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A daguerreotype titled Portrait of a Young Girl with Hand on Shoulder, c. 1850. 21.6 x 16.5 cm whole plate. Anonymous gift, 2015.Canadian Photography Institute (/Handout

Just weeks before it had to close the whole building because of the pandemic, the National Gallery of Canada quietly shuttered one part of its operations. In late February, the gallery wound up the five-year-old Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) after art collector David Thomson stopped donating art for the project, to which he had already given $20-million worth of early photographs, daguerreotypes and cameras.

The disagreement concerns the organization’s degree of independence from the gallery. It was established in 2015 and merged Thomson’s gift with the gallery’s own photography collection under a memorandum of understanding that did not specify who was to appoint the new institute’s director, but did stipulate that both the donor and its chief funder, the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, would review its strategic planning. The gallery, whose leadership changed last year, now believes it did not have sufficient authority over the institute, while the donor feels the agreement is not being honoured.

Thomson, whose family investment company owns The Globe and Mail, felt that recent changes breached the memorandum of understanding, according to a statement from David Franklin, curator of the Archive of Modern Conflict, Thomson’s photography collection based in Toronto and London.

“This was a unique and unprecedented endeavour to create the most important centre in the world for the study of the art of photography in all its forms and to foster innovative research and display,” the statement said. “… Despite a promising start for CPI and the clarity of the terms of the MOU, managerial obstruction thwarted the original intentions. Art became of no concern. A spectacular opportunity for Canada to be the global leader and innovator in this increasingly dominant field of visual art … was forever compromised.”

But National Gallery director Sasha Suda, appointed in 2019, said Thomson had stopped donating art to the institute the year before, and that its status as an independent organization within the gallery with reporting responsibilities to the donor and to the foundation was not tenable.

“It had been on ice for a while,” Suda said, adding that when she joined the gallery, she made recommendations for modifying the management structure to make it more accountable. “There were certain structures in place that I found inappropriate for a Crown corporation.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Portrait of an Unidentified Pair of Prospectors, c. 1860, by unknown. Ferrotype, 8.3 × 10.8 cm quarter-plate. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2015.Canadian Photography Institute (/Handout

The photography institute was conceived as a public-private partnership, with Thomson donating a collection devoted to the origins of photography, and the gallery providing the space to store and display the work alongside its own. The foundation, a separate organization from the gallery, was to raise money to pay costs, including the salary of a director and other staff. In 2015, Scotiabank promised operational funding worth $10-million over 10 years. In 2016, Luce Lebart was appointed director, and the institute opened to the public with exhibitions drawn from Thomson’s gift, including one devoted to the Czech artist Josef Sudek and another from the photography archives of The Globe and Mail. Exhibitions and research continued, but Lebart left in 2018 and was not replaced.

Scotiabank has not withdrawn its support and, in a statement on Tuesday, said it is talking to the gallery about how to reallocate its money – a gift originally recognized by renaming the main atrium in the bank’s honour. Scotiabank continues to fund other photography initiatives at the gallery, including two annual photography awards.

All the material Thomson had donated – the $20-million Origins of Photography collection and a selection of images from The Globe’s archives – will remain with the gallery. His original agreement foresaw a continuing gift that would have gradually transferred much of the Archive of Modern Conflict, a private collection of 20th-century vernacular photography and ephemera that has expanded well beyond its initial theme of war.

The National Gallery has significant photography holdings, including both historic pieces and contemporary work that was merged into its collection after a sister institution, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, closed permanently in 2009.

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