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    Coming to a town near you: national museums

    Date: 22 Dec 2006 | | Views: 4049

    What's happening is nothing less than a revolution in federal museum policy.

    For decades, the government has funded the operation of museums and art galleries in Ottawa only, and then doled out the meagre Museums Assistance Program support to help other levels of government keep the rest of the country's heritage institutions up and running.

    Now the Harper government is changing how museums and art galleries will be funded: simultaneously trying to devolve responsibility for operational support to the private sector while at the same time contemplating creating or designating "national" institutions outside of Ottawa.

    Not only is the government considering moving the Portrait Gallery of Canada to the new headquarters of EnCana Corp. of Calgary, it is reportedly poised to grant "national" status (which even in a time of a bigger private-sector role would guarantee some federal operating money) to the proposed Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, the pet project of Winnipeg's wealthy Asper family. In this case, national status would mean $12-million a year in operating costs.

    "It's innovative and it's very exciting," Heritage Minister Bev Oda told The Globe and Mail yesterday. She agreed that big changes for federally supported galleries and museums were under way even as she remained short on specifics.

    "Decentralization is a possible scenario. We want national treasures to be enjoyed by as many Canadians as possible," Oda said.

    "The government seems to be looking at establishing cultural institutions outside Ottawa, and at more public-private partnerships," said Kim Jasper, spokesperson for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. "How it plays out, we'll wait and see."

    The notion of establishing a "national" museum outside Ottawa has put a gleam in the eye of other regional institutions hungry for national status and the funding that comes with it.

    "This is all new territory," says John McAvity, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association. Last month, Quebec MP Francis Scarpeleggia got the House Heritage committee to approve his motion that Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum in his riding, should be designated a national museum.

    Then there's Halifax's Pier 21, Canada's immigration museum. The country's major 20th-century immigration entry point became a historic site in 1999, but currently receives no operating funds from any government. Its leaders have approached Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, who is responsible for Atlantic Canada, to take its cause to cabinet. "The minister promotes Pier 21 to high-ranking visitors like [U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, and he'd be delighted to see it flourish," said MacKay's spokesman André Lemay, "but there's no firm information about plans."

    Pier 21's executive director, Robert Moody, is optimistic. "We're totally there with Ottawa's idea to decentralize national museums," he told The Globe.

    Decentralizing national institutions is only half of this revolution. The other major element is a greatly increased role for private-sector partners -- such as the Aspers or EnCana. One of the reasons Ottawa is considering moving the Portrait Gallery to Calgary is that EnCana was willing, according to documents obtained by the federal NDP, to contribute $30-million to the Portrait Gallery's relocation (the company denies the figure).

    In September, Ottawa cut $2-million from its roughly $9-million Museums Assistance Program, which had helped operate regional heritage centres all across Canada. In early December, when Oda and Treasury Board President John Baird announced $100-million to repair and upgrade cultural institutions in the Ottawa region, they used the occasion to warn that cultural institutions must increasingly find private-sector partners to fund their expansion and exhibition plans.

    The two cabinet ministers made that point with their choice of venue for the announcement: the new Talisman fossil gallery in the Canadian Museum of Nature, (opened with the help of a $2-million grant from Talisman Energy Inc.). And this fall, even as Ottawa was cutting funds for museums assistance, Oda gave $30-million to the endowment fund of the Global Centre for Pluralism, an archive and study centre devoted to the promotion of pluralistic values, policies and practices. The project is the brainchild of the Aga Khan, whose foundation has also donated $30-million toward the centre's future site, the former Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

    How these new public-private cultural partnerships will work remains to be seen. For EnCana, the possible arrival of the Portrait Gallery would be a double boon: It would give its new complex a prestige tenant, and extra visitors on evenings and weekends for its parking lots and tony restaurants. Besides, the Portrait Gallery would fill the space that EnCana had originally offered to the Glenbow Museum (the Glenbow pulled out after EnCana reduced the cultural space on offer from 250,000 square feet to between 50,000 and 100,000 sq. ft.).

    For the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the tricky part of the public-private relationship is the question of who dominates the museum board (and therefore who determines such ticklish issues as how the "national" human-rights museum might treat, say, Palestinian rights). Clearly, the board would include Asper family representatives -- but would the government let them control it?

    "That is a question for Ms. Oda," Jasper said.

    Said Oda: "There are various scenarios."

    By VAL ROSS, The Globe & Mail

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