Funding for Art Gallery of Mississauga restored after probe found discrimination, harassment of staff; few details have been released
Alexis Wright/The Pointer

Funding for Art Gallery of Mississauga restored after probe found discrimination, harassment of staff; few details have been released


The Art Gallery of Mississauga showcases work by many of the city’s most talented creators. Located inside Mississauga City Hall, exhibits tell stories shaped outside the spaces where they hang. For years patrons were unaware of the mounting internal problems tearing the organization apart.  

Allegations of bullying, mismanagement and a racist work culture finally surfaced. 

In 2020, former staff members started to tell their story and  City Council eventually paused funding that kept the AGM’s doors open. Few details were provided to the public as the controversy quietly unfolded, but now a clearer picture of the issues inside the gallery has come to light. 

Shortly after the allegations surfaced the following public statement by the AGM was released in August of 2020: “The [AGM] acknowledges widespread systemic racism and discrimination as well as oppression in our arts community that has gone on for too long. We are committed to advancing the important dialogue and action for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), 2SLGBTQ+ and those with disabilities with an inclusive platform… Given the complexity of the issues, the AGM will endeavour to address them with the time and attention they deserve.” 

But few details about the organizational culture or senior leadership were included in two separate statements released by the AGM.

In June, last year, the organization announced a sweeping diversity, equity and inclusion audit would be done by the Regional Diversity Roundtable (RDR) to, “remove… existing diversity, and equity-related gaps at the AGM. This audit is an opportunity for AGM to develop an inclusive workplace culture, in which respect and positive recognition of differences are cultivated and enacted. It would further establish practices encompassing barrier-free experiences for individuals of varying identities and abilities.”

It was a clear indication that, in one of the world’s most diverse cities, where about six in ten residents identify as a visible minority, major problems existed inside one of the major cultural institutions.  

When council members and staff began hearing the allegations a recommendation from the City’s culture division advised early in 2021 to cut the AGM’s funding by more than half, down to $160,000.

At a council committee meeting on February 10, 2021, the AGM’s executive director, Anna Gulbinski, and its board president, Leslie Silvestri, told elected officials that the allegations were being addressed and the following actions had been taken:  

“Workplace Harassment and Discrimination training conducted for all staff and Board members; Reviewed and updated all harassment, discrimination, diversity, workplace violence policies and procedures; Became an Employer Partner with Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion participated in training webinars; Staff and Board have received and acknowledged the Peel Charter for Diversity – ongoing meetings with Peel Culture Division; Applied for grants to subsidize the completion of a Diversity and Inclusion Audit and Organizational review; grant for Strategic Planning; Canvassed for Diversity and Inclusion auditors – proposals received, ready to engage; Established Public Advisory Committee – public invited to join – meetings ongoing; New Equity and Inclusion policy developed.”

The audit went ahead, but it has never been made public. It recommended 76 actions to fix widespread problems inside the organization that had left staff terrified of speaking out against Silvestri, the president of the board of directors, who had been singled out by staff as the main cause of the problems. Silvestri denies all of the allegations made against her. 

Council froze funding.

When staff and the new board president, Lisa Browne, needed money from the City of Mississauga to keep the AGM afloat, councillors heard a delegation from Browne and Gulbinski a few weeks ago, in August. They convinced council to unfreeze funding for the Art Gallery of Mississauga. 

The non-profit organization, with little to no oversight from the City, has received funding from taxpayers through grants to pay staff salaries, utilities and fund exhibits. Since 2018 the City has given $1.4 million to the AGM and allows the organization to rent its location inside City Hall for $2 a year.

In 2020, the City put the AGM on a special funding arrangement, “Support with Conditions”, following allegations of discrimination, bullying, harassment and turmoil between the board of directors (meant to oversee the organization) and staff. 

“Support with Conditions status gives [City] staff more oversight by scheduling more frequent meetings and asking the organization to match or exceed compliance expectations throughout the funded year,” Irene McCutcheon, a City of Mississauga spokesperson, explained in an email.

A website called Hold the AGM Accountable details some of the allegations.

“I witnessed, along with my colleagues and many members of the arts community, an alarming deficit of clear communication, leadership and respect from the board and the directorship of the AGM,” wrote Sharada Eswar, a former AGM staff member. “Staff were constantly micro-managed and belittled.”

Last month council agreed to release $225,000 of funding with $50,000 releasing October 1, citing a return of stability to the organization in the past few months. 

The AGM was reorganized in January this year following what was described as a “scathing” diversity and inclusion audit that the Regional Diversity Roundtable conducted. It still remains unavailable to the public.

The recommendations have been categorized into three areas: governance, operations and service provision with the following categories:

  • Addressing overt bias and oppression

  • Addressing favouritism and bullying

  • Contortions in following policy and practice

  • Board attitude and lack of governance understanding (past and present)

  • Operational issues

  • Communications gaps

  • Irregularities in employee documentations

  • Unrealistic expectations of staff to deliver on the job

  • Lack of clarity about role and responsibilities

  • Onboarding gaps

  • Protocol-based decisions related to hiring/recruiting board, staff and contractors

  • Lack of empathy and compassion in organizational culture

Shortly after the audit was finalized in December 2021 a third-party investigation was launched into the former board of directors president after she was removed. Both have been kept from the public. 

“The final report contains sensitive information, and will not be released to the public, in the interest of protecting the privacy of the complainants, and to help mitigate against the fear of reprisal,” Browne, the new president of the AGM board, told The Pointer in an email.

Silvestri was described in the investigation as engaging in, “among other things, psychological harassment of others, as well as workplace violence as defined by Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

She denies any wrongdoing during her time as president, which lasted from June 2020 to January this year.

“I do believe that I did the work that was set out for me, given the circumstances that were there,” Silvestri told The Pointer in an interview. “I was supportive of the staff all the way that I could be and believe that I was given a job to do.”

 

Leslie Silvestri files her nomination papers to run in the upcoming 2022 municipal election in Mississauga.

(Twitter)

 

The investigation was completed by Vicki Scott, principal consultant of Scott and Associates Inc. 

Scott found that the claims of bullying and harassment allegedly committed by Silvestri were substantiated.

“Ms. Scott also found that Ms. Silvestri has engaged in discriminatory conduct that contravenes the Ontario Human Rights Code, and that the complainants fear of reprisal, reputational harm and professional harm from Ms. Silvestri,” Browne told councillors in August after taking over from Silvestri, who is now running in the Ward 7 municipal election race.

Silvestri alleges Scott did not follow the process to contact her properly to defend herself during the investigation. She says the first letter detailing the investigation came in February but, to her, it was not clear what the complaints were.

“That document said, somebody would be contacting you in two weeks. Nobody ever contacted me,” Silvestri said. “The documents does not state from the investigator that this was an investigation into me, it was harassment in the gallery.” 

Scott did not respond to The Pointer for comment.

“I don't even know specifically what is the problem,” Silvestri told The Pointer. “Like anybody could say, ‘Oh, you've harassed her, you bullied her, or whatever.”

 

The Art Gallery of Mississauga is located inside City Hall.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)

 

At the August council meeting when AGM leaders spoke about the issues that have plagued the organization, Councillor Ron Starr brought up the lack of transparency. Starr had been an ex-officio (a non-voting board member) over the last two years.

According to him, there has been a schism around the board table for some time. 

“I used the word acrimonious, where there were two boards fighting. How was that [the investigation] authorized if there was an interim board and there was a past board,” he asked Browne and Gulbinski.

“There was a majority of the board that was still functioning, and they were voting on the issues…” Gulbinski responded. “So there weren't two boards, there was just a group of three votes that were not part of the majority.” 

Following the investigation by Scott, which concluded in July, the City confirmed Silvestri is banned from City Hall for 90 days until November 2. Initially, she was banned for six months, but she appealed and it was reduced to 90 days. 

 

A slideshow from the Art Gallery of Mississauga to councillors August 10, explaining the events leading up to the annual general meeting. 

 

The Pointer was given a redacted internal letter from Browne given to Silvestri notifying her of the investigation findings. 

 

The redacted letter indicated a number of items Leslie Silvestri needed to return to the Art Gallery.  

 

Browne wrote to Silvestri that she was not to communicate with any current or past gallery employees, she can not attend the gallery and must return items she took from the AGM.

“In addition to the documents that you took from the filing cabinet assigned ‘Board Drawer’, you [redacted] in possession of, among other things, the entirety of the Gallery’s Minute Book and all corporate books and records as well as keys, documents and other belonging of the Nicholls Estate,” Browne wrote. “These items must immediately be returned to the Gallery.” 

The Pointer has obtained a copy of the minutes from a Special Meeting the AGM held March 21, this year where members of the organization were given an explanation of the allegations.

Artwork from the Nicholls estate was given to the AGM after Charles Nicholls passed away. He was a Mississauga art collector and left his apartment and over 100 items inside to the organization.

The goal of the meeting for which the minutes were taken was to explain to the membership what was happening with the Hazel McCallion Exhibit, which was spearheaded by the AGM and showcased the former Mississauga mayor’s life. According to the minutes taken by Carlos Herrera, now vice president of the AGM, Silvestri was not being transparent or giving updates about the exhibit and was acting without direction from the board. 

“The concerns with the Exhibit were about ensuring transparency, disclosure, and proper oversight by Staff and the entire Board of Directors,” Browne explained at the March 21 meeting. “Details about an Estate for which the Gallery had been named the sole beneficiary.” 

The treasurer of the AGM, Anthony Pizzonia, described to members the secrecy and lack of consultation that occurred around the Nicholls estate. According to the minutes of the Special Meeting, Silvestri, without direction from the board, had a court order to have the AGM named as the trustee of the estate and she was the only person conducting the affairs.

“She was in direct and sole communication with estate lawyers,” Pizzonia described to members. “By mid-June, Ms. Silvestri was provided the keys to the Nicholls apartment where his entire collection had been stored. By the time the AGM [executive director] arrived to transport the Art collections, the remaining art pieces had already been sorted into piles and placed in a corner of the apartment.”

To date, no inventory or catalogue of the artwork or the apartment contents has been provided. 

Silvestri has not returned any items she took from the AGM. 

According to her, the minute-keeping book and other documents from the AGM were “borrowed.”

“I had indicated that I would be bringing those back, I just didn't get a chance to,” she said.

Silvestri did say she was in control of the Nicholls estate and the paperwork involved, according to her, but she was not given any keys, she said. When the apartment was opened there was a third party there to clean it out because it was “infested with cockroaches” she said.

“When we were sent everything from the public guardian/trustee, immediately, I brought that over to the law firm,” she told The Pointer. “I followed month to month; we would report on what was going on with that. And I followed the law firm's directive all the way through.”

 

The AGM is heavily reliant on funding from taxpayers, and council has the discretion to establish how much money, if any, will be given.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)

 

Silvestri’s job was to lead the board of directors who are responsible for providing oversight to the staff at the AGM. The executive director’s responsibility is to manage the day-to-day operations of the AGM and report to the board of directors about the gallery operations.

Allegedly, this is not how the AGM functioned under Silvestri.

Gulbinski, the executive director, told AGM members she was hired in August 2020 by Silvestri. According to the Special Meeting minutes, Silvestri informed Gulbinski the AGM was on a “concerned” status by “a number of funders” but primarily the City of Mississauga.

“[A] condition of the concerned status designation was that the board be an operating board, meaning that the board was responsible for and required to make the decision on day-to-day matters,” the minutes stated. “[Gulbinski] was advised that she had no reason to question the information being provided to her at the time.” 

The City changed the term “concerned status” in 2016 and was aware of the allegations around Silvestri’s autocratic leadership in June 2020. 

“At that time, the AGM was immediately placed on Support with Conditions Status with requirements that staff would meet regularly with Board members to address concerns and the AGM was to conduct an internal review and provide regular updates,” a City of Mississauga spokesperson told The Pointer.

Until January this year when Silvestri was removed as president, Gulbinski was “required” to obtain approval for “any meaningful decision.” This included, according to Gulbinski, contracts, artist fees, grant proposals, grant submissions, social media posts, stakeholder engagement, exhibition scheduling, subcontractor hiring, staff hiring and firing. 

“[V]irtually everything related to Gallery operations (had to be approved by Silvestri),” according to the minutes.

In December 2021, Gulbinski felt it was impossible to continue in the position and made board members aware of the following complaints:

  • Gallery staff had resigned due to the frustrating working conditions

  • Ongoing conversations, phone calls and arguments between Ms. Silvestri and Ms. Gulbinski that Ms. Gulbinski perceived as derogatory and demeaning

  • Inappropriate and sole handling of an estate bestowed upon the AGM — unilaterally making decisions without the executive director or board consultation

  • Lack of transparency regarding financial budgeting/ accounting in the Hazel Exhibit

  • A written complaint from a Guest Curator about his treatment by Ms. Silvestri and being bullied about sponsorship

  • Ms. Silvestri yelling at Ms. Gulbinski within hearing of the Staff, regarding an event Ms. Gulbinski had arranged at the Gallery

  • Ms. Silvestri’s behaviour at a Staff meeting when an employee raised a concern about an email from a board member and then turning that concern into an unfounded allegation of harassment against the board member

  • Questionable human resource practices, hiring without competition, making unilateral staffing decisions without executive director input

  • Release of the Regional Diversity Roundtable diversity, equity and inclusion audit led to formal complaints filed by the Staff

Silvestri said she was handling the operations because Gulbinski had no experience running an art gallery prior to being hired. During this time COVID-19 restrictions had the gallery at a “crossroads” as Silvestri puts it.

“We navigated this whole portfolio, knowing that we needed to have continuity, and consistency all the way through, should we be in those positions [laying off people], which we found ourselves multiple times,” Silvestri said. “She [Gulbinski] was running the gallery on the aspect of what she was doing. But she was always consulting with me every step of the way.” 

Silvestri told The Pointer, Gulbinski did not voice any of her concerns to her directly.

In March this year an investigation was launched into the allegations of misconduct at the AGM. 
 


 

Jennifer Rabanillo is a Mississauga businesswoman who has decades of experience in event management and marketing. She was hired by Silvestri to work on the AGM’s Border Crossings exhibit in September 2020.

“I started there with the pretense of doing the online workshops, reaching out to artists, and of course, engaging with the many different other nonprofits we were working with, that we were providing these free workshops to,” Rabanillo told The Pointer.

Early on, Rabanillo said she really enjoyed working with the staff at the AGM. She was hired after two people quit to take over what the AGM calls a “community activation”. It was a long-term project that involves workshops and community programs and would bring people together with a shared life story of how they crossed the border. 

 

Jennifer Rabanillo and her dog Louis taking care of the Styleworthy Studio in Streetsville.

(Natasha O’Neill/ The Pointer)

 

According to Rabanillo, Silvestri would “interfere with everything”.

“At 10 p.m. at night, she would call me,” Rabanillo recalled, “just not understanding that she's supposed to be a volunteer, so why is she acting like it’s her corporation?”

Silvestri said she would occasionally call staff members during her time as board president.

“I didn't speak to them at hours on end. We did have some conversations,” Silvestri said. 

Silvestri told The Pointer she left the staff on their own to run the projects without assistance.

“She would waste my time and call me and talk for hours,” Rabanillo said. “Every time she called me I'm not going to just sit here and listen to you ramble, I'm going to invoice because it's my time and actually my energy.”

Inside the AGM, Rabanillo says Silvestri would dictate how projects would be finalized and what social media posts were accepted. 

The micromanaging came to a head in February 2021 when Rabanillo’s grandmother passed away.  

“I have been harassed by Leslie this whole time during COVID when everyone's just trying to survive. I'm going to take a week off,” Rabanillo said she told the AGM.

Taking a leave of absence proved to be a stressful experience for Rabanillo. After a discussion with Silvestri that left her feeling overwhelmed and angry, Rabanillo quit the AGM in March. 

 

 

Above is an email Jennifer Rabanillo wrote to her supervisor, explaining how much stress has been placed on her. Rabanillo’s doctor wrote a note saying she should take a leave from the organization.

(Contributed)

 

Dëv Ramsumair was a catalyst for the AGM investigation. He was hired in September 2020; by trade he is a producer and creative behind Toronto fashion week and worked in museums and art galleries around the world.

His own company, the Global Change Initiative, empowers dialogue within organizations on a number of issues including diversity and inclusion. He is well-equipped to lead conversations on inclusion and showed The Pointer emails where he was initiating the topic. When he was hired, Ramsumair was to apply for the Canada Job Grants and engage the organization in diversity and inclusion training. 

This was in 2020 well before the formal third-party diversity audit was launched. The diversity and inclusion training never manifested due to lack of desire from the organization, as he puts it. Instead, he threw himself into being the creative vision for the AGM’s exhibits during the pandemic. 

 

Dëv Ramsumair emailed asking when he could start fulfilling his Canada Jobs Grant. The workshop never took shape.

(Contributed) 

 

In January 2021 Ramsumair wanted to create an exhibit that touched on the Black Lives Matter movement and brought together the lived experiences of Black people in the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020. He brought together artists from around the world to showcase their creations through their lived experiences. During a typical week, he was painting the walls in preparation, installing mounts and bringing together his creative vision with the goal of giving back to the Black community of Mississauga.

Ramsumair told The Pointer he had Sumaya Hisham, the official biographer and photographer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Eric Miller, the official biographer, historian and artifact keeper of Nelson Mandela, on board. 

In an email dated October 7, 2020 Ramsumair forwarded his proposed 2021 plan for the exhibit to Gulbinski and Silvestri. The document explains that the exhibit had board approval. 

In January he was finalizing the project.

“So we're ready, I have them [the artists] coming on, I have tickets booked, I have everything for this installation…I spoke to the board. And we can’t do it,” Ramsumair tells The Pointer.

“It's too Black,” he was allegedly told by the AGM, under Silvestri’s direction.

“I don't know where that came forward,” Silvestri told The Pointer. “I was not ever in any conversation where I'd heard that anybody said that it was ‘too Black’ because we did do everything in our power to try to provide the diversity and inclusion of the gallery.”

She says there were still pandemic restrictions in January, so there was a decision to defer the exhibit until 2023.  

Instead, Ramsumair was directed to create a whole new exhibit for Chinese New Year. 

“Art has always been a platform to share what is happening in the world. Why do you think they call certain art movements, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Illumination Era, the Dark Ages, art led to where culture and society were going at that time,” Ramsumair said of the decision to scrap the installation. “The art should be reflective of what is happening in society at that time. This is what it was, but they did not allow it.”

He believed after the coming together around Black Lives Matter, Black History Month would be more important than ever.

There were difficulties in doing his job while working under Silvestri, he says. Ramsumair echoed Rabanillo’s description. Phone calls would be hours long, there was no transparency in budgeting or how involved Silvestri was in the operations that were supposed to be established by staff.

“I’m now downplaying it, but it was constant fighting [and] lying,” Ramsumair said of the workplace culture inside the AGM.

Many employees started to leave in 2021 he says. In an email to Ramsumair one employee explained why they had to leave, primarily because of the unorganized and toxic work culture at the AGM.

The Pointer agreed not to disclose the identity of the employee. Ramsumair shared the email with The Pointer.

The employee described to Ramsumair the situation when Rabanillo left the AGM. 

“I’d like to tell you something that she [Rabanillo] once told me that will stick with me for a long time to come. She’d been in a meeting and was trying to get time off due to a family member’s death, just to step back from the gallery a bit and only work on Border Crossings. But she was being given a hard time about doing so, she was being threatened with having Border Crossings taken away, something that gave her joy. She said to me that it felt like ‘an old white woman bullying the brown girl’. The pain I felt hearing that, hearing how upset she was telling me, those words are going to stay with me. You know as well as I do, that she does not deserve to feel that way, that she works hard and produces excellent, amazing work. To not have some sympathy for her loss? To not want to let her work on something that she finds joyful? I can’t support that,” the employee wrote. “And if she’s left Border Crossings, her joy must have been crushed on that front too. I hope you aren’t made to feel the way Jenn has, that you can still find some joy in the work you are doing for the gallery.”

In May 2021, Ramsumair also left the AGM, but he continued to ask the board of directors to take action and change the toxic culture.

“You take the disenfranchised, you take the marginal, you implement their ideas, their plans, their structures, and you leave them there,” he said. “They're the ones that create these ideas that make the world think what a great town Mississauga is.”

Since Ramsumair left, the diversity and inclusion audit has been completed. It, along with Scott’s investigation into the board and its governance issues, found an oppressive regime of bullying and harassment under Silvestri. She denies all of the findings.

In August, the membership of the AGM added Jodi Robillos, commissioner of community services for the City of Mississauga, as the new ex-officio member.

The AGM is now trying to open a new chapter in one of the world’s most diverse cities.

 

 

 


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @taasha__15


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