Ontario public galleries demand right to return by Step 2

Feeling 'left behind' by the province, this campaign demands greater clarity from the reopening strategy.

Feeling 'left behind' by province, this campaign demands greater clarity from the reopening strategy

Installation view of a Maud Lewis exhibition at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The show opened at TBAG in October 2020, but was forced to close early when the province went into lockdown that December. (Thunder Bay Art Gallery)

"We could open tomorrow," says Sharon Godwin, director of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. "We're ready. The shows are up, all of our protocols are in place, and they have been in place since we opened last June." But the gallery will remain closed, as six months of consecutive lockdown becomes seven and then perhaps eight.

In Quebec, museums have been open for months, having sprung back from winter lockdown. In Alberta, Contemporary Calgary and the Art Gallery of Alberta are just two spaces that have been readying themselves for audiences this past week. But in Ontario, museums and public galleries are expected to remain shut through the summer. According to the province's Roadmap to Reopen, indoor attractions and cultural amenities won't be permitted to welcome visitors until Step 3 of the plan, which is anticipated for late July.

That decision will imperil many visual-arts venues in the province, says Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries (GOG), a non-profit representing the region's public art galleries. "Post-COVID, we don't know how many galleries will actually survive," says Zainub Verjee, executive director of the GOG. "Those summer months are really crucial for earning revenue." And the GOG recently launched a social-media campaign (#SupportVisualArtsON) urging the provincial government to reconsider their strategy for galleries and museums. Among their requests: permit reopening in time for Step 2. 

Formerly known as the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, GOG represents 270 institutions across 63 communities, and they say more than 85 per cent of their membership would be ready for patrons by the next phase of reopening. The GOG ultimately wants a rollout plan that's best for the safety of the community at large, but Verjee says she's been given no rationale for the current strategy. And, she adds, the GOG has made multiple attempts to connect with officials. "We just have never heard back," she says.

Right now, it seems as though an entire arts sector has been "left behind," says Verjee. "The visual arts were the first to close and they'll be the last to open. We are trying to understand why this is the case."

'It's hard to really grasp it from a safety point of view'

Without detailed information from the province, Godwin also struggles to follow the logic behind the reopening plan. "We're puzzled, we're totally puzzled," she says. "We do not understand why it's different this year, and why non-essential retail can open with limits and yet we can't. It doesn't make sense."

"When we saw the new three-step framework, we were really surprised," says Stephanie Vegh, manager of media and communications at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. "It was not what we were expecting at all, especially given how the previous two reopening phases had played out. We had been able to open at virtually the same time as everyone else." 

There's an exhibition being installed at KWAG right now, she says, even though it might go completely unseen by visitors. The gallery opted to reopen in both June 2020 and February 2021 when the provincial guidelines freed them to do so. "We've done this dance before," laughs Vegh, and the staff is prepared for yet another reopening whenever it happens. They're now trained on the finer points of sanitation, physical distancing and contact tracing, among other protocols. Regarding the latter procedure, Vegh says COVID-19 has never been traced to KWAG. Verjee echoes this point, saying member galleries reported zero cases during past reopenings. 

The visual arts were the first to close and they'll be the last to open. We are trying to understand why this is the case.- Zainub Verjee, executive director of Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries

"It's hard to really grasp it from a safety point of view," Vegh says, discussing the reopening plan. "I recognize that there are sectors that are higher risk, but galleries and museums, I don't think they would fall under that. I mean, we're a much more open space with a lot more room than your average small retail — or retail of any sort, really." In past reopenings, maximum capacity at KWAG was 10 — "10 people for the whole building, which comprises about five different exhibition spaces," says Vegh.

More confounding, she says, is the fact that KWAG is permitted to run summer camps, but no other forms of in-person programming. It's the same situation at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. "It's ironic," says Godwin. "We can open one room and have 10 children in it and meet all the protocols, and yet we can't open our big gallery spaces."

Why one sector and not another?

Visual-art centres aren't alone in their confusion. Other cultural sectors have made their own appeals to the provincial government. #FairnessForArtsON, a campaign involving roughly 100 performing arts and music organizations, has similarly demanded greater clarity from the province on details of the reopening plan. Like #SupportVisualArtsON, they question why some industries, such as film and television production, have been permitted to operate while others have not.

"It makes you start to wonder if it's a question of necessity, or if it's just a question of preference," says Vegh. "Are art galleries and museums simply being seen as less important for reopening from an economic standpoint?"

If that is, indeed, the situation, Verjee makes the case for the sector's economic clout. "When a gallery closes, all the businesses that are associated with it are also impacted: art transportation, logistics, cleaning, restaurants, hospitality, entertainment, audio-visual, construction, printing," she says. In April 2019, Statistics Canada released a report stating that "Ontario's arts and culture sector represents $26.7 billion or 3.5 per cent of the province's GDP and almost 300,378 jobs." That sector includes multiple creative industries, however, including film and TV production. Regarding art and heritage institutions in the province, a February 2021 report by the Ontario Museum Association says 11,000 people are employed by museums, and they estimate that the sector contributes $1.6 billion to the provincial economy annually. CBC Arts emailed the office of the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries requesting comment on why museums and gallery reopenings have been scheduled for Step 3, but did not receive a response. 

Gallery view of The Drive exhibition (2020) at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. (Thunder Bay Art Gallery)

If galleries and museums must wait until the third phase of the rollout, Vegh and Godwin are confident that their institutions will be fine. Emergency funding and the support of bodies including the Ontario Arts Council have been crucial to their ability to persist and adapt, they note. 

And not every visual-arts centre is keen to accelerate reopening. Gallery 101, an artist-run centre in Ottawa, shared their support for #SupportVisualArtsON on Twitter, but director/curator Laura Margita says that the organization itself would not be ready to welcome real live visitors in time for Step 2. Indeed, the gallery's long-lead planning did not anticipate reopening before late summer. "What we've been doing is just pivoting, pivoting, pivoting," says Margita. Through grants including the Canada Council's Digital Now fund, they've been able to serve their community by leaning into virtual offerings. They've also sought alternative ways of paying artists for work during COVID, creating publications, online workshops and a new artist residency.

"No one should be forced to open," says Verjee. But for those who can: "If they could even open two to three weeks earlier, it would be a huge difference for them."

As it stands, however, she sees Ontario lagging behind other industries and their fellow arts organizations around the country. Godwin has a similar feeling: "We were missed. We were overlooked in the scheme of things." 


Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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