In the aftermath of my talk at Paved Arts last week I’ve been trying to clear my head enough to get on with some administrative work that needs to be done. However my head has had so many things swimming around in it (no kippers, though) that I decided to simply write them up as a blog post.
First up is the Mendel Art Gallery’s expansion plan, and the city council meeting I attended on 26 February 2007 to support the Mendel’s efforts. Although the meeting was long, it was really interesting to watch the meeting and get a sense of the civic political process. As has been reported elsewhere, the vote passed after a great deal of time spent debating the idea of gallery admission fees. This idea of admission fees has been looked at many times in the past. In this specific instance was brought forward with what appeared to be no advance notice. Because of this procedural misstep on the part of Councillor Myles Heidt, the matter was eventually taken off the motion concerning the Mendel expansion. I have thoughts on the issue of gallery admission fees, but I’ll save those for later.
What I want to talk about is Councillor Maurice Neault’s opposition to the expansion, and how he went about making his case. In what follows I’ve come done pretty hard on Councillor Neault. I strongly disagree with his opposition to the Mendel expansion. While I’m sure he has some valid criticism, I found the evidence he used to support his position extremely unconvincing. I wonder about his true motivations for this opposition. Flawed arguments such as the ones Neault presented often point to some other issue that cannot be aired in public. The rumours I’ve heard don’t mention any names but suggest that certain councillors see the Mendel as catering to a cultural elite while ignoring the masses. I’m not going to address that issue today. To be fair to Mr. Neault, earlier in the same council meeting I was impressed with his no-nonsense approach to another issue. There was a group of property owners who were caught in an unfortunate limbo between the civic process for closing public paths. The residents had started the closure process but then the process came under review. Mr. Neault’s opinion that closures that had been put in motion before the review should be completed under the old rules was commendable.
At the meeting, Neault had three main arguments against the proposed Mendel expansion. As an opponent of tax hikes he found expansion too expensive, but his numbers appeared to be flawed. He brought up the history of provincial funding for Mendel operations, or the lack thereof, and tried to use this history as a rationale for opposition. And he made a specious argument against an outdated Mendel business plan.
First off, Mr. Neault brought up a number of points related to the fact that the city would need to increase taxes to support the expansion and operation of the facility. While I agree that taxes need to be held in check, I found Neault’s arguments to be weak. At one point he brought up the numbers. He started with the current Mendel operating budget of $1.6m and then talked about the proposed $800k increase in operating costs after the expansion. He then somehow concluded that over ten years this would lead to a total increase of over $20 million. I’m not sure where he was rounding his numbers, but without accounting for inflation the $800k increase multiplied by ten years works out to $8m: significantly less than $20m. If you combine current costs ($1.6m) with the increase ($0.8m), and multiply this sum by ten years you get about $24m, which is in the ballpark of Neault’s $20m. But this is the total operating costs. Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but it seems to me that there is a significant difference between current operating costs, additional costs that result from the expansion, and the total combined operating costs after the expansion. The way Neault presented his financial argument makes me believe that he is either incompetent at figures—something not borne out by his status in the community as a business leader—or else he is deliberately playing fast and loose with his figures. It’s not as bad as, say, concluding that because both the sky and blueberries are often blue, that the sky is often made of blueberries. But Neault uses the same sort of logic.
The second pillar of Neault’s argument was the question of provincial funding for the Mendel’s operations budget, or the lack thereof. In the capital funding agreements between the Mendel/City and the Province of Saskatchewan, apparently one of the stipulations from the Province is that the City of Saskatoon pick up the tab for any increased operating costs that the expansion causes. There is some history here, which I’ll summarize as follows: the Mendel Art Gallery is operationally funded primarily by the City of Saskatoon. The Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina gets significant funding from the Province of Saskatchewan. There is probably a reason for this, and the reason probably has a lot to do with politics and geographic proximity to the Legislature. In any case, Saskatonians have always felt that this difference is inequitable. Civic politicians have unsuccessfully lobbied the provincial government on a number of occasions for provincial funding for Mendel operations. Neault resurrected this debate by pointing to what I’ll call “the operations clause” of the capital funding agreement. His words were relatively polite but could be summed up as “how dare those Mackenzie-funding bastards use provincial tax money to play favourites with that Regina gallery, and force us to pay for the operating cost increase of Saskatoon’s art gallery.” Again, these are my words, not Neault’s, but that’s the sense of what he seemed to be saying. I agree with these sentiments, but I also think that this was the wrong place for this particular issue to be discussed. I think the reason the province put the clause into the agreement is because they are well aware of this chip on Saskatoon’s shoulder and they don’t want this expansion—and their funding of it–to reopen a particularly contentious debate. Saskatoon knows that there’s a discrepancy in funding. The Province knows there’s a discrepancy in funding. The Province is simply covering their own coffers by specifying the rules of engagement. Provincial funding for Mendel operations is simply not on the table. It may not be fair, but it certainly seems to be a sensible strategy from their perspective. To me, this issue—as Neault presents it—is a red herring. All parties are aware of this issue, and the Province has taken steps to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with a capital project. Simply calling “no fair” at the province and using this as a rationale to oppose the expansion is immature at best.
Neault’s third argument against the expansion revolved around the Mendel’s business plan. He talked about the four business plans that have been presented in the past three years. I agree that four plans in such a short period of time is excessive, especially for an organization that’s been around for many decades and appears to have made few changes to it’s business strategy in that period. But Neault specifically pointed to items in the first expansion-related business plan from fall 2003. To me it seems disingenuous for Neault to criticize a document that is three-and-a-half years old and has gone through three iterations since it was first presented, without making reference to the current plan. It’s like sending a five-year-old child to school in diapers—with a bottle of infant formula for lunch—because they were nursing and hadn’t been toilet trained when they were two, and doing so despite noting that the child has grown up a bit and learned new skills in the intervening time. [By the way, this is not a comment on the Mendel’s business plans. I haven’t seen any of the plans so I’m assuming that the documents were fairly mature when presented to council.]
In his critique of the business plan, Neault specifically argued against the Mendel adding a café and/or catering option as well as the Mendel’s proposed expansion of its meeting facilities so that it could generate revenue as a conference space. He also may have criticized the proposed refurbishment of the performance space. He declared something to the effect that all he wanted to see at an art gallery was art. Kitchens, food, theatres, meetings—in Neault’s estimation—are out of scope for the Mendel. But as I was listening to this at the meeting I wondered whether Neault would take a similar view if he was on a local church building committee. It can be argued that all of these activities and facilities are superfluous to the stated mission of the organization/venue. However, regardless of context all of these “extras” help to build community. Ignoring the social aspects art, education, church—or any other human endeavour—is a recipe for failure. Food, drink, meetings, performance events help to make the community stronger, and make people more likely to see the Mendel in a positive light. I doubt that the people who came up with the business plans thought specifically about putting other organizations out of business. My guess is that the primary motivation for these peripheral activities is that people have asked for them.
The question of so-called out-of-scope activities—that is, anything not related to art—raises issues of competition. Many of the arguments against the expansion are based on the assumption that we are playing a zero-sum game, that there will be a clear winner and loser. Neault suggests that if the Mendel offers performing arts space, other performing arts venues will suffer. That if the Mendel offers a licensed eating area, local bars and restaurants will suffer. That if the Mendel offers meeting rooms and conference facilities, local hotels will suffer. If this is truly the case, then an argument could be made against having any of these services at any other city-owned or -funded facilities. Should we continue to have food available at Credit Union Centre? What will the local restauranteurs say? Should we offer conference facilities such as those at TCU Place? Shall we eliminate snack sales at civic recreation facilities and replace them with commercial vending machines? Who decides which vendors? What about water fountains in public parks? We wouldn’t want to step on the toes of water bottlers—some of whom have been known to simply repackage civic water, by the way—would we? On the question of of whether the Mendel’s proposed conference facilities compete with hotels, there is still the fact that attendees will need places to sleep. Lest someone misinterpet me, I’m not seriously suggesting that all of these activities be eliminated. I’m simply trying to point out the absurdity resulting from the logical extension of Neault’s “one venue, one activity” standard.
In my experience—in Asia, Europe, the United States, and in other parts of Canada—art galleries are often a destination rather than an afterthought. Some of us go to a city to see a specific show at a specific gallery. We want to spend as much of our precious time in the gallery as possible. Many of the so-called “out of scope” amenities are simply conveniences that make our visit more enjoyable.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve built a second mountain on top of the one Neault made from the molehill he found in an outdated Mendel business plan. It was a financially insignificant item. I believe he quoted $10,000 as the contribution of food and beverage sales to the overall Mendel operations budget. While this is a significant sum to many people—for example an unemployed single parent, or a full-time artist, or a family working in a South Asian boat-wrecking yard—in the context of the Mendel’s budget ($1.6m current, $2.4m proposed), this is hardly more than a rounding error. If this were my budget, such items would be included because they acknowledge the fact that there are revenues and expense related to non-core activities. They do not signify a fundamental change in business strategy.
Had proponents of the expansion made points similar to Neault’s in bringing forward and defending the Mendel expansion, I’m sure Neault would have attacked them—justifiably—as the weak arguments that they were.1
- If Neault was truly the fiscal watchdog that he represents himself as, why did he not argue against the upgrade to the city’s emergency communications system from Windows NT to XP? From what I understood of the situation, the rationale for the expensive single-supplier contract was because the old system was out-of-date. Notwithstanding the newness of Vista, since when is it policy to upgrade from one out-of-date operating system to one that is less out-of-date rather than to something current? ^