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Program cut a ‘slap in the face’ for culture

The Yukon Art Centre regularly draws big-name world-class exhibitions to its gallery.In 2005, it hosted Janet Cardiff’s 40-Part Motet, a…

The Yukon Art Centre regularly draws big-name world-class exhibitions to its gallery.

In 2005, it hosted Janet Cardiff’s 40-Part Motet, a piece that’s showed at major galleries around the world.

And in January it will display a blockbuster Inuit and Sami exhibition called In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun.

But come April, it will be nearly impossible to bring those exhibitions to the gallery, said acting curator Mary Bradshaw.

That’s when Ottawa plans to stop offering its Exhibition Transportation Service, a self-funded program responsible for safely moving more than half of all art and cultural objects to galleries across the country.

The art centre only uses the service about twice a year.

“That isn’t a lot, but those are the big important shows,” said Bradshaw. “And those shows require professional art handlers and transport.

“Without this service, those shows would not be accessible to the Yukon. Period.”

To bring one show to the Yukon using a private transportation company would cost more than $6,000, she said. That’s the art centre’s entire transportation budget for one year.

“This (service closing) is the biggest slap in the face to culture,” said Exhibition Transportation Service driver George Ettinger, who was in Whitehorse last week delivering the Inuit and Sami show to the art centre.

“The loss is going to be something else – it’s going to be horrendous,” he said.

Ettinger has delivered tons of art to destinations across Canada and the US for the past 30 years.

He will retire when the program shuts down in April.

“Some of the companies that move art haven’t got the equipment to do it, and I don’t think they want the responsibility,” Ettinger added.

“Damages are going to go up and costs are going to skyrocket.”

The Canadian Conservation Institute administers the service, and galleries and museums pay a fee to cover equipment costs and to pay the contract drivers.

The drivers are trained in handling art. And their trucks are outfitted with heavy insulation and temperature controls, which make them specially designed to transport fragile and valuable work.

More than 50 per cent of all art transportation between museums in Canada is conducted by the service.

It’s the only carrier that will travel to some geographically isolated regions because of the high costs and liabilities associated with moving valuable objects.

In the North that’s a big deal.

“It’s going to have a significant impact on remote galleries like the Yukon Art Centre,” said Shawn Van Sluys, executive director of the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization in an interview from Ottawa.

There are private companies that offer transportation services, but because of the high cost of moving goods to remote parts of Canada their services would cost at least three times more than the government program.

“The galleries in these remote regions are going to have a difficult time getting art work and it’s going to cost immense amounts of money,” said Van Sluys.

That means museums will have to scale down their exhibitions, or resort to showing work that’s only available in their regions.

“Audiences won’t have the benefit of seeing art from across Canada, and artists won’t be able to have their work seen,” said Van Sluys.

In some cases, galleries will have to rely on commercial carriers that are not skilled in handling art, and that will mean more damages and more loss, he added.

“I think we can agree the last thing we all want is for Canadian culture and heritage to be damaged in shipping.”

The Canadian Heritage department decided to can the program after an audit found employing contract drivers to run the service violated Revenue Canada’s rules, said media relations officer Len Westerberg in an interview from Gatineau last week.

After the service ends, Heritage will offer training and advice to assist museums and galleries in using private transport companies, said Westerberg.

But he could not say if or when that service would be available in the Yukon.

The government also offers an existing program to cover some of the increased expenses.

“If museums have financial problems with transportation they can apply for funding through the Museums Assistance Program,” said Westerberg.

But Van Sluys calls that program a “pathetic” solution.

“The government has been touting the Museums Assistance Program as the answer, but there are so many holes we can poke in that defence,” he said.

“Last year, funding to that program was cut. Increasing demand on a program with less money is not going to help anything.

“And many galleries, who don’t have permanent collections, are ineligible for funding under that program.”

Currently the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization is running a letter-writing campaign lobbying MPs, culture ministers and the Canadian Heritage department to keep the program, or a similar one, going.

“We’d like the government to realize how significant this program is to Canadian heritage and Canadian culture, and work with us to find a solution,” said Van Sluys.