City council 'attempting to interfere' with Remai Modern vision, says ousted board member

Board secretary Alison Norlen says a clash between "strong" board voices and the desires of city councillors are at play in a planned board shakeup that became public this week.

Board secretary Alison Norlen says city councillors clashed with 'strong voices' on board

One of the Remai Modern board members who is not being reappointed says city council wants to "control the philosophy of the programming" at the museum. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Saskatoon city councillors are trying to interfere with the artistic vision of Remai Modern, according to an ousted member of the art museum's board.

Alison Norlen says a clash between "strong voices" on the board and the desires of city councillors is why she and board chair Scott Verity are not being asked to stay on.

"[Council] saw a different vision than the Remai CEO and many board members," Norlen said Friday. 

Norlen also shared an email she had sent the board and Mayor Charlie Clark last week, after learning from Clark himself that she would not be asked to stay on.

"It is especially evident that Scott's and my strong voices, including at times points of view that differ from council, and that our high level of experience, is seen as undesirable at this point in the Remai's progression, at least according to city council," Norlen wrote her colleagues.

Norlen wrote that despite her resume, which includes years of working with artist organizations, she felt like "my voice is no longer deemed important or valuable."

Norlen expanded on her concerns to CBC News.

"While the city owns the building, it seems [city councillors] also want to control the philosophy of the programming and I feel that the city does not understand the concept of modern," she wrote.

"They are are attempting to interfere with the philosophy of the mandate, including programming and acquisition."

Mayor responds

Clark responded to Norlen's claims on Friday. 

"We take very seriously the separation between city council and the specifics of programming and artistic expression," he told CBC News. "Appointments to the board are based on the direction and needs of the gallery going forward."

Clark added that council's focus "is and will continue to be on the organizational and financial strength of the Remai." 

The mayor also thanked board members past and present "who have helped to work towards a successful launch of the Remai Modern."

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark attended the opening of Remai Modern in October 2017. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

'I wish the Remai success'

Norlen's comments came three days after city councillors took the initial step toward appointing new members to the museum board and confirming which current members will be retained.

The City of Saskatoon owns the museum, which is run by a publicly-appointed board whose members are approved by city councillors.

Only four previous board members were on the list of re-appointments announced by councillors Tuesday: regular members Grant Stoneham and Fatima Coovadia and city councillors Mairin Loewen and Cynthia Block.

The list suggests a further reshaping of the museum leadership, which is already losing CEO Gregory Burke next month and which has operated since October 2017 under scrutiny from city councillors.

Norlen said her concerns extend to all of city council, not just Loewen and Block.

She ended her email to the board and Clark with a warning.

"I wish the Remai success, but caution against decisions that be seen as [political], as opposed to the best interest of our magnificent modern gallery!"

2 board members resign

At least two current members aren't returning to the board by choice.

Veronica Gamracy has confirmed with CBC News that she resigned "with regret" from the board earlier this week, less than two hours before Tuesday's meeting of councillors.

"I have found the governance model of the board, and therefore, its relationship with the City of Saskatoon, to be problematic," Gamracy wrote in her resignation letter, which she shared with CBC News. "The recent decisions around upcoming board appointments has made this even more so."

"I would, however, like to acknowledge the immense contributions made by our chair, Scott Verity, as well as by our very capable executive committee over the past year, and wish the incoming Remai Modern board every success going forward," she added.

Jenna Richards also confirmed Friday that she resigned Tuesday morning. 

"I envisioned serving the full slate of terms (six years), as I strongly value my commitment to protect the interests of both the Remai Modern and the City of Saskatoon," Richards wrote. 

"I have enjoyed my time volunteering on the board, helping to strengthen our community. However, the recent communication of the intention to not reappoint select members to the board for an additional term has led me to making this personally difficult choice."

Board meant to operate 'outside the sphere of a political environment': chair

Verity, in a statement to CBC News Friday, also appeared to defend the board's independence.

While acknowledging city council's right to change the leadership of the museum, he began his statement by saying, "An independent board was established for the Remai Modern to direct and protect the best interests of the organization outside the sphere of a political environment."

Verity said he and other departing members would help with what Clark has called a transition "into a new phase" for the museum.

"I know my colleagues and I who are leaving the board will make every effort to provide transitional support to the new board members and are continuing to work hard to make Remai Modern successful," said Verity.

"We have faced the challenges of navigating the unknown: opening a new facility, launching a new brand, establishing a new program and building a new team."

Clark, in his own statement Thursday, said "tremendous work [has been] done to build and open the beautiful Remai Modern, and council is grateful to the board and everyone who has had a hand in its success. It has been a monumental undertaking to bring the Remai Modern to life."

Clark's statement said council will "remain focused on its governance role, appointing board members and supporting the gallery to fulfil its mandate."

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

All-platform journalist for CBC Saskatoon

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