not be immediately available. On Tuesday, a spokesperson said that the gallery was still not able to comment.

The ministry said it, too, was reviewing the letter but that the gallery, like other Crown corporations, operates at arms-length, is responsible for its own day-to-day operations and has its own oversight board.

"Canadians have high expectations of their cultural institutions. We expect the gallery and all Crown corporations to be inclusive, safe, and reflect the best of Canada," a ministry spokesperson said via email.

"I cannot get involved in those things," Rodriguez told CBC Tuesday.

Worries about attrition 

Charles Hill, who signed the letter, said the situation raises doubts about the gallery's ability to recruit new blood.

"Does somebody want to come within the current climate at the National Gallery?" he asked in an interview.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Diana Nemiroff also signed the letter. In a separate interview, she said she wants the affected positions to remain protected and be filled quickly.

"There's been attrition in various levels in various areas of the gallery, either through early departures or simply people leaving of their own accord or layoffs … that have potentially weakened the research capacity of the gallery," she said.

"When we weaken the research capacity, we also weaken the gallery's ability to put on important public programming."

Both expressed concern with the loss of a Greg A. Hill from what Charles Hill called "a very important position in the current climate."

Overshadowing positive steps

Gabrielle Moser, an art historian at York University, agreed that Hill's departure was surprising, pointing to the creation of his role as a groundbreaking moment for the gallery.

But she said talk of his exit has overshadowed recent positive developments, including the launch earlier this year of the gallery's department of Indigenous ways and decolonization.

"Two newly hired people are still there directing that work," Moser said, adding that the gallery just hired an associate curator who is Inuk and hails from Nunavut.

"I worry that the big, big reaction [the staff departures are] getting is from an old guard who wants to keep things the way they were, and that folks are not willing to see that this might be a necessary stage in changing the gallery so that it is more meaningful to a greater number of people."

Read the seven former gallery staffers' letter below.