There is disappointment and concern among the arts community in Sudbury.
It’s following a court decision this week that allows Laurentian University to sell the art collection at the Art Gallery of Sudbury.
The ruling also allows the post-secondary school to sell the Bell Mansion property where the Art Gallery of Sudbury currently resides. A timeline was given to allow the gallery time to move into its new home within the city’s proposed Junction East Centre.
But it’s the potential sale of the $4.8 million art collection, which Laurentian has said it won’t consider until after the creditor protection process is concluded, that’s stirring up the arts community.
“The fact that it becomes a commodity that could be used for who knows what is a bit disturbing,” said Linda Cartier, past president of the Sudbury Arts Council.
“Certainly the value of [the art] that’s not a dollar value is significant to the community,” she added.
Cartier explained that some of the art in the collection is local, and some are “core Canadian pieces.”
“It’s a big piece of who we are,” she said.
“In a lot of cases [the art] was gifted or received in different ways and the people that were doing that would not have been thinking that it was going up on an auction block at some point in time, but that more that it was going to be there for northern Ontario people to enjoy and to attract other people to our area.”
When the Sudbury Arts Council was first making its concerns known about the potential sale of the Bell Mansion property and artwork, several families of artists whose works are part of the collection, provided letters of concern.
“They were not happy with it being a possible way to resolve Laurentian University’s financial difficulties,” Cartier said. “It was intended to be there for people to enjoy the exhibitions.”
“This is a property of a gallery. The artists have given their artwork to a gallery, not for the profit of Laurentian University to get rid of a debt,” said Danielle Tremblay, director of la Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario (GNO).
“It represents northern artists. It’s their story. It’s our story. It belongs to the community.”
If Laurentian puts the artwork up for sale, Tremblay said GNO does not have the budget or the space to purchase it.
“That collection represents a history of our region,” said Alix Voz, a freelance curator and former director of the WKP Kennedy Gallery in North Bay.
“Visual art is cultural artifacts and it is proof of our history, and it tells a story that maybe books can’t tell properly or tell the same way.”
Voz is concerned the Art Gallery of Sudbury collection will be separated piece by piece.
“Knowing its value and knowing that those artworks are highly sought after, it’s not like they’re going to have a problem finding buyers,” she said.
“My concerns are finding buyers that are willing to either keep them public artwork or having access to it in some public way, or making sure they’re really taking care of them.”
“Art and culture and visual culture are so much more than dollar signs,” Voz said.
“To sell those or to lose them publicly it does feel like losing a part of our visual history,” she said.
“I know they would still exist, I know they’ll still be out there, but having them at our home in northern Ontario and having them well-cherished and exhibited I think, is the power of those cultural artifacts.”
“The whole collection of 4.8 million, I’m not sure everybody would have an interest in purchasing the entire collection, so my concern is the possible sell off of piece-by-piece,” said city councillor Al Sizer, who is also a member of the board at the Art Gallery of Sudbury.
“I’m not certain that there is a big big interest in purchasing [the whole collection] for private use,” he added.
Sizer said he is pleased that the court ruling provides time for the Art Gallery of Sudbury to move into its new space at Junction East Centre before the Bell Mansion building and property are sold.
That project is still on track for completion in 2024.
Laurentian can’t sell the art, gallery says
In a statement issued Thursday, the Art Gallery of Sudbury said it “continues to believe the art cannot readily be sold by Laurentian University”, and that the university does not own it.
“It is the Art Gallery of Sudbury’s intention and expectation that following the settlement, it will continue to display the LUMAC Collection for public benefit for the foreseeable future,” the statement said.
That collection is made up of work added to the gallery’s permanent collection in the name of the Laurentian University Museum and Art Centre (LUMAC) prior to July 1, 1997.
The Art Gallery of Sudbury said the question of ownership of the LUMAC collection, or the right for Laurentian to sell any or all of that art, “is expressly not determined in the settlement.”
The statement also said the gallery looks forward to working with Laurentian to update the arrangements under the settlement, once Laurentian gets out of its insolvency proceedings.
In an email to CBC News, Demetra Christakos, the director and curator at the Art Gallery of Sudbury said there is still a legal document to execute, but did not elaborate on what that was.
Laurentian must give the gallery 90 days notice if it intends to sell any of the artwork.
‘We can’t have an art gallery with no art’
If the post secondary school does decide to sell the artwork to help pay off its creditors, city councillor Robert Kirwan wants the city to buy it for the new gallery space at Junction East.
“We can’t have an art gallery with no art,” he said.
Kirwan said if Laurentian does decide to sell the art collection the city needs to be ready to respond.
“When you get that notification, we have to know because we can’t have that art being sold,” he said.
“If push comes to shove and the city has to buy the art we can’t have a facility that’s going to be close to $100 million with no art.”
Kirwan suspects this issue will be discussed at the next city council meeting, planned for June 28. He said if the city decides to buy the art for the gallery the money could come from debt financing, reserves or other avenues.
“If we had to find [the money], I know staff would be able to find it,” he said.
When all of the smoke has cleared that art has to stay in Sudbury.– Robert Kirwan, city councillor City of Greater Sudbury
“When all of the smoke has cleared that art has to stay in Sudbury,” Kirwan said.
Tremblay said having the city buy the art collection would be a good solution.
“It would be wonderful to have the collection stay in Sudbury, and if the city is willing to invest in that, I mean we’re keeping what belongs to us,” she said.
But Tremblay added the scenario seems absurd.
“It’s almost ridiculous for the community, for Sudbury, to have to buy something that belongs to them to start with, but if that’s the solution to keep the art then well yes, it would be wonderful.”
Laurentian University has not yet elaborated on any plans it might have for the Bell Mansion, or the art collection. The university declined an interview, but sent a written comment to be attributed to President Robert Hache.
“We are are proud of the Laurentian University Art Collection,” reads the statement. “And we are grateful custodians of artwork that has been donated to the University and purchased by the university over the past 60 years.
“We have recently resolved the dispute raised by the Art Gallery of Sudbury which includes an acknowledgement that the art collection is not owned by, or the property of the Art Gallery. As part of that settlement, Laurentian has agreed that the Art Gallery is permitted to continue to occupy the Bell Mansion on the existing terms until no later than May 2025, and that any sale of the Bell Mansion by Laurentian will not be completed until that time.”
Laurentian goes on to say the full terms of the resolution are reflected in the written Endorsement issued by the Judge, and available on the website of the court-appointed monitor overseeing Laurentian’s insolvency.