In Defense of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography – Martha Langford

[Summer 2009]

The National Gallery of Canada (NGC), under the direction of Marc Mayer, has recently announced that the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP) will no longer occupy its building at 1 Rideau Canal. In fact, the building will no longer be a public space for the arts. It has been handed over to Parliament, to be gutted and renovated as office and meeting space. This decision marks the final stage in the destruction of the CMCP, a process that began subtly in 1994, and became very aggressive and visible to the public under former NGC director Pierre Théberge. In this brief analysis, I want to recapture for readers the crisis and vision that created the CMCP, and consider whether anything good could yet come of this recent attack on the arts.

As the founding director of the CMCP, I obviously have an interest in its preservation, not in any form at all, but as a dynamic player on the Canadian and international scene. As a citizen of Canada, I also have an interest in being informed by its publicly paid officials. In the absence of timely and accurate information, we are left with speculation and our own imaginings of what the CMCP could have and could yet become.

What was the CMCP? The CMCP was the federal museum mandated, among other things, to collect, preserve, and exhibit contemporary Canadian photography, both documentary photographs and works of art. But it was also a materialization of what the arts community could achieve by coming together and fighting for its aims.

The CMCP was created in 1985 by an order-in-council transferring a collection of 120,000 photographic works, a mandate, a program, a building project, and a twelve-person staff to the National Museums of Canada (NMC) from the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). The NFB had decided to divest itself of its photographic responsibilities and the photographic community rose up because the initial plan was to shelve the collection, terminate the exhibition and publication programs, cancel the building project, and reassign the staff. These decisions were made without consultation with staff or community, much as it is occurring now.

Protests grew over five months, leading up to the 1984 federal election. When Marcel Masse came into office as Minister of Communications, he was delivered a very large stack of mail and he assigned David Silcox to conduct a consultation with the community. This community was not just made up of photographers, but included representatives from across the arts professions, including the directors of galleries and artist-run spaces who used the travelling exhibition program, publishers, educators, philanthropists, and interested members of the public. Following the consultations, the decision to create the CMCP was announced before a jubilant crowd at Toronto’s Harbourfront.

The director of the National Gallery would never give up a building situated where the CMCP now stands, at the very heart of the capital city.

The CMCP would be a sub-museum, or affiliate, of the NGC, which accepted this arrangement knowing that the Minister was intent on protecting the autonomy of the CMCP and symbolizing that autonomy by installing the CMCP in its own building. This project was fast-tracked at the National Museums of Canada whose chief architect, Michael Lundholm, developed the concept for 1 Rideau Canal. What did the NGC stand to gain? First, the goodwill of a new minister when the NGC was involved in its own construction project; second (a side deal that was only revealed to me later), the NGC was allowed to keep its library, which the NMC had been trying to merge with the other three museum libraries. So there was a swap: take the CMCP and you can keep your library. This kind of horse-trading is not uncommon in government; in fact, this is what we are witnessing in reverse, as the CMCP becomes a pawn once more, though in a far less happy game.

In 1992, the CMCP opened the doors of its new $16 million building at 1 Rideau Canal, beside the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa. The building that Marc Mayer has recently dismissed as “sub-grade” was, in fact, a remarkable achievement. Built within the shell of a disused railway tunnel, it was a state-of-the-art design for the presentation and preservation of photographic works. Environmentally controlled throughout, the building also included a vault and a freezer for colour photographic materials – features installed in close consultation with NGC conservators and at great expense. Behind the scenes were other important facilities, including a professional recording booth and production studio for the Museum’s oral history program.

The museum was designed to be a place of creation as well as dissemination. There are four distinct exhibition spaces, as well as a theatre for lectures and screenings. There is also a study centre, holding the Museum’s photographic library and artists’ files, open to researchers and educators. Every other aspect of a professional museum is incorporated in the building, which was built by the National Capital Commission (NCC) and held by the NGC through a fifty-year lease. Unfortunately, the NCC had more work to do on the bridges and roadway in front of the building – one might deduce that the membrane on the roof of the CMCP was compromised by this work, because after fourteen years the museum sprang a leak, causing damage to the public and office areas and necessitating repairs that, according to NCC reports, are now nearing completion.

On the NGC side, however, we hear unconvincing cries of concern that the CMCP cannot go back to a leaky building (the NGC leaks; the AGO leaks). For this reason, the CMCP will be shrunk to a couple of rooms at the NGC, eventually – now I speculate – to completely disappear. The NGC’s insistence on housing the CMCP is rather ironic, we might say, because the NGC is very tight for space – it has been lobbying for an expansion, looking hungrily at the War Museum when it vacated its building, and one of NGC’s little secrets is that it maintains off-site storage for the collection. This was kept a secret because the Safdie building was widely criticized as having too much ceremonial space, and the NGC did not want its collection storage problems bruited about.

The leak was, perhaps, an “act of god.” Earlier violations of the CMCP came from a lower place, then-director of the NGC, Pierre Théberge. Budgetary restraints were always blamed for his administration’s systematic downsizing of the CMCP program and staff. Inconsistencies never troubled Théberge, whose pet project in Shawinigan, Quebec, was draining the resources of the NGC, in terms of both money (a reported $1 million for the inaugural show) and staff time. Putting the CMCP personnel to work at the NGC instead of 1 Rideau Canal surely helped to alleviate the problem. The Teflon Théberge has never responded to letters of complaint about his starvation of the CMCP, or indeed about the many egregious aspects of his management of the NGC. His successor, Marc Mayer, is taking a slightly different tack by announcing a consultation with the photographic community, but the nature of this process and what he hopes to accomplish by consulting advocates of the CMCP after throwing the building away is mysterious, to say the least. I have speculated elsewhere that the NGC’s hidden agenda is an addition to the Sussex Drive building – to enlarge what one protester has called “the cathedral.” If I am right, the consultation is simply a publicity stunt for an expansion-minded NGC director.

Surely, the demise of 1 Rideau Canal as a standalone could be adjourned sine die, at least long enough to give the consultation process a veneer of dignity. Perhaps we, rather than Mark Mayer, should set the agenda for this public consultation. Perhaps he should come ready to listen and to act like the director of the National Gallery. The director of the National Gallery would never give up a building situated where the CMCP now stands, at the very heart of the capital city. The director of the National Gallery would have a little bit of historical knowledge and some imagination to think through what the CMCP represents and what it might become.

When the site for the CMCP was first proposed to me, I worried that it was too prominent – better suited to a wax museum, I thought. But I quickly realized that there was a model that we could follow: the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, which casts itself as an interdisciplinary meeting place for the arts and occupies a very eccentric building. The CMCP had to become a place of exchange and debate. How could this occur? The chief ingredient – flexibility – was already there, and before I left the museum in 1994, I saw to it that CMCP’s broader mandate (not just art, but all kinds of photographic imagery) and its responsiveness to cultural trends and community needs were enshrined in NGC policies covering every aspect of its mission.

Is it possible to repeat the triumph of December 1984 and reinvent the CMCP as a cultural force? Righteous anger will not do it, though there is plenty to be angry about.

People who remember the crisis that created the CMCP are working constructively, coming up with suggestions to restore the CMCP to its vigorous identity. This is encouraging because people have good ideas. They imagine the CMCP broadening its mandate to consider new technologies; they suggest that the CMCP could be doing more to break out of the Eurocentric mould by featuring the work of First Nations and Inuit artists; they want the CMCP to help disseminate the work of Canadian artists abroad; they think the CMCP should be part of a growing discussion that mixes the categories of vernacular photography, journalism, and high art. But it is also saddening, because the CMCP has actually been doing many of these things, albeit too modestly and on a shoestring.

Is it possible to repeat the triumph of December 1984 and reinvent the CMCP as a cultural force? Righteous anger will not do it, though there is plenty to be angry about. Most of us hate waste, and this is a colossal waste of a fine institution. Most of us hate to be manipulated, and we are being strung a line by the NGC as its new eager beaver director tries to please the Harper government and get rid of a bothersome responsibility at the same time. We need to see such opportunism plain and protest loudly, because the CMCP building not only belongs to the people of Canada, it symbolizes its arts community as a proud collective achievement. Mr. Harper, Mr. Mayer: you have gone too far. History may mark you both down as philistines.

Martha Langford was the founding director of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. She is an associate professor and Concordia University Research Chair in Art History.