Laurentian's plans to sell the Bell Mansion, 'worst possible outcome,' says Sudbury Arts Council
The Bell Mansion is home to the Sudbury Art Gallery and a $4.8 million collection
Laurentian University's plans to sell the Bell Mansion — home of the Sudbury Art Gallery — is "the worst possible outcome" from its planned real estate review, according to the Sudbury Arts Council.
In court documents submitted on April 13, the firm Ernst & Young said it understands Laurentian plans to sell the Bell Mansion and may include it in the plan it will present to its creditors.
Ernst & Young is the court-appointed monitor tied to Laurentian's insolvency proceedings.
"The monitor also understands that LU (Laurentian University) is considering all of its options with respect to the assets of the art collection," the document said.
"LU is at a critical stage in its restructuring and is in the process of formulating a plan to present to its creditors."
In February 2021, Laurentian filed for insolvency and has undergone a restructuring process under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). In April 2021 the Sudbury university cut 69 programs and fired more than 100 staff and faculty members to cut costs.
To pay its creditors, Laurentian has also reviewed its real estate assets, including the Bell Mansion, and could sell off that property.
"The absolute lack of public consultation in this case has produced this worst possible outcome," said Andrew Boyd, president of the Sudbury Arts Council, which promotes the arts in Greater Sudbury.
"It really could not have been handled in a more ham-fisted manner than it has."
In a claim filed on July 30, 2021, the Art Gallery of Sudbury estimated the value of the Bell Mansion and surrounding land at $1.3 million, and the value of its art collection at more than $4.8 million.
"It's a piece of our culture. It's a piece of our heritage, and it should not be thrown into this absolute mess," Boyd said about the collection, which features art from across northern Ontario.
The Sudbury Centennial Museum Society transferred the Bell Mansion to Laurentian in 1967.
The monitor's report on April 13 said the transfer on the title was registered in 1969, and Laurentian continues to be the registered owner of the property.
In 2004, Laurentian and the Art Gallery of Sudbury renewed a memorandum of understanding in which the art gallery would manage the space for the university.
"The MOU (memorandum of understanding) expressly provides for the retention of ownership of the assets by LU," said the monitor's report.
The monitor's report concluded the Art Gallery of Sudbury has not provided documentation to support its claim of ownership of the Bell Mansion or the art collection.
"There was an intention by AGS (Art Gallery of Sudbury) to acquire the art collection and library, no documentation has been provided which suggests that LU agreed to this, and no documentation has been provided evidencing a transfer of these assets," the report said.
In a motion it submitted on April 8, 2022, the Art Gallery of Sudbury asked to withdraw its July 30, 2021 claim, which it said it made in error.
In the motion, the art gallery said it misunderstood the claims process, and had only recently received legal counsel that the claim should be withdrawn because Laurentian does not owe it any money.
As for the future of the Bell Mansion, and the art gallery, Boyd said it is unlikely the City of Greater Sudbury could purchase the property and assets.
"I do know that the city is constrained financially. I'm not sure that purchase is going to be a viable option," he said.
Boyd said the Sudbury Arts Council hopes to meet with other stakeholders to look at possible options for the gallery.