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National Gallery departures reflect 'necessary' change, says interim CEO

Angela Cassie took over as interim director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa this past summer. Now she's fielding concerns about recent staff departures at the gallery.  (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
Angela Cassie took over as interim director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa this past summer. Now she's fielding concerns about recent staff departures at the gallery. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

The interim director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa says recent staff departures, which have sparked concern among former employees and critics, reflect the need for change at the country's premier arts institution.

"Transformation is necessary, and I recognize that for some, that understanding about this need for change is not shared," Angela Cassie said in an interview with CBC on Friday.

Cassie, who took over as head of the Ottawa-based institution last July, is speaking one week after a letter written by seven former gallery workers was made public and sent to Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

The letter claimed key positions at the gallery were vacant in the wake of four recent departures, as well as at least 10 previous staff exits under the tenure of former CEO and director Sasha Suda.

The four more recent departures included the gallery's long-serving senior curator of Indigenous art. its chief curator, its director of conservation and technical research, and its senior manager of communications, according to an internal memo that surfaced publicly and cited "a restructuring within the organization."

While declining to get into specifics about individual employees, Cassie said the gallery has been and is welcoming new team members "who are contributing their skill, knowledge and expertise to moving us forward."

"In this process, we're also including voices that have been historically excluded from this institution," she said.

Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada
Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada

Earlier this year, the gallery launched a new department of Indigenous ways and decolonization.

"That team is growing and they will be caring and leading the curatorial work through this transition and will be working collaboratively to implement our commitments to Indigenous people," Cassie said.

Eliminating the position of chief curator of Indigenous art is tied to the evolution of the new department, she added.

"It is leading us to look at different ways of working in different structures," she said.

Responding to concern about NDAs

The letter from ex-workers also complained the gallery has allegedly spent money on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), retirement packages and consultants' fees that represent "a significant burden for a Crown corporation."

When asked about NDAs, Cassie said she was "not at liberty to begin discussing individual agreements."

One of the letter co-signees, Diana Nemiroff — who previously worked at the gallery for over two decades — said NDAs are not standard practice.

Gabrielle Moser, an art historian at York University, said in her experience NDAs are "now exceedingly common in the world of visual arts."

"I've heard increasingly of people who need to sign NDAs in order to even accept a contract at most cultural festivals, cultural organizations, or non-profits in the Canadian art world these days," Moser said.