Layoffs at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario Prompts Protest

There are threats that more than 100 jobs could be in the balance at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) due to restructuring and organizational changes. Those changes may be the result of a 18-month review that studied a number of U.S. museums.
It may be better news though for AGO as new funding increased by the government has come in. Because of the funding the Ontario Public Service Employees Union is saying that AGO must reverse its decision to lay of staff. But will they?

On April 8 the Ontario government added $8.6 million to this year’s funding for the gallery and added an annual operating funding of $10 million.

That didn’t make any difference. On April 2 and April 6 the gallery laid off 26 full-time employees. Many of those who lost their jobs had been with the gallery for decades. They were all in specialty fields. According to literature that OPSEU was handing out on the street the total years of experience of those who were laid off totaled 275. One of the reasons the second lay off came according to Union Stewart Paula Whitmore was on April 2 the AGO had it’s annual fund raiser. Some of those that were let go the following Monday were part of the crew that worked long hours to put the fund raiser on. Ms. Whitmore said she knew of one employee who was laid off who had toiled 16 hour days in prepping for the event and then was without a job the next Monday.

The Union also contends that the layoffs came when the management of AGO knew the additional funding would be coming. The Ontario public Service Employees Union believes that that funding the the AGO received is a good enough reason to reverse the lay offs. All of the Union staff that were let go were in highly skilled positions. Ms. Whitmore told me that the Union is concerned that the gallery’s quality of work will suffer as a result of the lay offs.

“Who’s going to be looking out for the public interest. The collection belongs to the public. The quality of the art will be suffering because those who were full-time employees and skilled have been laid off and part-time employees will have to try to have to do the work of full time employees.”

On Wednesday, April 15 the OPSEU and members of the public picketed the gallery starting at 5:30 PM. The Union chose Wednesday night because it is Toronto’s free night each week at the AGO.

Marketwire reports:

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas asked for an immediate halt to the layoffs. “We will not stand by while the AGO pretends to care about the public and at the same time uses union-busting tactics against decent working people who have thrown their lives into this work on behalf of the public,” he said.

OPSEU and members of the public will picket the gallery at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, April 15.

“I don’t know how Teitelbaum can look himself in the mirror after saying to our staff only last week that the new AGO is a wondrous thing, brimming with life and deep potential to change the way people experience the world,” Thomas said.
Executive Director of Public Affairs Susan Bloch-Nevitte says that the gallery only knew that there was the possibility of funding. That knowledge though wasn’t all that was in consideration when it came down to the lay offer. The changes were already in place regardless of if funding came in. It’s part of a restructuring period with the gallery, one that many other galleries and museums are also having to undergo to keep afloat during these times.

“It’s never easy to have to let employees go,” Bloch-Nevitte said, “No one likes laying folks off. It’s not like yippee bring it on. But the fact is the world is changing and so is AGO. It’s a different world and economic factors are different. We can’t stop change.”

Bloch-Nevitte is correct. The times are changing not only for AGO but for museums world wide. Membership and patronage have declined. At this time it’s not a wise idea in bringing in a lot of new works when the gallery has 23,000 pieces of art, many of which have not been seen by the public yet. It’s time to bring more attention to AGO’s permanent works. That doesn’t mean that there will no new pieces being bought, just fewer. Because of this some positions at AGO have had to be streamlined. In the end 23 people of the 600 employees had to be laid off in an effort to cut costs. No one entire department was let go and the lay offs affected many different areas.

When I asked Ms. Bloch-Nevitte why it was the older employees that were let go she said that while some of those who were laid off had been with AGO for years others had not. It was more of deciding where the existing employees fit into the new structuring of the AGO and who sadly didn’t fit in. What the gallery hopes to be doing in the future is adding new positions that those who have been laid off will be able to come back to work. That will take some time though.

The truth is AGO is changing with the times, like other fields in the arts where the recession and public interest effects the tides. There will be a newer on-line focus with the gallery as well as social media and networking aspects which will result in new career opportunities.

The management of the AGO has a hard road ahead. They have to be able to make provisions for quality and still be able to run a sustainable gallery.

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