Photography: Too Fragile for the Public Patrimony? – Stéphane Bouchard

[Summer 2009]

by Stéphane Bouchard

Of all the creative support programs, Quebec’s policy for the integration of the arts with architecture and the environment (commonly known as the 1 percent program) offers some of the best visibility, as well as terrific financial support, to artists. This program allots unequalled sums to bring contemporary art into the daily life of the public. Admitted late and with some reluctance, photography has had to fight certain prejudices in order to be fully represented in the 1 percent program.

Lisanne Nadeau, an art critic, independent curator, and former member of the grant panel for the program, believes that the reluctance of public institutions to give photographers the chance to express themselves in this context is due in part to the need to maintain photographic works: “In the committees, they told us that photography was too fragile a medium that would require too much maintenance.” The first obstacle to overcome was thus technical constraints, notably those of printing on paper. When one invests a large amount of money in an artwork, the last thing one wants is for it to deteriorate rapidly.

While the 1980s were an important period for both the productivity and the inventiveness of photographers, 1 percent projects devoted to photography were proportionally underrepresented during that decade

“The other argument that was given to refuse photographic projects was that they wanted to avoid the costs of training extra staff for maintenance,” Ms. Nadeau continued. When an organization’s staff changes, the managers do not want to spend extra money to preserve this patrimony.

People at Quebec’s Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine (MCCCF) insist that the gradual inclusion of the photographic medium in the 1 percent program is not the result of bad faith. Marie Perrault, MCCCF project officer, states that no criteria with regard to medium are considered during competitions for project grants in the 1 percent program. Ms. Perrault confirms, however, that photographs have had to face a reputation for being fragile artworks before being admitted to the program. From her experience, Ms. Perrault notes that pigment-print photographs are generally more durable. On the other hand, she says, works involving a print that is burned in (lambda prints, for example) require special attention.

Grant panels were cool at first to the idea of giving photography a place in the 1 percent program, because the preservation costs would fall to the building owner. These works often land in public schools, hospitals, and libraries, and it is understandable that some managers do not want to tie up the funding of their institution with maintenance and restoration costs that are difficult to predict. Interestingly, some initiatives similar to the policy of integration of the arts else- where in the world include a monetary provision clause, requiring that 5 to 10 percent of the sums assigned to public art projects be devoted to the conservation and maintenance of these works.

The Numbers

While the 1980s were an important period for both the productivity and the inventiveness of photographers, 1 percent projects devoted to photography were proportionally underrepresented during that decade, with about five works per year fitting into one of the photographic sub-categories integrated into public buildings. Only during the 1990s did photography gradually begin to make its mark in the 1 percent program, as technology was developed to minimize the problems with conservation. With the ability to print on glass or aluminum, it was now possible to create a more durable work on a support other than paper. The longevity of photographic works was thus assured, and their conservation necessitated less care. In the 2000s, the number of photographic projects rose to ten per year, or one-tenth of the 1 percent program projects.

According to the numbers supplied by the MCCCF, just over 220 works in the program may be considered photographic works. It should be mentioned, however, that the Ministère’s definition casts a wide net: there are conventional photographs, but also sculptures, mixed-technique works, installations containing photographs, and so on. By this reckoning, about 10 percent of the public patrimony is composed of photographic works. Year in and year out, the same proportion of the program’s projects is granted to photographers.


The notion of accessibility is one of the top characteristics of the policy of integration of the arts into architecture and the environment. Not all of the government buildings that host 1 percent program works are devoted to business or politics. Long-term residential care centers, schools, and universities form a majority of the exhibition sites for 1 percent program works. Many of the buildings that host these works thus have a social vocation, and one of the strengths of photography as a medium is that it does well in this exhibition context.

Photography has a relationship with reality that few other art media can match. “Before even recognizing and understanding the artist’s approach,” comments Ms. Nadeau, “a center’s visitors and users can recognize the elements of the work at first glance.” Similarly, through a language that is closer to concrete than figurative, it is, among all art forms, the one that can most easily reach a broad public.

A project titled Entre nous (2001), by the artist Devora Neumark, exemplifies this characteristic of photography. Neumark involved the residents of the Saint-Laurent/Les Cèdres long-term residential care center by asking them to share something that they enjoyed in their residence or their life. These “preferences” were then assembled in a mural that spoke directly to the center’s users by referring to their memories. The result is a touching work that the center’s residents and visitors may appropriate. “By sharing their stories and their laughter, memories, and tears, their hopes and anxieties, people who took part in this process honoured me with their trust,” Neumark summarizes on her Web site.1 The intimate story that she offered with her work, in which people could recognize themselves, increased the sense of ownership of this photographic collage.

Since 1981, attitudes have changed toward the 1 percent program. Owners of artworks now have a clearer idea of what they want: they want to vary the media of the works that they already own, and they know a bit more about integration and about the questions raised by contemporary art.

In the case of a university, for example, each new building will house a 1 percent work. This may seem self-evident, but the growing openness of decision makers to these projects is due to this “obligation” to integrate art with architecture. “School boards that house these works, for example, develop a certain kind of expertise,” continues Ms. Nadeau. “A new work is added to each new building. Little by little, the managers of these government buildings become familiar with the issues in contemporary art and it becomes easier to accept certain projects.”

Though a bit later in the case of photography, the 1 percent program will probably have done more than any other initiative to educate the general public and bring it face to face with contemporary art. The 1 percent program is building a patrimony of public art that is enhanced every year, and it demonstrates that creativity must sometimes be combined with practical considerations to reach its full potential.
Translated by Käthe Roth


1 Neumark, Devora, Entre Nous. (quotation our translation) (page consulted 16 March 2009).

Stéphane Bouchardstudied art history and journalism at the Université de Montréal. After working in communications at different museums and cultural organizations (Mois de la Photo à Montréal, Centre national d’exposition de Jonquière), he is now an independent journalist.