The AGC vs. Valerie Cooper

Gallery seeks $500,000 from former president and CEO

Valerie Cooper, the former president and CEO of the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC), who left her post suddenly without explanation in March, is being sued by the gallery in order to retrieve $500,000 it alleges Cooper stole from the non-profit in the form of falsified expenses starting in 2006.

The civil suit against Cooper, outlined in court documents obtained by Fast Forward Weekly, alleges she charged the gallery for a litany of expenses, from massages and parking, to $12,126 worth of artwork that, according to an affidavit by board chair Gwen Randall, ended up on Cooper’s condo walls, $185,129 of “fictitious framing,” $66,978 of unauthorized travel, $89,250 towards rent on her downtown condo, and non-existent loan repayments to the tune of $124,000.

The allegations were first brought to the attention of AGC board member David Rehn by the Calgary Police Service. “On March 13th, 2012, Mr. Rehn reported to a meeting of the Board of Directors for the AGC that at a meeting with the Calgary Police Service, he had been shown a series of invoices on the letterhead of Masters Gallery, which is a commercial gallery and framing service in the City of Calgary. The invoices totalled $106,515.11. The invoices were handwritten and described numerous framing assignments and the purchase of pieces of original art. Each of the invoices in question was marked paid,” reads the affidavit by AGC board chair Gwen Randall.

The statement goes on to say that Rehn was then shown information from Cooper’s personal bank account, accessed through a court order, that shows cheques from the AGC for those amounts were deposited into Cooper’s account.

When contacted by Fast Forward Weekly, a staff member at Masters Gallery said no one would comment on the matter, and that everyone was busy and would be for some time.

Former staff members of the AGC who were contacted by Fast Forward Weekly would not speak on the record, fearing legal repercussions. None of those contacted said they were surprised by the allegations, and some had left the gallery due to ethical concerns.

The AGC has been tight-lipped on Cooper’s departure. The gallery didn’t even acknowledge the vacancy until the end of March when the statement of claim against Cooper was filed with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary, despite the fact she was put on administrative leave on March 13.

Brian Hearst, who was the board treasurer and is currently the managing director of the gallery, wouldn’t comment on Cooper’s departure when contacted at the beginning of April.

Fast Forward Weekly has repeatedly attempted to contact Hearst since acquiring the documents, as well as board members Randall and Rehn. According to Nisha Sridhar, manager of communications and marketing at the AGC, the board was travelling in Russia on an art tour and members were unavailable.

There are questions around the “non-approved travel” expenses listed in a “funds recoverable analysis” conducted by Hearst, who is a chartered accountant, after the allegations were first brought to the board by the police. In March 2008, Cooper travelled to Jerusalem for a World Federation of Friends of Museums congress, where she spoke on a panel with Donale Gandossi, a current AGC board member who was board chair at the time. The trip was highlighted by Gandossi in the gallery’s 2008 annual report. It’s unclear why $1,364 of expenses for that trip are included as non-approved travel when the chair was with Cooper at the time.

There are other questions related to board oversight. How was Cooper allegedly able to reimburse herself for $124,000 of loans that never existed? If the allegations are true, how was she able to submit handwritten invoices totalling over $100,000 without raising a red flag?

According to Randall’s affidavit, the reason was misplaced trust. “From the time of the commencement of her employment, the Defendant cultivated personal relationships with a number of the members of the Board of Directors of the AGC, including this deponent,” reads the document. “Because of a personal relationship between the Defendant and members of the Board of Directors, and because of the complete trust imposed by the Board of Directors upon the Defendant to manage the affairs of the AGC, neither I, nor other members of the Board, to my knowledge, had any reason to suspect that the Defendant was converting AGC funds to her personal use.”

The statement of claim filed with the court says that the board received constant reports on the gallery’s “dire financial straits” from Cooper, and that “from time to time other members of the Board did in fact make personal loans, without interest, to the Plaintiff [AGC] to cover operating expenses pending receipt of grant funds.”

Although there were rumours in the arts community about financial irregularities at the gallery, there was never any evidence to back up those claims. Perusing the online comments on a 2008 Fast Forward Weekly story on problems at the gallery shows a number of people concerned about the gallery’s finances.

In that same story, issues including employee intimidation, damage to artwork, a focus on fundraising over programming and the high turnover of staff, particularly in curators, were highlighted. Considering the amount of evidence that something was amiss in the gallery’s management, how was it that Cooper maintained the trust of the board?

In addition to the allegations that Cooper made off with a sizable chunk of money, Randall’s affidavit also says that the AGC security cameras caught Cooper returning to the gallery after she was suspended and recorded her departure five hours later. “The video tape clearly shows the Defendant leaving the AGC with two cardboard boxes,” reads the statement. “AGC has been unable to locate its payables file for the year 2012. Certain personnel files of employees of AGC also cannot be located.”

The gallery has requested the return of the materials, but has yet to see the documents.

Const. Tanya Bertulli of the Economic Crimes Unit of the Calgary Police Service would only say that there is an active investigation into the allegations against Cooper. No criminal charges have been laid and the allegations against Cooper laid out in the civil suit by the Art Gallery of Calgary have yet to be proven in court.

When reached by telephone, Cooper curtly declined to comment on the matter.



Comments: 26

JulietBurgess wrote:

Gosh, what a mess.

I would hate it if these allegations turned out to be true and I hope the Defendant is held responsible if so. Taking money from a not for profit arts organization... ugh.

Working in the arts myself, I hear the number $500,000.00 and think of what that could've done for Calgary. :(

on May 3rd, 2012 at 10:01am Report Abuse

badgovernance wrote:

"The trip was highlighted by Gandossi in the gallery’s 2008 annual report. It’s unclear why $1,364 of expenses for that trip are included as non-approved travel when the chair was with Cooper at the time.

There are other questions related to board oversight. How was Cooper allegedly able to reimburse herself for $124,000 of loans that never existed? If the allegations are true, how was she able to submit handwritten invoices totalling over $100,000 without raising a red flag?"

To me, the story raises real questions about the Board's oversight. They may have some questions to answer as well.

on May 3rd, 2012 at 11:05am Report Abuse

poonani wrote:

The AGC is a confusing mess, all the way from the programming to the ticky tacky gift shop. Everyone should be fired and the Gallery space should start over from scratch.

on May 3rd, 2012 at 12:21pm Report Abuse

wha? wrote:

This board is obviously negligent and should also be sued!

on May 3rd, 2012 at 1:51pm Report Abuse

CreativelyImpaired wrote:

Unfortunely, I saw this coming a long time ago.

Until recently, I worked as a staff member at a restaurant that is a block away from the gallery. Many staff members from the AGC, including Valarie herself were regulars and I was privy to many private conversations regarding internal concerns within the gallery.

Most concerning were stories regarding staff feeling personally intimidated and felt that they worked for a 'crazy person', (in reference to Valerie). I will not go into detail about the conversations I was included in, as it is all heresay but I knew that something was going on.

on May 3rd, 2012 at 1:55pm Report Abuse

CharlotteSometimes wrote:

As a former AGC staff member I'm happy to read that the issues at the gallery will finally be addressed. I always knew that something was going on there but didn't have any proof. When I left the gallery I was reminded that I had signed a confidentiality agreement and was threatened with legal action if I discussed my concerns with anyone else. I know of three other staff members who were told the same thing when they quit.

It's time to dismiss the board of directors and let forensic accountants come in to investigate. It's hard to believe that no one on the board suspected anything. The police should charge everyone who was involved directly and those who aided her by turning a blind eye to the ACG's creative accounting practices. The gallery should be shut down. After all, who would want to support this "charity" now?

on May 3rd, 2012 at 2:49pm Report Abuse

pejorative35 wrote:

Charlotte is right - a housecleaning is in order - every board and staff member should be thoroughly checked out. Transparency is what is needed here.

on May 3rd, 2012 at 7:57pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

If anyone has further information on this, please feel free to contact me at Particularly interested in speaking with former staff.

on May 4th, 2012 at 10:30am Report Abuse

mojo2u wrote:

It is not unusual for an ED to form "personal" relationships with board members and a board needs to trust their ED -- but ignoring warning signs, and signing a cheque for life support, is another matter.

on May 4th, 2012 at 10:49am Report Abuse

GalleryMan wrote:

A very sad state of affairs. Sounds like a lot of board members were asleep at the wheel, inspite of the alleged shenanigans by Cooper. I mean, it's not like it was a secret that Gandossi and Cooper went to Israel for the Friends of Museums Conference; the photos are (still) right there on the web. They sure look like they were having a great time, hopefully not all on the public dime. And now the board is all surprised and feeling betrayed? Makes we also wonder if their charitable tax status ought to now be pulled. The saddest part now seems to be that no one in their right mind would want to donate time or money, only to see it all go down the drain. Sounds like this place ought to shut down for good.

on May 4th, 2012 at 8:26pm Report Abuse

casiomatrixsets wrote:

Public Funding with Municipal Art Programs: How can it possibly tie into the FInancial Accounting of City Hall and CADA: Calgary Arts Development Authority: With full control of the Grants Funding Recipients how many at CADA and City Hall are getting EXTRA Project Grants with fictitious projects and names.

on May 5th, 2012 at 10am Report Abuse

casiomatrixsets wrote:

How about fictitious employees on the payroll. Wow that was such a wonderful project that was completed FICTITIOUSLY. Voila there is the Grant / Payment and Fraud.

on May 5th, 2012 at 10:03am Report Abuse

officematt2002 wrote:

Casio, just wait until some journalist has the guts to do a little muckraking with the City of Calgary's finances and internal doings...I am sure they would be up for a Pulitzer, but advertising revenue trumps the truth.

Good to see this story come to light. I hope the CPS presses charges and doesn't succumb to pressure from City Hall.

on May 5th, 2012 at 10:42am Report Abuse

headshake wrote:

who do we blame???
The art community needs to recognize the value in having an exhibition space such as the AGC in Calgary. Buy a membership at AGC, demand a general meeting and join the board. Ask questions about where the money is going.

The City of Calgary appointed CADA to be responsible for distributing municipal dollars to cultural institutions and to make sure these funds where not miss used, What happen? A 1/2 a million dollars has been removed from the Calgary Arts community.
It is common knowledge that the art community was very aware of the way the AGC executive was operating. As early as 2008 concerns of the AGC's executive practices where communicated to CADA.

If you are in the arts in Calgary demand answers and demand to be involved. The arts funding system in Canada ensures that artists have a place at the table, if we fail to get involved then we are allowing the cycle to continue. Stop the Calgary art community from looking so stupid to the rest of the country.

on May 5th, 2012 at 11:24am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

@casiomatrixsets: I think you might be confusing the AGC with a municipal gallery, which it isn't. It does receive funding through CADA, as well as the province and the federal government. Either way, I find it highly unlikely that CADA is funneling grant money into individuals at CADA or city hall.

@officematt2002: advertising revenue trumping looking into city hall? Right, um.

on May 5th, 2012 at 5:41pm Report Abuse

headshake wrote:

A swing and a miss. No one suggesteted any money being funneled? Secondly, if you use the term "grant" than you are suggesting the art gallery is either accountable to municipal, provincial or federal Funders. AGC is in part a municipal facility because it is registered as a Calgary not for profit and it does receive some grant money from the municipal goverent. In order to receive those dollars it has to comply with rules. These rules are overseen by CADA on behalf of us, the tax payer.
My point was that individuals can and should get involved in how our money is spent.

on May 7th, 2012 at 9:34am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

I wasn't addressing my comments to you headshake. I agree with you.

on May 7th, 2012 at 9:56am Report Abuse

pejorative35 wrote:

Drew: Firstly, I was told by several artists who exhibited work that was damaged in moving it during the "functions" to raise money for an evening (but for whom?) that they were intimidated by Val and a lawyer (who worked with, and was a confident of hers) No one wanted to deal with the suits that were threatened. Secondly, you are assuming the art community regards the AGC with asteem. A lot of us do not. The revolving turnstile of curators and lack of respect for the artists that have exhibited work have made this gallery a joke. The entire board should be replaced before any confidence in the gallery can be earned again. As I understand it, they didn't even discover their losses, the police went to them.
Some of us are interested in having a say, but only if the entire board resigns. There is nothing to prevent the same thing from happening again with this board. Also, the lack of knowledge of how things are done in civic galleries in other cites is not going to change until they leave.

on May 8th, 2012 at 10:08am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

How am I assuming that the art community holds the AGC in esteem? Also, the story indicates that it was the police that alerted the board. And, did you follow the link to the story I co-authored in 2008 outlining the issues at the gallery? I'm confused by your comment.

on May 8th, 2012 at 10:23am Report Abuse

pejorative35 wrote:

Sorry Drew, that was meant for Headshake, not yourself. I typed the wrong name in. I knew about the 2008 article because Anthea is a friend. I appreciate your article bringing this to public attention and because the Herald's was so tame until yours came out. Also, I've since been told that some former employees alerted the police which instigated the investigation. They should be lauded, there have been suspicions for a few years, but people were threatened by Val and her lawyer.

on May 8th, 2012 at 11:49am Report Abuse

dejaview wrote:

I think it can be safely assumed current staff are no fans of Ms. Cooper either.

on May 9th, 2012 at 6:50pm Report Abuse

officematt2002 wrote:

@Drew: It isn't always about FFWD. I'm talking about the media in general. Bit of a joke how much of a free hand the City gets without any real or serious criticism.

on May 10th, 2012 at 6:32pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

While I think the media, in general, should go further, I don't thin it's fair to say the city gets a pass. I certainly don't think any criticism you could have over coverage of city affairs can be attributed to ad dollars. You could maybe argue developer activities and the city, but I think this idea that advertising is a massive censor of media activities is thrown around far too often and usually without merit.

on May 10th, 2012 at 7:34pm Report Abuse

headshake wrote:

pejorative35 and Headshake are in agreement, The AGC Board and Cooper are bad for Calgary. But the AGC is not a joke and it should be held in esteem!. Many dedicated volunteers, staff, government agencies, Not-for-profit organizations ,artists and patrons have put a tremendous amount of time and money into making a space in Calgary available to the public to see contemporary art. Don't let a handful of mis-guided board members and a person like Copper destroy it.
It is so easy to throw a brick at the AGC right now, but what it really needs is for people like pejorative35 to buy a membership, don't wait for the board to go, don't hide in the bushes.
I agree Cooper and the board are a joke and CADA is a joke for not listening to the art communities warnings. But AGC is not a joke, there are way too many decent people who have contributed to the arts in Calgary via the AGC and they deserve a bit more respect .
And Drew Anderson is a star for being one of the few in the press that is talking about this story, thank you for that.

on May 11th, 2012 at 4:47pm Report Abuse

pejorative35 wrote:

Headshake - yes, basically we agree, but since the original "Muttart" board which became the AGC, artists in this community have been treated very unfairly by the board at AGC. The revolving door of staff, particularly curators, damaged artworks for which artists were never compensated due to "lack of funds", unprofessional standards all round, have made this "insttitution" a JOKE in our community. Unless this entire board is discarded, I don't intend to support this institution, and a lot of artists and community members feel the same. A fresh start is what is needed or they can go the way of the Dodo. And yes, I was a member in the beginning.

on May 12th, 2012 at 11:09am Report Abuse

pejorative35 wrote:

Yes kudos to Drew for his depth and timely coverage - back to 2008. I also wanted to say that the damage that Val Cooper and the board have caused to the art community in Calgary, indeed all over, will resonate for years.

on May 12th, 2012 at 11:19am Report Abuse

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