SPEAKING IN BROAD STROKES: Behind the canvas at art gallery

SPEAKING IN BROAD STROKES: Behind the canvas at art gallery
The Art Gallery (TAG) - Cornwall.

By Adam Brazeau 
CORNWALL, Ontario – Differing visions and a “disconnect” between the board governing The Art Gallery – Cornwall and its executive director led to an exodus of individuals earlier this month.

While many former members of the TAG board whom Seaway News has spoken with have declined to address the issue with specifics, former board member Jason Setnyk lifted the veil of secrecy slightly in recent comments to this newspaper.

“In my opinion there was a disconnect between the executive director and board members,” said Setnyk. “We had different visions for the art gallery.”

But Setnyk wouldn’t go any further with his comments, because “litigation is a legitimate concern.”

It’s a running theme among many former members of the TAG board, who will not speak out concerning their time with the organization – many citing a fear they could be sued by TAG’s longtime executive director Sylvie Lizotte for saying anything.

In fact, lawyers for Lizotte and the board exchanged correspondence concerning potential litigation during TAG’s most recent term.

Things came to a head for the board recently when, en masse, every member resigned. A new board has since been created, with former city council candidate and fervent supporter of Lizotte, Rolland Besner, voted in as chair.

Last term’s TAG board members included Coun. Carilyne Hebert (president), Coun. Elaine MacDonald, Aline Gareau, Erynn Blackadder, Jose Martin, and Jenny-Lee Roy, as well as Setnyk.

“I joined two years ago because the entire board before that, except for one member, walked out,” said Hebert, who is also a communications volunteer for the Centre for the Arts Collective, a fundraising committee for an arts centre in Cornwall.

When asked about the alleged disconnect between the TAG board and Lizotte, she refused to make any comment.

Instead she suggested: “I resigned because I wanted to focus on my new role as city councillor.

“I knew if I was elected I was going to have to step away from some of my volunteer commitments.”

After leading the gallery for 20 years, Lizotte considers the departures as “normal,” using the Cornwall Community Museum and Your Arts Council (YAC) Cornwall & The Counties as examples.

“I want to clarify it’s not because of me. I did everything I could do,” said Lizotte. “Most people have a misunderstanding of how a board of directors works – they are my employer and I am the employee. They can fire me if they have cause.”

She attributed some of the turnover to self-interested volunteers. Lizotte pointed the finger at a few former board members throughout the years, including Martin for leaving just months after her artwork showed in the gallery.

“If an artist gets on the board usually it’s because they want a show, and when the show is over, they quit,” said Lizotte.

The abrupt nature of the mass resignation also created another problem for her.

“Normally, the board of directors recruits new members, but they didn’t,” she said.

Lizotte’s version of recent events at TAG centres around a power struggle between the board and herself: “They totally cut me off of any decision-making and started micromanaging. Then got overwhelmed with the work and couldn’t keep up with it.”

She added that the 2014 board spent $8,000 to review TAG’s financial statements from the last two years.

TAG operates by fundraising initiatives and other revenue streams, including public money provided by the City of Cornwall.

In 2013 TAG received $55,000 in taxpayer money to continue to operate a gallery on Pitt Street and applied for $75,000 last year.

For Hebert, a major highlight of the two years she spent as president of the TAG board of directors was helping to significantly improve the process for submitting funding applications.

But even that couldn’t help some shortcomings.

TAG administration failed to complete its application before the fall deadline for the 2013 city budget and very nearly missed out on municipal funding.

Meanwhile, Roy resigned because of a change in employment that prevented her from attending meetings. Lizotte referred to her as a “no-show board member.”

When asked about the board’s relationship with the executive director, Roy replied: “I’d rather not go there.”

Blackadder also stepped away due to other commitments and refused to comment when asked about TAG’s leadership.

During his short stint on the board, Setnyk proposed a variety of fundraising initiatives, including renting out gallery space, the sale of liquor at events, and selling off some of TAG’s art collection.

None of those initiatives ever came to fruition.

When it comes to fundraising – or the lack thereof – Lizotte noted that many board members were too busy spearheading other causes or unable to bring their ideas to fruition.

“One of the problems was they were on my board of directors but they were raising funds for the art centre,” she said.

Four monthly bingo nights, run by three-to-four volunteers each, are TAG’s only consistent income-generating events.

Attempts to reach Gareau and Martin through other former board members and e-mail inquiries were unsuccessful.

MacDonald declined the opportunity to comment.

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