National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

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The Gallery and Government: the Larger Context

by Hsio-Yen Shih

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  

In my first annual review as Director, I commented on certain principles and objectives that all art museums have in common; I commented as well on some differences between the National Gallery of Canada and its counterparts in other countries. During the past year I have become more aware of how different the Gallery's position is as part of a federal cultural agency operating in the distinctive governmental structure that is Canada's. In this second Annual Bulletin, I shall try to describe the larger context within which the Gallery functions. Public understanding of these complexities is important, especially for an awareness of responsibilities and powers at all levels of government.

In March of 1968, the National Museums Act proclaimed the National Gallery of Canada a part of the National Museums of Canada. The Gallery, which was described as a museum of fine arts, thus became a part of a Crown Corporation which is scheduled as a departmental corporation (under the Secretary of State) and is described as "...servant or agent of Her Majesty in right of Canada and is responsible for administrative, supervisory or regulatory services of a governmental nature." The Privy Council Office's 1977 proposals further state that such departmental corporations' 'have been constituted in such a way that they are under more or less continuous government scrutiny and control."

Policy matters, not only for the National Gallery of Canada but also for all other national museums, are determined by the Board of Trustees of the Corporation subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. The director of a national museum has "on behalf of the Board, the direction of the activities of the museum for which he [sic] is appointed director." The Secretary-General of the Corporation has, "on behalf of the Board, the direction and management of the business of the Corporation in all matters that are not...specifically reserved to the Board, a committee of the Board or a director of a museum."

Ideally, this structure implies that the people of Canada are the ultimate authority. As the electorate, they choose the government of which the Secretary of State is the spokesman for cultural affairs. This Minister in turn delegates some of his or her responsibilities and powers to the Boards of Trustees of crown corporations within his or her department. Further levels of delegation to committees and executive officers are decided by Boards of Trustees.

Practically, this structure is meant to ensure accountability. The 1977 Privy Council Office proposals emphasized "the relationships between the government and Crown corporations on one hand, and Crown corporations and Parliament on the other." First in its list of elements "integral to the clarification of these relationships" is "the role of Crown corporations in the pursuit of policy objectives and government priorities." Since March of 1972, the policy directive for the National Museums of Canada has been the then Secretary of State's goals of "democratization and decentralization."

In the fiscal year under review, the government requested budget submissions which resulted in a 2.3 per cent cut in the operating budget for 1978-1979, and would result in a 36 per cent cut in 1979-1980. The Government of Canada ordered the budget reductions and the Board of Trustees of the National Museums of Canada determined how these cuts were to be made, taking into account the advice of directors of the national museums and the Secretary-General. In the case of the Gallery, two fundamental responsibilities were considered. First, the existence of the National Gallery of Canada depends upon its collections and their care, and therefore upon the people to whom such care is entrusted. Second, the function of the National Gallery of Canada is to provide Canadians with the opportunity to experience art through exhibitions, publications and other educational activities; thus its programmes provide services to the public.

Though the full effects of these cuts will not be felt until the next and subsequent fiscal years, the Gallery has already had to cancel or postpone all exhibitions and related programmes that were not already booked to or from other Canadian institutions. The irony is that in the effort to follow a government priority of cutting costs, the Gallery has had to modify a government policy objective of service to the public. Reduced funding means that the functions of planning and organization become even more important in ensuring the effectiveness of the Gallery's operations. Therefore, the Gallery began an administrative reorganization this year; while the Director has overall responsibility and, therefore, accountability, day-to-day operations have been divided into three spheres. An Assistant Director of Collections and Research will be supervisor of all study and work related to the works of art in our custody - curatorial, conservation and restoration, and registration activities, as well as library and research resources. A second Assistant Director of Public Programmes will supervise all aspects of exhibitions, publications, educational programmes, information services and relationships with other organizations. Finally, we retain the Assistant Director of Finance and Administration who supervises all fiscal matters and governmental administrative practices, including personnel relations. The incumbent has had a particularly harassing year bearing the burden of detailed computations for meeting government cutbacks.

But reductions in the Gallery's operating budget are only part of the problem; appropriations for acquiring new art works have not been increased since 1973, and inflation has seriously eroded the Gallery's purchasing power.

Given the rather dismal financial circumstances, the Gallery must be grateful that some basic work has been accomplished in the last few years. The Lorne Building's air-conditioning mixer-boxes and ceiling tiles have been entirely replaced. This required the removal and reinstallation of works in every gallery, but resulted in an entirely new look for the European collections. More works are now displayed - those similar in style grouped together and complemented by works in various media.

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