With a Trillium grant of $32,000, the Art Gallery of Northumberland (AGN) hired Consultant Laridae Communications Inc to consult with the Northumberland community to “assess community interest in and support for AGN activities”. The report was released to the public on November 22 and my short synopsis is that there is more work to be done. There are no answers provided – that will be the job of the board. But there are some big problems and major questions to answer. There is a shortage of funding and although there were 5100 gallery visitors in the past year (considered “solid”) and most people said that the gallery was a good thing, the current business model may well be not sustainable. Further, the number of volunteers has dropped over the last 15 years from 100+ to about 20.
The report contains a large amount of detailed feedback from a range of stakeholders:
- Board and Staff members
- Community partner organizations
- Community members
This was done through “focus groups, community town halls, an online survey, and key informant interviews”.
It will take some further work to decide which of these comments relate to wish lists and which affect ongoing viability.
In the executive summary, the report highlights some of the key issues:
- Structural sustainability issues that must be addressed if the AGN is to remain viable over the long term.
- A withdrawal of funding from some supporters (mostly due to perceived governance problems in the years up to 2015).
- The current level of funding will not sustain permanent staffing at a level adequate to the organization’s aspirations for programs and operations.
- The need for more volunteers (both hours and skills).
Possible solutions include:
- Attracting long-term commitments from funders and donors (and increasing the funder/donor base)
- Considering other business models, such as joining with other galleries and/or operating as part of municipal government operations, as other cultural institutions in the region do.
There were 123 respondents to the online survey, 11 people participated in a focus group and 53 attended one of the three Town Hall meetings (in Cobourg, Port Hope and Warkworth).
From these, over 150 comments or suggestions are listed in the full report (link below). I have extracted some that I see as significant.
Stakeholder – Focus group
- Participants would like to see more of the permanent collection, which is stored in the archives. “Let it out.”
- Have an AGN event at the Cobourg Community Centre (which can have art shows, photography displays)—for more visibility
- Barriers to community outreach include the physical restrictions of the AGN location (sign restrictions, no street-level presence, elevator, entrance through gift shop).
- Will the AGN be primarily an institution of the town or the county, or something else? (It was noted that most of the funding is provided by the Town of Cobourg. What is the AGN’s relationship to the County?) Strategic planning/visioning is needed now, as well as a governance review.
- Why is the current mandate to serve all of Northumberland County, when there is no ongoing funding from the County?
- To attract and retain funders and donors, the AGN will need to be able to demonstrate that there is a strong governance model in place, a strategic plan, and a sound business plan.
- If the AGN were a central attraction to visitors in Cobourg, it would have an impact on tourism. With more marketing, there is lots of potential for this kind of growth.
- Many suggestions were made to improving marketing, such as: better signage inside and outside Victoria Hall, a dedicated AGN board with posters, improving the website, and collaboration with the concert hall for marketing efforts.
- Appreciation for arts and culture is rising in the community. The upcoming Cultural Master Plan is an incredible opportunity.
Artist Focus Group
- The AGN should ensure that part of the permanent collection is always on display, perhaps in the smaller room.
- The idea of moving should be revisited. It might take ten years; start now.
- Part of the mandate of the AGN is/should be support for artists.
- Participants advocated for more collaboration with other arts organizations, increasing contacts.
- In discussing the facility, the first choice of participants is a new building (with climate control and other standards met, so the AGN could obtain better shows). Failing that, more visibility in and around Victoria Hall was the focus of comments.
- Moving the AGN to the ground floor (and mayor’s office to the 3rd) would make it more accessible to the public and be good for tourism. It is the same amount of space.
- It was suggested that, in addition to using the website to link to artists, the AGN could also link to area art galleries.
Community Town Halls
- There were calls for more experiential and experimental art, with target audiences, such as seniors, youth, and adults. Some said that the gallery catered to traditionalists and should focus more on contemporary art.
- The most frequent comment relating to the facility was the need for (and constraints around, because of heritage designation) more visible AGN signage.
- The idea of moving to a different space was raised, which some supported, while others wanted to stay and renovate. The idea of turning Victoria Hall into a cultural centre was raised.
- Some questioned why the AGN was trying to reach the whole County when funding was not provided at that level to support it.
- Visibility at the street level is a concern—signage/directional signs needed.
- The AGN should do a better job promoting itself beyond the arts community. Distribution of AGN promotional materials should be broader than a newsletter for members.
- The recent problems are well known, but less well known is that the AGN has gone through a “cure”.
- We need to look at this building. Without signage, standing in the lobby, visitors think, “am I supposed to be here?”
- I would like to see the permanent collection more often—keep some of it displayed all the time. It seems like so long since I’ve seen those paintings.
- The AGN needs leadership with vision so strong it is dripping with colour and flavour. The vision has to be so acute that we can’t stand not to be there.
- The Board needs to figure out their identity. What makes the AGN special? Identification with Cobourg as an interesting place?
Overview of Survey Responses
A majority of those completing the online survey were AGN members and/or artists and a large majority had visited the AGN in the last 6 months.
The top four choices for the most important potential roles of the AGN were:
- Stimulating, expanding, promoting local arts and culture (78%)
- Showcasing regional artists (56%)
- Educating (lectures & workshops) (53%)
- Showcasing national artists (31%)
- Current public (municipal) funders value the AGN and what it offers to the community.
- As part of an integrated arts-related tourism marketing effort, the AGN could contribute significantly to the economic development of the region.
- In order to continue investing funds in the AGN, funders need to have confidence in the vision, strategies, and governance of the AGN.
- An area for improvement is the current practice of running deficits for exhibitions and other operational decisions.
- Partnerships with other organizations (non-profit and private sector) and with other funders are more important to funders than ever. They show broad community support and innovation. It is also necessary to have a plan that includes benefits to the community and how impact will be measured.
The report does not include a final summary – the full report is available for download here. Note that it is missing its appendices with more details and as mentioned above, there is no action plan included. However, there are a large number of ideas as to how the operation can be improved. I would mention that one recurring theme that has traditionally been resisted is the idea of moving the Gallery out of Victoria Hall. Failing that, everyone wanted better signage.