Ship out of Luck: Nicholas de Grandmaison Exhibit

Courtesy University of Lethbridge Art Gallery

A portrait of Good Eagle from the Siksika Nation (date unknown) by Nicholas de Grandmaison. Nicholas de Grandmaison’s portraits of natives and settlers of early Alberta are elegant, historically significant and probably not coming to a Canadian city near you. To see this exhibit you might have to travel to the U.S.

Unless the federal government intervenes to keep a specialized art and artifact trucking service on the road, art collections like the de Grandmaison exhibition from the University of Lethbridge’s art gallery will stay closer to home in the future. Time is running out for Exhibit Transportation Services, which since the late 1970s has used its small fleet of climate-controlled trucks to link Canada’s far-flung museums and galleries.

ETS ships artwork and artifacts from any two points in the country. It is a cost-recovery program, meaning galleries pay for the actual cost of shipping. The Canadian Conservation Institute, which administers the Department of Canadian Heritage program, announced the cancellation of ETS last April because the Canada Revenue Agency had ruled that its truckers could no longer be employed on a contract basis. After March 31, when ETS drops off its last load, art galleries will be forced to switch to private companies to ship art. Sharing works between different parts of the country will become too costly for many curators and gallery directors to contemplate.

Without the program in place, “The cost of shipping exhibitions across Canada is going to increase significantly,” says Shawn Van Sluys, executive director of the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization. “Travelling exhibitions are going to be far fewer.”

“One can only think through the implications,” says Dennis Reid, chief curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario. “It well could mean an inhibition and perhaps a curtailment of the degree of exchange of exhibitions that have been so important in developing a sense of Canadian visual culture.”

The Department of Heritage expects public galleries to make the transition to using private carriers, but higher costs will tie the hands of curators who work outside of major cities, particularly in Atlantic Canada. Museum directors in these areas are discovering there is no alternative to ETS that will fit their budgets.

The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery in southern Alberta held a Nicholas de Grandmaison exhibition last fall; if ETS were still available, it would have toured the country this year. But when the southern Alberta gallery sought an estimate from a private fine art shipping company, Mills balked at the cost.

“The shipping expenses were astronomically higher than using ETS. We just couldn’t afford to ship it,” says Josephine Mills, the director-

curator. The show will travel to the Art Gallery of Edmonton, which has its own truck, but the rest of the country will miss out. “That’s the reality, post-ETS.”

Another U of L Art Gallery exhibition, Time and Space, will run at The Rooms in St. John’s from March 28 to June 8. The artwork will be sent to Newfoundland via ETS, but because the service wraps up on March 31, the art will have to be returned to Lethbridge using a private carrier. The cost of the return leg of the journey would have been $5,900 with ETS. A private carrier contacted by the gallery initially quoted $10,217 but has been convinced to reduce the price to a little over $8,000. Still, Mills says, “That means we’re losing money on the exhibition tour. If we had to do it again, we’re not going to do it.”

In the past the U of L Art Gallery has used ETS for 100% of its out-of-province deliveries. Mills worries private shippers will ignore the two-gallery city, which is off the Trans-Canada highway. “There’s going to be no incentive for them to give us anywhere close to the level of service that ETS did. ETS treated Sackville [N.B.] and Lethbridge the same as Montreal and Vancouver,” she says. “It will not only be a lot more expensive, but they won’t come through as frequently or at all. They might not even bother to serve Lethbridge.

“How will we be able to get our exhibitions and works from our collection across Canada like we are doing?” asks Mills, who adds that her gallery’s collection is considerable, comprising 13,000 works. “And how will we bring exhibitions to Lethbridge for audiences to see?”

As well as threatening travelling exhibitions, the cancellation of ETS is likely to force galleries to think twice before sending a private shipper to fetch an object from the other side of the country. Picking up a work that’s been donated could likewise prove to be more expensive than it’s worth.

The Conservation Institute cancelled the trucking service because the CRA ruled its drivers should be considered employees, not contract workers.

“The official line is that it was a bureaucratic decision. They were essentially forced because they were found in their latest financial and procurement audit to be contravening the Canada Revenue Agency’s regulations on employer-employee contracts,” Van Sluys says. “That would mean that the truckers would have to be placed on the government payroll.”

Heritage representatives privately told Van Sluys that full-time, unionized truckers with extra training handling artworks would potentially command salaries of $200,000 or more.

Rather than adding the truckers to the payroll and passing the cost on to galleries, the CCI simply announced it was cancelling ETS. Van Sluys says the decision was made without consultation, without any funds to compensate galleries for extra shipping costs and without a chance for appeal.

“There’s huge lobbying and pressure by the private sector to shut down this business because they see it as competition,” Van Sluys adds.

The Heritage Department denied a request for an interview to elaborate on the decision. A representative wrote via e-mail that the CCI “will provide training and service to the Exhibit Transportation Services clients as they make the transition to using private sector carriers.”

CAMDO has led the fight to keep ETS alive. “What we don’t agree with is just outright cancelling the program without looking at alternative solutions,” Van Sluys says.

Heritage Department officials are not offering him much hope. “We’re still trying to have discussions with Heritage, which is getting nowhere. They’re not going to reverse the decision. They’ve made that emphatically clear.”

Looking toward the future, Van Sluys met with representatives of private fine arts shippers in Toronto Monday to discuss ways to make the transition easier for art galleries.

While the U of L Art Gallery’s collection of portraits by the late de Grandmaison won’t be seen in provinces other than Alberta this year, higher exhibition fees south of the border will offset higher private shipping fees. It will tour, but not in this country.

“We’re not touring the exhibition across Canada, but we are going to send it to the U.S., Mills says.

National Post


~ by sonia011 on June 20, 2008.

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