AGN Status Report

With a Trillium grant of $32,000, the Art Gallery of Northumberland (AGN) hired Consultant Laridae Communications Inc to consult with the Northumberland community to “assess community interest in and support for AGN activities”.  The report was released to the public on November 22 and my short synopsis is that there is more work to be done. There are no answers provided – that will be the job of the board.  But there are some big problems and major questions to answer.  There is a shortage of funding and although there were 5100 gallery visitors in the past year (considered “solid”) and most people said that the gallery was a good thing, the current business model may well be not sustainable.   Further, the number of volunteers has dropped over the last 15 years from 100+ to about 20. 

The report contains a large amount of detailed feedback from a range of stakeholders:

  • Board and Staff members
  • Artists
  • Community partner organizations
  • Community members
  • Volunteers
  • Donors
  • Funders

This was done through “focus groups, community town halls, an online survey, and key informant interviews”.

It will take some further work to decide which of these comments relate to wish lists and which affect ongoing viability.

In the executive summary, the report highlights some of the key issues:

  • Structural sustainability issues that must be addressed if the AGN is to remain viable over the long term.
  • A withdrawal of funding from some supporters (mostly due to perceived governance problems in the years up to 2015).
  • The current level of funding will not sustain permanent staffing at a level adequate to the organization’s aspirations for programs and operations.
  • The need for more volunteers (both hours and skills).

Possible solutions include:

Victoria Hall - Photo used on AGN web site.
Victoria Hall – Photo used on AGN web site.
  • Attracting long-term commitments from funders and donors (and increasing the funder/donor base)
  • Considering other business models, such as joining with other galleries and/or operating as part of municipal government operations, as other cultural institutions in the region do.

There were 123 respondents to the online survey, 11 people participated in a focus group and 53 attended one of the three Town Hall meetings (in Cobourg, Port Hope and Warkworth).

From these, over 150 comments or suggestions are listed in the full report (link below).  I have extracted some that I see as significant.

Comments/Suggestions Highlights

Stakeholder – Focus group

  • Participants would like to see more of the permanent collection, which is stored in the archives. “Let it out.”
  • Have an AGN event at the Cobourg Community Centre (which can have art shows, photography displays)—for more visibility
  • Barriers to community outreach include the physical restrictions of the AGN location (sign restrictions, no street-level presence, elevator, entrance through gift shop).
  • Will the AGN be primarily an institution of the town or the county, or something else? (It was noted that most of the funding is provided by the Town of Cobourg. What is the AGN’s relationship to the County?) Strategic planning/visioning is needed now, as well as a governance review.
  • Why is the current mandate to serve all of Northumberland County, when there is no ongoing funding from the County?
  • To attract and retain funders and donors, the AGN will need to be able to demonstrate that there is a strong governance model in place, a strategic plan, and a sound business plan.
  • If the AGN were a central attraction to visitors in Cobourg, it would have an impact on tourism. With more marketing, there is lots of potential for this kind of growth.
  • Many suggestions were made to improving marketing, such as: better signage inside and outside Victoria Hall, a dedicated AGN board with posters, improving the website, and collaboration with the concert hall for marketing efforts. 
  • Appreciation for arts and culture is rising in the community. The upcoming Cultural Master Plan is an incredible opportunity.

Artist Focus Group

  • The AGN should ensure that part of the permanent collection is always on display, perhaps in the smaller room.
  • The idea of moving should be revisited. It might take ten years; start now.
  • Part of the mandate of the AGN is/should be support for artists.
  • Participants advocated for more collaboration with other arts organizations, increasing contacts.
  • In discussing the facility, the first choice of participants is a new building (with climate control and other standards met, so the AGN could obtain better shows). Failing that, more visibility in and around Victoria Hall was the focus of comments.
  • Moving the AGN to the ground floor (and mayor’s office to the 3rd) would make it more accessible to the public and be good for tourism. It is the same amount of space.
  • It was suggested that, in addition to using the website to link to artists, the AGN could also link to area art galleries.

Community Town Halls 

  • There were calls for more experiential and experimental art, with target audiences, such as seniors, youth, and adults. Some said that the gallery catered to traditionalists and should focus more on contemporary art.
  • The most frequent comment relating to the facility was the need for (and constraints around, because of heritage designation) more visible AGN signage.
  • The idea of moving to a different space was raised, which some supported, while others wanted to stay and renovate. The idea of turning Victoria Hall into a cultural centre was raised.
  • Some questioned why the AGN was trying to reach the whole County when funding was not provided at that level to support it.
  • Visibility at the street level is a concern—signage/directional signs needed.
  • The AGN should do a better job promoting itself beyond the arts community. Distribution of AGN promotional materials should be broader than a newsletter for members.
  • The recent problems are well known, but less well known is that the AGN has gone through a “cure”.

Notable Quotations

  • We need to look at this building. Without signage, standing in the lobby, visitors think, “am I supposed to be here?”
  • I would like to see the permanent collection more often—keep some of it displayed all the time. It seems like so long since I’ve seen those paintings.
  • The AGN needs leadership with vision so strong it is dripping with colour and flavour. The vision has to be so acute that we can’t stand not to be there.
  • The Board needs to figure out their identity. What makes the AGN special? Identification with Cobourg as an interesting place?

Overview of Survey Responses

A majority of those completing the online survey were AGN members and/or artists and a large majority had visited the AGN in the last 6 months.

The top four choices for the most important potential roles of the AGN were:

  • Stimulating, expanding, promoting local arts and culture (78%)
  • Showcasing regional artists (56%)
  • Educating (lectures & workshops) (53%)
  • Showcasing national artists (31%)

Funder/Donor Calls

  • Current public (municipal) funders value the AGN and what it offers to the community.
  • As part of an integrated arts-related tourism marketing effort, the AGN could contribute significantly to the economic development of the region.
  • In order to continue investing funds in the AGN, funders need to have confidence in the vision, strategies, and governance of the AGN.
  • An area for improvement is the current practice of running deficits for exhibitions and other operational decisions.
  • Partnerships with other organizations (non-profit and private sector) and with other funders are more important to funders than ever. They show broad community support and innovation. It is also necessary to have a plan that includes benefits to the community and how impact will be measured.


The report does not include a final summary – the full report is available for download here.  Note that it is missing its appendices with more details and as mentioned above, there is no action plan included.  However, there are a large number of ideas as to how the operation can be improved. I would mention that one recurring theme that has traditionally been resisted is the idea of moving the Gallery out of Victoria Hall.  Failing that, everyone wanted better signage.


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6 years ago

Slightly off topic – From this report we have been given that “An authentic engagement process is one that genuinely seeks input and allows for those invested in the success of an organization to provide ideas, input, and feedback. Properly done, stakeholder engagement is in no way an abdication or devolution of leadership — it’s the opposite. Leaders who reach out and seek the input of the people delivering or receiving services every day are far more likely to craft future strategic directions and develop programming that will resonate with those they serve. ” I’d say somewhat at odds with Councils views (or should I say the training they received).

Also from this Report I’m left with the feeling that the Town of Cobourg, the major funding supporter, is also setting up major speedbumps in terms of infrastructure and marketing/communication of the AGN. For instance, advertising events around and within Victoria Hall. I don’t believe that the AGO or the ROM have these similar issues. AND I do love the idea of putting the Mayors Office on floor 3.

Wally Keeler
6 years ago

Think art.
Canlit authors receive govt grants to write their manuscripts.
Canlit publishers of those manuscripts are subsidized by govt.
Published Canlit books and zine distributors receive govt subsidy.
Libraries use their govt-funded budget to buy govt funded books delivered by govt subsidy, that sit on govt funded library shelves.

manfred s
6 years ago

As the definition and perception of “Art” evolves in what is conceived and created by artists of all disciplines, perhaps it would be appropriate to redefine and rethink the concept of “Art Gallery”.
The opinions that the current, long-standing concept of a traditional art gallery is not sustainable is familiar and maybe so because of the narrowness of the concept, with little in the way of ideas to fix it being put forward as a result. If the ‘consumers’ of artistic output are offered a restricted variety of “art” and thereby limited in their access to the full spectrum of ‘artistic product’ that’s actually out in the public realm, that body of proactive appreciators of art will remain rather small in terms of what is possible. This then renders the current concept of ‘art gallery’ unsustainable as feared.
Today, I would submit, “art” probably includes pretty much whatever is offered to the broader audience in the way of creative output which takes us far beyond colours applied to canvases of various kinds and shapes and forms fashioned from various substances. I suggest that today’s ‘art’ includes many more and maybe endless forms of creativity such as landscape art, audio and video-based art, photographic and holographic art, culinary art, fibre art, rendering of surfaces of all kinds, physical movement, mental (or virtual) imaging and so on, arguably some of which may or may not be considered art already. The ‘Art Galleries’ of the future, ones that have an extremely broad appeal, will have to include much more than what we expect to see in them today. Such a ‘gallery’ is not going to work in a location like Victoria Hall. If we really want to look to the future and create a sustainable ‘gallery’ for the arts, we need to divert our thinking and our ambitions towards a more inclusive ‘space’ to accommodate the arts that appeal to all kinds of ‘consumers of artistic output’. Just imagine a ‘gallery’ that embodies all of the forms of art we can think of, in one space, or ‘area’ created with one unique purpose, the presentation of art in all its forms. It would be the multi-dimensional palette of human creativity that expands as the human mind expands ahead of it. Its very presence would likely fire imaginations in all ages of people and lead the gallery’s evolution and unique personality into the uncharted future, rather than keep presenting the question of ‘What do we do now and where do we go from here?’. I for one would really like that.

Reply to  manfred s
6 years ago

The TETT Center in Kingston may be an excellent example.

Reply to  manfred s
6 years ago

Well Manfred here is one suggestion – get the AGN out of Vic Hall, put it across the road in the “newly Town owned experience centre” the old Bargain store purchased with funds from the ‘playmoney’. This Municipal Centre would be “government on the ground”. With an application to the newly announced Housing strategy build three floors above the ground floor and create a “critical mass” of people just dying to rejuvenate downtown. Let’s go into the next election with the slogan “Government at work!”

Wally Keeler
Reply to  manfred s
6 years ago

“Just imagine a ‘gallery’ that embodies all of the forms of art we can think of, in one space, or ‘area’ created with one unique purpose, the presentation of art in all its forms. It would be the multi-dimensional palette of human creativity that expands as the human mind expands ahead of it.”

That ‘gallery’ already exists. It’s called Cobourg. All the world’s a stage, or tv studio, or gallery.

Critical Mass in Port Hope is a wonderful example of ART performance. If people don’t go to the gallery, then let the gallery go to where they are. Their works engage the public in the art experience. Critical Mass is a group of arties who collaborate with other institutions to create their productions.

Lets imagine something specific; The Light House. Wrap the lighthouse at the end of the pier with led strips programmed to produce multicolourfulism. The lighthouse could become a greenhouse on St Patrick’s Day, or green and red for Christmas season; red and white for Canada Day. Best of all, arties engaged with lumens will be able to program unique lighting effects. The technology is not difficult, so it can be integrated into local high schools for students who want to learn the artsy side of it. This is something the Art Gallery could coordinate.

Furthermore, such a Light House would prove unique on a global scale. Many bldgs and structures in the world use leds to enhance their architectural impact. But no lighthouses, anywhere. Google it. My suggestion is unique and original in application. Such a wondrous sight is a year around spectacle, especially during stormy weather, backdropped with ominous clouds and lightning.

We can be sure that it will be photographed and video recorded constantly by visitors. Tourists are attracted to Peggy’s Cove for the lighthouse. Same could be here. Some enterprising artisan could construct plastic miniature lighthouses with leds and sell as nick-knacks to the public. It could inspire day trips to Cobourg to see the Light House, and service stations and restaurants will appreciate some of the off-season business.

The DBIA and Art Gallery could collaborate on an annual weekend art show put on by three different artists from the Ontario College of Art & Design. Cobourg could well become a locus for lumen art.

Here is an example sponsored by the Rotary Club of Richmond Centre, WI, USA. It has 9600 pixels and is programmed to music.

Reply to  Wally Keeler
6 years ago

Well, now that you’ve challenged…

Furthermore, such a Light House would prove unique on a global scale. Many bldgs and structures in the world use leds to enhance their architectural impact. But no lighthouses, anywhere. Google it. My suggestion is unique and original in application.

Lighting up lighthouses is not a unique idea. There’s beauties over in Yokohoma and Enoshima, Japan. Saw one in Maine.
This one is in California:

Wally Keeler
Reply to  Frenchy
6 years ago

Thanks for that. What a beautiful show. That lighthouse uses projection and mapping to accomplish its task. My suggestion to use leds or someone else’s projection-mapping protocol are very inexpensive to carry off. It’s a simple idea with impact. Thanks for the link Frenchy, Ill use it as an example for making a proposal.

BTW, I have tried to locate images of coloured snow angels. There are examples of coloured snow, coloured snowman, etc, but I have not yet located a coloured snow angel. If your search skill can locate one, that would show me up.

Wally Keeler
Reply to  Frenchy
6 years ago

The two lighthouses in Japan are spectacular, but their size make them more of a CN Tower project. They are located in central urban areas, so they can have a budget for their extravagance. Cobourg’s lighthouse is much more modest, but it has a much more profound backdrop than the lighthouses in Japan. Ours is isolated, light-wise.

At any rate, we have a boring dime-a-dozen lighthouse. If we are happy that Christmas Magic brings lights to the harbour, then why not add the Lighthouse to the mix.

6 years ago

When the new Board feels ready to unveil their plans, I am sure the two Cobourg Probus clubs would be open to a presentation.
Of those I have spoken to about the Art Gallery, most only go when they have visitors and looking for somewhere local to take them. They are impressed with the location but don’t think to go any other time. Perhaps a small gallery at street level would see more traffic and point the way to the main gallery.

Mary Donaldson
6 years ago

John, although many of the comments published in the appendix about the Victoria Hall venue were negative, the survey numbers showed that a clear majority, just under 70% liked the venue and thought having the gallery in an historically significant building was an asset.
We are a brand new board and we are working hard to create a financially sustainable model for this gallery with its culturally significant permanent collection.

6 years ago

The AGN’s model is obviously not sustainable. A complete teardown is problably what is needed. There is a lot of value in the permanent collection. Location is certainly an issue and the operation needs to be taken over by a local government.

Reply to  Kyle
6 years ago

We don’t need “More Government” in our daily lives…enough-is-enough. What the arts need is more generous patrons who pay for their arts and not ask other taxpayers to subsidize their interest.