There’s always something happening at The Power Plant in Toronto, and has been ever since its founding 25 years ago on the Lake Ontario waterfront as the most influential not-for-profit exhibitor of contemporary art in Canada. And sometimes the fuss actually has to do with the art.
The art is definitely the focus this weekend as the gallery begins its highly anticipated presentation, running for more than two months and free to the public, of The Clock, Christian Marclay’s legendary “ode to time and cinema” – a 24-hour, looped, single-channel video almost a decade in the preparation.
But all too often, the excitement and controversy generated at Power Plant has come from the politics of the place – the comings and goings of personnel, the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings, the struggles over autonomy, authority and artistic vision in an institution with a peculiar organizational structure and a variety of temperaments.
These politics were thrown into high relief late last month when the gallery’s president, Paul Marks, a distinguished orthopaedic surgeon and major art collector, announced his immediate resignation. What shocked the art world about the exit was its suddenness: Marks had been president only 11 weeks. Moreover, he was leaving just six months into the tenure of Gaetane Verna, the Power Plant’s new (and seventh) director. Verna herself, hired from the Musee d’art de Joliette in Quebec, succeeded New Zealander Gregory Burke, who’d suddenly announced his resignation, after a six-year run, in February 2011. (Marks “respectfully declined” a request to comment.)
Was this tumult – a not-entirely new phenomenon; Power Plant has had its share of abrupt curatorial and administrative departures since its creation in May 1987 – simply the expected fallout from any major management change within an arts organization, with its ever-tricky dance of artists, curators and connoisseurs, administrators, dealers and donors? Or is the turmoil structural, the result of the Power Plant functioning, in the words of Verna, as “a department” of Harbourfront Centre, founded as a federal Crown corporation in 1972 on Toronto’s waterfront but recast in 1991 as a non-profit consortium?
The gallery – which has no permanent collection nor art to sell, and mounts its themed exhibitions using borrowed works – resides, rent-free, in a Harbourfront property. Harbourfront also pays for the gallery’s security, garbage collection, building operations and back-office services such as payroll. Harbourfront claims it provides one-third of the gallery’s total budget of $3-million.
The governance relationship remains intimate too – “really integrated,” in the words of Margaret McNee, a seven-year veteran of the Power Plant board who just this week was elected as Marks’ successor. William Boyle, Harbourfront CEO since 1991, actually was the Power Plant’s first director and now sits as Harbourfront’s representative on the gallery’s board of directors. It’s the Harbourfront board that approves Power Plant’s annual budget. Harbourfront can also nominate gallery directors. Boyle, too, has worked with every Power Plant selection committee to choose the gallery director, and says that Verna, like previous directors, “reports to me . . . and the president of the Power Plant” – a two-tier structure characterized by some as “unwieldy and unworkable.”
Boyle’s role in Power Plant affairs has long been a contentious one. Some argue he was a necessary “father figure” in the gallery’s fledgling years but since then has become a hindrance, exerting a degree of influence out of proportion to what Harbourfront actually provides to the Power Plant. Rumours, for instance, have swirled that one of the reasons for Marks’ departure is that Marks wanted to hire a big-name, big-salaried international curator, but Boyle balked. Wayne Baerwaldt, Power Plant’s director from 2002-2005, recalls his relationship with Harbourfront as “always problematic. There was always . . . some sort ot expectation that you would always pay heed to the fact Power Plant was a department of Harbourfront.”
Should the Power Plant think of going it alone? Could it? “Those conversations have been going on all the time I’ve been [on the board],” McNee said in an interview. “I would say they’re very valuable because they help you focus your thinking about how you finance operations. But in the current environment, I’m not so sure it’s a serious conversation; it’s an interesting conversation over wine . . . but if you kind of get down to the brass-tacks, we’re given a lot to work with in that relationship [with Harbourfront].”
James Fleck, Harbourfront’s first president and now chair of the Harbourfront Foundation, argues that if Power Plant board members are serious about achieving autonomy, “all they have to do is just raise another $800,000 a year.’
“The fact is,” Fleck said, “Harbourfront is a major partner, not just a little one, and unless the Power Plant board is willing to take on the total responsibility, I think it’s smoking the wrong kind of cigarettes.”
Boyle this week said he believes Power Plant’s history “has probably not been any more challenging than any [other] arts institution,” and added: “This type of organization always involves a lot of very passionate people with different viewpoints and postions . . . and sometimes controversy about direction.”
Yet the temptation to “grow up and go it alone,” to become, say, Canada’a answer to Manhattan’s New Museum for Contemporary Art or Boston’s Insitute of Contemporary Art, remains. Then again, maybe another institution could play that role – Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, for instance. It’s having to vacate the premises it has rented in downtown Toronto since January 2005. Like the Power Plant, it’s an exhibition-only institution devoted to themed shows. Might its quest for a new home become the conduit for the energies of the contemporary art crowd?