Architects of reform

PAMELA YOUNG October 6 1986

Architects of reform

PAMELA YOUNG October 6 1986

Architects of reform


Magnificent and expensive, the new homes of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (formerly the Museum of Man) and the National Gallery of Canada are rising from the banks of the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill. Already, most of the rose granite blocks are in place on the elegant, angular new National Gal-

lery, and the building is on schedule for its July, 1988, opening. The Canadian Museum of Civilization—a daring complex of supple organic curves—is less advanced, partly because of a lengthy labor dispute, now resolved. But its architect, Edmonton’s Douglas Cardinal, is clearly pleased. On a recent tour of the site, he ran his hands over the limestone exterior and commented: “It’s wonderful stone. Look at the fossils in it.”

But last week, as construction proceeded, the National Museums task force report requested a demolition

permit for another massive structure: the National Museums of Canada (NMC), which has a $70-million budget and helped plan the two projects. In fact, the bluntly worded report described the NMC’s administrative system as “inefficient, costly and almost unworkable.”

Ottawa created the NMC in 1968, in an era of centralization and expansion. The new organization was empowered to manage and co-ordinate the national capital region’s four national museums —the National Gallery, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the National Museum of Natural Sciences and the National Museum of Science and Technology. In 1972 the Crown corporation’s mandate was expanded: it began providing grants to the 1,900 museums and public art galleries across Canada, as well as national service programs such as mobile exhibits.

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But almost from the beginning the corporation generated complaints, power struggles and red tape. One museum director told the task force hearings that his assistant had been called to attend 735 meetings of the corporation in one year. And I the corporation often I tried to apply across5 the-board solutions to Idiffering problems. All four national museums, noted William

McGowan, director of the National Museum of Science and Technology, have the same security system. “It’s designed to prevent people from running off with a six-inch-square Rembrandt,” McGowan said. “But we don’t need the same kind of guarding. No one’s going to run off with a train.” The imperatives of running a bureaucracy left museum directors little time to address the pressing problems of their own institutions. The converted office building that has housed the National Gallery for 26 years is notoriously cramped, while the Muse-

um of Civilization is currently storing some of its artifacts in a condemned warehouse. Said John McAvity, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association: “These national institutions have become national disgraces.” The result, declared Brydon Smith, assistant director of the National Gallery, is that “the public are the losers. The staff’s energy is going into dealing with bureaucracy rather than creating more exciting programs.”

The tempestuous relationship between the NMC and the national museums directors became public this summer. On Aug. 9 the Ottawa Citizen published a confidential submission to the task force from Léo Dorais, secretary general of the NMC.

Dorais charged that “the atmosphere is poisoned at one of the component museums,” and said that “a change of personnel would clear the air.” His statements were assumed by observers to be references to the National Gallery and its thendirector, Joseph Martin.

Two days later the Citizen published Martin’s own confidential task force submission, which charged that Dorais and others had violated the NMC’s bylaws by attempting to assume direct control of the National’s library.

Their power struggle ended on Aug. 22, when Martin resigned as the Na-

tional Gallery’s director, citing ill health. But Martin took the opportunity to note that concern for his own “professional integrity as a director within the National Museums corporation” contributed to his departure.

According to the task force, much of the blame does indeed lie with the NMC. Task force co-chairmen William Withrow, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Clément Richard, a former Quebec minister of culture, recommend restoring the autonomy that all four institutions once enjoyed. They also urge Ottawa to reduce or eliminate most of the corporation’s services, redirecting the money to Canada’s other museums and galleries. Responsibility for its programs, the task force says, should belong to the minister of communications.

But even if those recommendations are

0 adopted—and observers

1 say that they will be— g other political storms lie

ahead. Originally budgeted at $93,300,000 each, the National Gallery alone is now expected to cost $112 million. The price tag for the larger, more structurally challenging Museum of Civilization is estimated at $104 million so far. Still, the view from new sites is an increasingly appealing one. Gazing across the river, architect

Cardinal described his work as “stepping out into the unknown.” The same challenging prospect now faces Canada’s national museum showcases.