Arts
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

What happens when Victoria's cultural institutions close up shop?

The future of the Bateman Gallery and Point Ellice House

By Michael John Lo
April 3, 2023
Arts
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

What happens when Victoria's cultural institutions close up shop?

The future of the Bateman Gallery and Point Ellice House

A Bateman Gallery staff member (second to left) speaks to a visitor (left) in the final minutes of the gallery's last publicly open day.
A Bateman Gallery staff member (second to left) speaks to a visitor (left) in the final minutes of the gallery's last publicly open day.
Arts
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

What happens when Victoria's cultural institutions close up shop?

The future of the Bateman Gallery and Point Ellice House

By Michael John Lo
April 3, 2023
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What happens when Victoria's cultural institutions close up shop?
A Bateman Gallery staff member (second to left) speaks to a visitor (left) in the final minutes of the gallery's last publicly open day.

On Feb. 18, a staff member at the Bateman Gallery brought a cake to work. It was the last day that the gallery would be open to the public, an abrupt closure announced just the day prior. 

With the gallery’s lease ending last month, its collection of Robert Bateman originals, prints, and other reproductions, which number in thousands, is now in storage.

Nearly all of the gallery’s former staff have had to look for new jobs, with the exception of the foundation’s executive director, who is now tasked with figuring out where the gallery’s Nature Sketch program and its collection will go, said David Schneider, chair of the Bateman Foundation.

More than 500 people visited on the gallery’s last day.

“In a way, I think our organization was taken for granted,” Schneider said. Robert Bateman’s art, beliefs, and conservation efforts is “one of the most iconic brands in all of Canada,” he added.

But the gallery’s greatest source of support—private donations—has largely come from outside of BC, with a significant number of donors in the US.

Schneider cited the costs of rent, along with the costs of labour in an increasingly expensive city as the primary reasons for the gallery’s closure.

“From a fiscal standpoint, [we] did not have those operating costs,” he said. “As you’re finding now, there’s a lot of pain out there.”

A “sizable” amount of capital will be needed to bring the gallery back, though Schneider said that a number of groups and developers have been in touch. There is yet to be a final decision from the board about next steps. But Schneider is optimistic.

“We’ll figure out how to resurrect somehow,” Schneider said. “But right now, we have to close up.”

Point Ellice House’s closure, announced on March 23, came next month. 

The non-profit Vancouver Island Local History Society, which took over the site’s operations in 2019, is returning the provincial heritage site back to the BC government in May, four years into its five-year contract. Some staff are staying until the end of this month to prepare for the site handover, including a final food donation from the Point Ellice Gardens to local emergency women’s shelter, Sandy Merriman House. 

The province owns the site and the collection and will be seeking a new operator, a process which is estimated to take two to three months.

The chronic underfunding of Point Ellice House was unsustainable, said executive director Kelly Black. He points to a 2007 government-commissioned report that estimated Point Ellice House needed at least $236,000 in annual provincial funding for the site to be sustainable.

“The idea that we just simply were bad at budgeting, and somebody else will come in and do a better job with [the current] financial support from the province is hard to believe,” Black said. 

When the province’s heritage site was managed by the Ministry of Forests, Point Ellice House would usually be a small funding boost with leftover ministry budget. But since the transfer of the heritage site portfolio to the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture, and Sport in 2022, the museum has been getting the amount stated in its contracts and nothing more, said Black.

“Waiting until the end of the fiscal year to know whether you’re going to be open or closed, or whether you’re going to be able to pay your staff or not, is no way to run a heritage site,” said Black.

“From what I’ve seen, the province doesn’t want to pay for operations,” he added. “They’ll give money to make sure that the roof doesn’t fall in.”

Since 2019, the province has provided $425,000 for site operations and about $338,000 for site maintenance. An additional one-time grant of $226,000 was provided through the BC 150 Time Immemorial program.

“We expect property operators to generate revenue as part of their business plan,” a ministry spokesperson wrote in an email in response to questions from Capital Daily.

Black pointed out that Point Ellice House was able to generate revenue. 

The ministry did not respond to questions about the government-commissioned report in 2007.

If the BC government is unwilling to put the time and investment into public history, the province is helping uphold a status quo that leaves out crucial historical facts, Black said. 

Under Black’s tenure, Point Ellice House began to acknowledge some previously brushed-away realities within Point Ellice House’s history, such as former resident Peter O’Reilly’s tenure as a commissioner of the Indian Reserve Commission. 

Located in a noisy industrial area with little foot traffic, Point Ellice House is not a profitable location and needs a mix of provincial and local support to do its work as a museum, as Black previously told Capital Daily.

“The gap between what you’re able to generate in revenue with the funding that you’re provided, at the costs associated, is just too significant, especially at a site like Point Ellice House which is hard to get people to come to, as opposed to a place downtown like Emily Carr House,” Black said.

In Black’s opinion, a provincial heritage site like Point Ellice House can be a powerful tool to educate.

“We need to talk about how and why colonization occurred if we want to understand how and why we need to address colonization now,” Black said. “If we refuse to engage and not support [...] it’s going to be very difficult to make sure that those kinds of injustice don’t occur in the future.”

Black said that it’s unlikely that the research and public history work done in the last four years will continue with a new successor. 

“The province is going to try and find somebody who will run the site for $111,000 a year, and they’re going to hope that they will increase the admission fees and increase weddings,” Black said. “Which of course, isn’t something that would actually make up a $200,000 budget shortfall.”

In the meantime, the province indicated that they will look for options to maintain public access and security to Point Ellice House.

The soul of a community is in its cultural institutions, said Schneider. “We have to enhance them, embrace them, and let them flourish,” he added.

But sometimes, even the buildings are falling apart: the 120-year-old Tam Kung temple on Government Street is asking the public to help with $600,000 of deferred maintenance.

In a commentary by Ryan Hunt, executive director of the BC Museums Association, published in the Times Colonist shortly after the closure of the Bateman Gallery, he said that many more cultural sites are at risk. Organizations are afraid that speaking up about their struggles in the chance that it could discourage potential sources of funding, he wrote. 

“Our buildings crumble. Our ceilings leak. Our collections degrade. Our current path leads in one direction, to catastrophe,” he continued. “If we as a society continue to underinvest in arts, culture, and heritage we will witness its death by a thousand cuts.”

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