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Restructuring at The Rooms worries St. John's arts community

Some members of the arts community are concerned that art gallery space will eventually be decreased at The Rooms.
Some members of the arts community are concerned that art gallery space will eventually be decreased at The Rooms.

Members of the arts community have been worried about restructuring at The Rooms for nearly a year, and a management shift earlier this month is stoking those fears.

Anne Chafe will continue to serve as director of The Rooms museum, and recently she was quietly appointed as permanent director of the art gallery as well.

The Rooms is home to the provincial art gallery, museum and archives, which sometimes gives rise to tensions, as those three distinct entities exist under the same roof.

Last fall, the legislature passed amendments to The Rooms Act that would allow for easier restructuring and removing the requirement for separate divisions and directors.

At the time, and repeatedly over the past year, there were assurances from The Rooms and from the government that no changes would be made without consulting the arts community and the public.

But then Chafe was appointed to the dual museum/gallery directorship with no consultations.

Rooms CEO Dean Brinton said the changes were purely administrative, and the art gallery would still retain its autonomy, but Dave Andrews with Visual Arts NL (VANL) was skeptical.

“There were promises made for consultations, and that didn’t happen, so it’s hard to know. I think there’s a fear that these promises won’t be upheld as well,” Andrews said.

Brinton said Chafe is suited to handling the paper shuffle that comes with a Crown corporation — human resources, financial planning, complaints with the Public Tender Act and such.

“This is a way to make administrative functions more efficient. We’re a Crown corporation. There’s a lot of bureaucracy in Crown corporations,” Brinton said.

“There will be no change in the exhibition programming of the art gallery.”

In fact, he said the move frees up enough money to increase the budget for art gallery exhibitions by $50,000, and hire two curators for the gallery instead of one.

Jane Severs, executive director of the Association of Heritage Industries, said there are also worries that the museum will begin to crowd out the art gallery.

“The museum doesn’t have any temporary exhibit space anymore, because they used up the last of that when they created the Beaumont Hamel exhibit,” Severs said.

“I can see somebody saying, ‘Well, maybe the art gallery doesn’t need that third gallery space. Maybe we can change that into a shared public programming space,’ and then suddenly the arts community has lost a venue for their work.”

On that point, Brinton said The Rooms absolutely won’t infringe on any of the current art gallery space.

“That has never been considered. We want more gallery space for visual art,” he said.

“I will give you that commitment right now, quote me on it, please.”

More broadly, Severs said it’s up to The Rooms to be more transparent, to assuage the concerns of the arts community.

“Unless they open up and start talking about these changes with the sector, the logical response is that people are going to be concerned,” she said.

“The CEO of The Rooms has forgotten that he’s a public servant, and it’s not a private institution.”

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