Nfld. & Labrador

Mary Pratt piece sells for $13K to keep Fluvarium doors open and kids' programming alive

"We are just in a total financial crisis," says John Perlin, chair emeritus of the Fluvarium Foundation.

'We are just in a total financial crisis,' says John Perlin of Fluvarium Foundation

The Fluvarium in St. John's is a popular place for children, with exhibits about fish and wildlife, as well as tanks with things like fish, frogs and toads. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

The funding situation at the Fluvarium in St. John's has gotten so dire the foundation is selling the art off its walls to keep the doors open.

"We're in a big bind," John Perlin, chair emeritus of the Fluvarium Foundation, told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

To keep people paid, at least for a few more weeks, the Fluvarium sold an original Mary Pratt piece of art for $13,000 in an auction Tuesday night. 

"We think that Mary would be very happy that we can use this money to help keep the doors open," Perlin said.

John Perlin, chairman emeritus of the Fluvarium, says the funding problem is due to a lack of corporate sponsorship. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

The piece auctioned through Consignor Canadian Fine Art in Toronto is Bonfire, a mixed-media piece not in the late artist's usual iconic style. Pratt made the work in 1997.

The auction company agreed to waive its commission to help the foundation's finances.

Perlin said the piece was originally given as a gift to the Fluvarium from Newfoundland Power and has spent the last few years alternating between a wall and a storage box.

"It used to hang over the mantelpiece, but the problem was that many of the brides that wanted to do decor in the room in which their reception was being held didn't like a bonfire, and so it spent more time in a box," said Perlin.

This is a print version of Mary Pratt's Burning the Rhododendron. Her original Bonfire is up for auction on May 28. (CBC)

Didn't see it coming

According to Perlin, the funding problem is due to a lack of corporate sponsorship.

Suncor used to provide $65,000 annually, he said, but last year the oil company cancelled that education program partnership. 

Each year, more than 10,000 kids come through the doors of the Fluvarium, a public environmental education centre focusing on freshwater and riparian ecology. The Suncor money subsidized the cost of admission for students who couldn't afford the field trip.

The end of the funding put the Fluvarium in "a serious financial shortage," according to Perlin.

In a statement, a rep for Suncor said the company is considering "future opportunities for investment ... which could potentially include the Fluvarium, but no decisions have been made at this time."

We are just in a total financial crisis at the moment.- John Perlin

The company said it made a one-time donation in 2017 to support the education programs during the transition away from Suncor being a named sponsor.

Perlin, however, says the board had no idea Suncor was ending its support.

"Whether miscommunication or otherwise, we were not told that they would … discontinue the education funding, which left us with a large hole to fill," Perlin said, adding that the money from the Pratt piece selling would likely go to cover salaries.

"We are just in a total financial crisis at the moment and we believe that this will at least help us through the next few weeks," Perlin said, who was expecting the artwork to sell for a little less. 

Bob Piercey, the facility's education manager, has spent the last 26 years teaching kids about fish and wildlife. He's seen hundreds of thousands of kids come through the building with inquisitive minds and fascinated faces.

Now he's worried about how underprivileged kids will be able to come visit without Suncor's funding.

"Some of those schools will probably not be visiting in the immediate future," said Piercey.

In a time when so many children live their lives on screens and indoors, Piercey said it's important the Fluvarium stay open for business.

Bob Piercey, the Fluvarium's education manager, says some schools might not be able to go on field trips without subsidized funding. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

"We're concerned, and we don't want to have a generation of kids who don't know the outside and we want to continue our programming here.

While the $13,000 from the auction will help bridge the gap for a little while, Perlin said he didn't want to think about what could happen if more money doesn't come in soon — including the closure of the Fluvarium.

"I really don't want to comment on that at this stage. I think that would be the worst ending that we could possibly have," he said.

"But I think the board is doing its very best to investigate sources of revenue that would help us out of the problems that we're in at the present time."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and Ryan Cooke

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