AGNS' portrait of problems | Arts + Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

AGNS' portrait of problems

No thanks to floods and economic crises, 2009 was a tough year for the underfunded and understaffed Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Ray Cronin has an office with a gaping picture window giving view to the provincial legislature across the street. After 18 months as director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Cronin's gone through the looking glass and is still winding his way through wonderland.

Running a provincial art institution, Cronin works with several government departments, starting with tourism, culture and heritage. There's also finance, transportation, infrastructure and renewal and the public service commission. There are agencies, including the treasury board. The AGNS itself is a provincial agency.

Not only does he work with people from these other sectors, he has to line up with them to seek provincial support. "We get a fixed allotment from the government and then we raise everything else," says Cronin.

In recent years, the Nova Scotia government has provided almost half of the gallery's $4 million budget; for 2008-09 it was around $1.8, roughly $1.97 in 2009-10. Cronin has asked for an increase of up to $2.5 million, but hopes for at least $2.1 million. Along with everyone else, he finds out in May. (Kelliann Dean, deputy minister for tourism, culture and heritage, who also sits on the AGNS board, could not be reached.)

As it stands now, the province's money covers staffing costs, the institution's single biggest expenditure, says Cronin. Employee salaries and benefits take up half of his $4-million budget. Cronin leads a staff of 24 people, including the newly minted chief curator Sarah Fillmore. Most of the AGNS' employees are civil servants---government workers. He's employed and paid by the gallery's board.

A recent agreement between the province and the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union, which converted temporary and part-time workers into full-time, permanent ones, came at "massive cost" to the province. Add in the global economic climate and Nova Scotia's weakened fiscal state, and Cronin doesn't hold out much hope for getting the province's approval to fill six vacancies.

The AGNS raises around $1.5 million annually through its own fundraising, says Cronin. But basic building operation and maintenance alone costs approximately $750,000. Then there's collections care, security and insurance. These are fixed costs, Cronin says, that must be paid for before the doors even open to the public. Deficits of several hundred thousand dollars occur.

"The AGNS has consistently been a problem child for the government," says Cronin. "We're a very alien culture to government and we're consistently underfunded."

The province provides no funds for acquisitions. Any work the gallery acquires happens through its own fundraising, from private donors and foundations, a Canada Council matching fund or as gifts from artists themselves. Still, the gallery presides over 15,000 pieces of art worth $54 million, according to the director and CEO. Rich in drawing, sculpture and installation, the permanent collection grew from 8,000 works during the five-year tenure of Cronin's predecessor, Jeffrey Spalding.

The AGNS found an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in HRM fitted with federally funded vertical racking and climate control systems. This allowed exhibition space that had been turned into storage space to be reclaimed.

Cronin, who worked under Spalding, has heard it suggested---by those in bureaucracy, not political office, he says---that selling off art could help cover costs. But Cronin counters the gallery doesn't own the collection---the province and its people do. Revenue from any sales would count toward provincial, not gallery, revenue. There's no guarantee it would come back to the AGNS.

"We take care of the province's art in a government building with government staff," Cronin says.

The state of that government building remains a concern. The AGNS is housed in two historic buildings---one north, another south, on Hollis Street, dating back to the 1860s and 1920s respectively. They're connected by a courtyard at street level. Below that sits the gallery's main exhibition space.

In January of this year Gallery One had to be closed after flooding. A combined "change in drainage patterns in the city" and the fact the space's foundation rests on "inconsistently thick" bedrock caused the flood, Cronin says, wearily summing up the problem. The AGNS had to withdraw this past summer from hosting a major exhibition. "We couldn't guarantee the environmental conditions," Cronin says. (Dalhousie Art Gallery opens a smaller version of the exhibition, Lord Dalhousie: Patron and Collector, on January 14.)

For now, the flooding problem isn't solved, but "mitigated," Cronin says. A system of sump pumps and piping to redirect errant water has been implemented.

Water and art do not mix. The AGNS must maintain 50-percent humidity and stable temperatures. Strict environmental controls are part of the conditions the institution meets to be designated A-class by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board. With that rating, Cronin explains, the AGNS is certified as owning and being able to host works of national significance.

Given that recognition, the gallery can then offer tax exemptions to donors, be they private collectors or artists---in other words, the elimination of capital gains tax. Donations are a major channel for the AGNS to receive art and to build its permanent collection.

As for correcting the "uneven bedrock," blasting would have to take place before pouring a new foundation and floor. And such a force would wreak havoc on the sandstone buildings. Though plentiful and "soft to work," the sandstone has been taking a beating from the weather already, and particularly from being on the waterfront.

"The building's falling down around our ears," Cronin says, admitting visions of scaffolding and stonemasons in the near future.

That's in addition to the lighting, windows, HVAC and air-handling systems all requiring replacement to improve energy efficiency and lifespan. "Trying to fit an art museum in a historic building is a very expensive proposition," says Cronin.

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