Gregory Burke pulled the Power Plant out of debt and enhanced its international reputation. Then, he quit.

Gregory Burke pulled the Power Plant out of debt and enhanced its international reputation. Then, he quit.

Gregory Burke with Sarah Bywater, the former Power Plant head fundraiser, at the 2009 Power Ball (Image: George Pimentel) 

The Power Plant’s first board meeting of the year was held at noon on Monday, February 7. The gallery, situated on prime waterfront property, is a magnet for the city’s wealthy society figures. The clubby board of governors reflects that. Trinity Jackman, an archaeologist and the daughter of Hal Jackman, is the vice-president. The Drake Hotel owner Jeff Stober is a member, as are Rosedale hostess and arts patron Elisa Nuyten and the entertainment lawyer Paul Bain. The board’s president is Shanitha Kachan, an art collector and the wife of investment guru Gerald Sheff. Kachan called to order what should have been a routine, low-key meeting. Then came the big revelation.

Gregory Burke, the gallery’s director for the past five years, rose from his chair to make an announcement. The 53-year-old Burke is painfully shy and uncomfortable in public, and avoids eye contact. In a quiet voice, he informed the board that he was resigning. The announcement wasn’t totally unexpected. Since the day Burke was hired, there had been tension between him and members of the board, especially Bill Boyle, the gallery’s former director and a steadfast advocate of a more populist approach to arts programming. The socially graceful and savvy Kachan had become board president last June and never really connected with Burke, either.

His resignation came at a particularly awkward moment. The Power Plant was nearing the end of a $750,000 renovation that was meant to reintroduce it to the city when completed this spring. The gallery was also preparing to unveil an ambitious installation by the celebrated Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. The news of Burke’s resignation signalled that he was so unhappy he’d eclipse the grand reopening with his departure.

The directors of medium-sized art galleries aren’t usually celebrities, but the person in charge of the Power Plant spends a great deal of time in the spotlight. Unlike collecting institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, the Power Plant doesn’t acquire art; instead, it spends its budget on curating themed shows of borrowed artworks and organizing exhibitions that survey trendy art themes. The gallery is known as a conduit for the fickle fashions of the international art world, and as an arbiter of the biggest names in contemporary Canadian art (last year it hosted a survey of the video art of Michael Snow). The Power Plant doesn’t sell the art it exhibits, either—it leaves that to artists’ agents and dealers. An artist exhibited at the gallery acquires instead the coveted seal of disinterested approbation. With that endorsement comes status and a spike in asking price. The director of the Power Plant is one of the most power­ful tastemakers in the country’s art circles.

The gallery’s prestigious reputation was carefully nurtured by its parent, the Harbourfront Centre—a non-profit consortium that also runs the International Festival of Authors, the Fleck Dance Theatre and two marinas. Founded in 1976 as the Art Gallery at Harbourfront, the gallery has always been devoted to exhibiting the work of contemporary artists. In 1987, it changed its name and moved into its current building, a renovated 1920s facility that once housed the heating and refrigeration equipment for Queen’s Quay Terminal. The relationship between the Power Plant and Harbourfront is and has always been cozy. Boyle, in addition to serving as a Power Plant board member, is the chief executive officer of Harbourfront and was one of the gallery’s original founders. From the outset, he wanted the gallery to address what he considered a shameful dearth of contemporary art exhibited at institutions such as the AGO. The Power Plant was meant to bring together the bohemian artists on Queen Street West and the international scene in New York, Los Angeles, London and Berlin. The Power Plant’s budget is approved by the Harbourfront board, and it is ultimately Harbourfront that hires and fires the Power Plant’s director.

Burke, a native New Zealander, began his career in the 1970s as a video artist. By the mid-’80s, he had shifted to arts curation and administration. He ran the Govett-Brew­ster, a public gallery for contemporary art in New Plymouth, New Zealand. “At the time I was at the Govett-Brewster, there was a plague in public funding,” Burke says. The city administrators eventually came around to his impassioned pleas to continue funding the gallery, agreeing that art was too important to sacrifice to economic pressures. Burke was at the Govett-Brewster for seven years, exhibiting international work, especially from the Pacific Rim, and establishing an artists’ residency program. By 2005, the year he received a call from the Power Plant, he had acquired an international reputation. “I knew about the Power Plant from day one,” he told me. “I knew people in the international art world respected it.”

Burke was hired to replace Wayne Baerwaldt, a handsome, charismatic impresario who had come to Toronto on a wave of acclaim after his tenure at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg. There, he had championed artists who later developed high-profile international careers, like the illustrator Marcel Dzama, and the duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, whose multimedia artwork won awards at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Baerwaldt organized several important exhibitions for the Power Plant, including The Royal Art Lodge: Ask the Dust and a survey of the work of the American artist Glenn Ligon. He also gained a reputation in Toronto as a hard partier, equally at home in Queen West bars and Rosedale salons, and for mounting over-the-top spectacles (he shipped a 40-metre-high ferris wheel by the Dutch artist John Kormeling to Toronto from the Netherlands at a cost of $30,000). When he resigned in 2005, the gallery was $200,000 in debt.

Both Baerwaldt and his immediate predecessor, Marc Mayer, were raised and educated in Canada and had an intimate knowledge of contemporary Canadian art and Canadian art history. Burke’s familiarity with Canadian artists paled in comparison, and his appointment as director raised eyebrows. People questioned his commitment to Canadian art, and the public skepticism fed his insecurity. “I have to admit, even for me, it was a radical move,” Burke says. “I had no in-depth knowledge outside of the internationally exposed Canadian artists.”

What Burke inherited when he arrived was something of a mess. “Things had been running adrift for a while,” he says. “I had to be a bit of a magician, sticking to a firm budget and at the same time keeping people excited about what we were doing.”

Burke is notorious for his temper. “He screams and yells at people, shaking his finger”

While most of the Power Plant’s annual $3-million budget comes from private and corporate donations, it also depends on gala fundraising events. The annual Power Ball—a racy party where socialites mix with young artists—usually brings in more than $200,000. In addition to sheer fiscal austerity, Burke’s solution to the gallery’s debt came in the form of a one-off major fundraising event, timed to celebrate the institution’s 20th anniversary in 2007. He planned a high-profile dinner and auction, with art donated by Canadian and international artists. The party was the opposite of the Power Ball: no drag queens, no gay porn DVDs jokingly scattered on the tables, no celebrity DJ, no drunken dancing. Instead, the night began with polite cocktails, followed by an art auction conducted by Sotheby’s, and it concluded with a $1,000-a-plate dinner. Bay Street turned out (Galen Weston Jr. and Kevin O’Leary of Dragons’ Den fame were there), as did politicians such as Rob Ford. Bids for a mixed-media artwork by General Idea reached $50,000, and the night pulled in $850,000.

The timing of Burke’s resignation prompted speculation that he was encouraged to leave by members of the board. When I asked him what really happened, Burke said he had been contemplating leaving for at least a year, but he made the announcement when he did because it was convenient—he didn’t want to wait until the next board meeting, in May. The moment may have been convenient, but it was still curious: such resignations are typically accompanied by an announcement of a new, better appointment at another institution. At the time of the announcement, Burke didn’t have another job lined up.

While Burke pleased the board with his fiscal discipline and established good relationships with artists, he developed a reputation as a micromanager without much faith in the abilities of his underlings. Burke disagrees with this assessment. “I am thrilled with and supportive of the current staff,” he says. Never­theless, he burned through four development officers in five years, and last year the respected senior curator Helena Reckitt stepped down, reportedly because she found working with him impossible. More than one staff member told me that Burke is notorious for his temper. “He screams and yells at people, shaking his finger,” one of them confided. Morale was low, and Kachan made a habit of contacting Burke’s staff to find out what was going on.

Burke also reportedly felt pressured to make the gallery more accessible. The dilemma for every gallery director is to remain cutting-edge without alienating visitors. “We want to be elite without being elitist,” Burke told me. “A lot of museums do a lot of things to bring people in—parties, retail stores, cafés—but I think it’s important to keep focused on the mandate, and our mandate has to do with art.” Burke was willing to occasionally drive away the young families who frequent the Harbourfront Centre. Last spring, the gallery exhibited the videos of the 30-year-old American artist Ryan Trecartin. Trecartin’s art is lurid, apocalyptic and highly sexual; his subject is hyper-distracted, narcissistic youth who are obsessed with pornography and celebrity. To Burke, the show was a triumph: the first museum-level solo exhibition of a controversial young artist whose career is skyrocketing. But that season the gallery received only 9,700 visitors—a big drop from the 64,000 who came three years before for a show about emotional expression that included the prominent artists Marina Abramović and Sophie Calle.

A person close to the gallery told me that Burke was probably ready to leave because of his frustration with a dysfunctional board. “Many people sit on the board for social reasons and aren’t very interested in contemporary art. That isn’t a recipe for keeping a talented director,” the source said.

To some board members, Burke’s biggest flaw may have been his personality. Quirky, introspective and cerebral, he’s more simpatico with the artists he admires than the socialites and corporate sponsors he was expected to court. The gallery receives funding from BMO, Manulife and Hugo Boss, among other corporate donors, and a big part of the director’s job is to ensure that money continues to flow in. “It involves a lot of ass kissing,” board member Paul Bain says. “And Greg is not an ass kisser.” At events like the Power Ball, he would avoid the sponsors and socialites and instead share drinks with his artist friends.

The Power Plant reopened in March with a grand new lobby. The gallery’s renovation was overseen by the architect Bruce Kuwabara, a former board member who, until recently, was married to Victoria Jackman, also a former board member.

The new entrance is nice, but, either because of a limited budget or satisfaction with the status quo, it’s a minor facelift when major reconstructive surgery may be in order. “Harbourfront isn’t the same as it was,” Kuwabara says. “Everything’s changing, only the Power Plant hasn’t significantly changed. I would take the open space on the waterfront side, glass it in and make that the entrance. I would add an extra floor, too, and glass that in so that from there you are looking over the lake.”

Every so often, someone floats the idea of severing the Power Plant from Harbourfront. Bain believes it’s a proposal whose time has come. “The big three in Toronto—OCAD, the ROM and the AGO—have built new buildings with star architects,” he says. “That may be something we need to look at.” The financial bene­fits of the association with Harbourfront, however, are significant, and a divorce isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Before they make any more changes, they need to find a new director. The board, which Kachan told me will cast a wide, international net, is preparing for a search. “We’re in the process of gathering information and getting feedback,” she said in late February. “With art fairs like the ones in Basel and Miami, the business of the contemporary art world is becoming more populist, and in that context the Power Plant is even more important—and the director has to be nimble.” The gallery could easily choose to replace a complicated, problematic director who has vision and faith in the importance of art with someone who is simply more polite and presentable at cocktail parties. “We’re looking for a good fit” is all Kachan will say.

“People who aren’t very interested in contemporary art sit on the gallery board for social reasons. That isn’t a recipe for keeping a talented director”

Burke’s resignation wasn’t received happily by the entire board. Kelly Mark, a respected Toronto artist who also served on the board, quit, apparently in protest. I asked her for an interview and received an email in response in which she declined, saying she is not at liberty to speak out on the issue until some future time—presumably after Burke leaves at the end of May.

At press time, Burke had yet to announce his next step, though it sounded like he was aiming for a job in Europe. “I can’t imagine not working with artists,” he told me. “My model is Udo Kittelman, director of the National Gallery in Berlin, or Anne Goldstein, artistic director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, both of whom work directly with artists. The concept that you’re either a curator or a manager is a mistake. The manager of a hospital can’t run an art institution: the director must be fully aware of developments in contemporary art and, most importantly, have a passion for it.”

Burke is at a turning point, and so is the gallery he left behind. Should it, and can it, move in a more decisively international direction, competing with institutions like the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, or should it be more focused on Canadian art? At the moment, the gallery is an anomaly surrounded by rising condo towers, isolated more and more from the city. Without Burke, it also loses a connection to the art world.