The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art is moving. Moving physically, and moving too – or so it hopes – into an era of greatness. But just where it's moving, and how, remain vexing questions.
Formerly known as the Art Gallery of North York, MoCCA since January, 2005, has been renting a 990-square-metre repurposed textile factory on Toronto's Queen Street West near the achingly hip Ossington strip. It's been a "fantastic situation," in the words of David Liss, the former Montrealer who's been MoCCA's director and curator for 11 years, helping to heighten the institution's profile and clout locally and nationally. But earlier this year the site's new owner, a consortium of developers, told MoCCA it would have to vacate the premises by March, 2014, to make way for condominiums.
The museum, in fact, has been thinking about finding its own, larger, permanent quarters for more than a year (the original lease on the current location was set to expire in early 2015) – but with "eviction" just 18 months away, the quest has taken on a measure of urgency. Of course, it's hardly alone among Canadian institutions in entertaining this dream. The Vancouver Art Gallery wants a new home, maybe even several homes. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary is keen for a new facility to showcase visual art while Saskatoon is aiming to break ground next year on the new Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan for a 2015 opening.
MoCCA has been operating as a not-for-profit, arms-length agency of the city of Toronto since 1999. It was the city that paid $500,000 to renovate MoCCA's current home and it's the city that's been paying MoCCA's annual rent of about $148,000 as part of a larger yearly support package totalling $332,000. But in late August this year it recast itself as MoCCA Corp., an independent charity with its own board of directors. While the city is "expected" to "provide the same support" it has into the foreseeable future, MoCCA will eventually be fully autonomous.
The original hope was that when the museum did move, it would be to its own standalone building, one that would occupy as much as 5,400 square metres. But real-estate prices being what they are in Toronto (i.e., high), Liss and company have abandoned that dream and are now looking to strike a deal similar to the one the Toronto International Film Festival did with condominium developer the Daniels Corp. and landowners the Reitman family to create the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Now MoCCA's talking about a space somewhere between 2,700 and 4,500 square metres, located downtown, preferably within a perimeter of the Don Valley Parkway to the east, Lansdowne Avenue to the west, Bloor Street to the north and the lakeshore to the south.
"We hope we can land somewhere we can be for the next 50 years," notes MoCCA chairperson Julia Ouellette. "We're not overly concerned if March 30 or whatever the pull-the-plug date is in 2014 that we open April 1. There's nothing to say we don't go dark for a little while. If we have to work in an alternative way for a year or so, doing off-site kind of [shows] like pop-ups or working with other institutions, we're okay with that. Also, our landlord is very benevolent and we may be able to extend our lease for a little bit if required."
If Liss gets his way – "it's not necessarily shared by all of our stakeholders," he admits – the relocated, reopened museum also will drop a "C" from its acronym, to become MoCA Toronto, as in the Museum of Contemporary Art. This isn't to say the reconstituted museum will eschew Canadian art. Indeed, its permanent collection now numbers 400 pieces, all Canadian, and it hopes to collect more. However, "we will not be showing exclusively Canadian art here. That's a parochial view and it's not relevant in the 21st century to take a nationalistic approach," Liss argues. While the primacy of Canadian art will remain, the mandate, at least as far as Liss is concerned, will be "Canadian art and culture in a global context."
In an interview, Liss acknowledged these ambitions mean launching a capital campaign for tens of millions of dollars for an institution he admits is "still young and emerging." Moreover, "we're in a post-2008 world;" the great museum building boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that gave the world Guggenheim Bilbao and the new Museum of Modern Art and, in Toronto, the expanded Art Gallery of Ontario and Royal Ontario Museum, is unlikely to return any time soon. Further, "some of the responses we've had from governments [about funding] haven't instilled me with a lot of confidence – unless something changes for the better in the next couple of years."
Still, both Liss and Ouellette believe it can be done. U.S. cities comparable in size to Toronto – Chicago, Denver, Cincinnati, Boston – all have significant contemporary art centres while Canada's largest city, in Liss's view, remains remarkably "underserved" in that realm, with only his institution and the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront dedicated to presenting curated, non-commercial, public exhibitions. "So when people say, 'Does Toronto really need another contemporary art museum? We have, y'know, the Power Plant,' well, I don't think people say, 'New York's got too many art museums; let's not go there.' The structures and museums they have there attract millions to that city, and millions of dollars, too, while providing cultural identity."
Asked if MoCCA might entertain a merger with the Power Plant, which, like MoCCA, operates as a not-for-profit, albeit without its own collection and as a department of Harbourfront Centre, Liss deemed the prospect unlikely. "We need each other to be successful and by that I mean not just the Power Plant but the AGO, the artist-run centres, the Textile Museum and so on.
"A cornerstone of our identity and success," Liss continued, "has been partnerships" with, among others, the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Contact photography festival, the Sobey Awards, TIFF and ImagineNATIVE, and Liss expects these to continue. The Power Plant, in Liss's view, "fits well within the Harbourfront structure. Of course, they have their own internal issues but as far as the public face of it and the exhibitions, I don't think anything needs to be any different."
FIVE GREAT MoCCA SHOWS
Kent Monkman: The Triumph of Mischief
Nov. 15-Dec. 30, 2007 (mixed media): A collaboration with the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Fred Herzog: Vancouver
April 29-June 5, 2011 (photographs): A collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada in association with Toronto's Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.
David Hoffos: Scenes from the House Dream
Sept. 10-Dec. 31, 2010 (installation): In association with Rodman Hall Art Centre, St. Catharines/Trepanier Baer Gallery, Calgary/Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Calgary.
Nov. 10-Dec. 31, 2010 (sculpture): A collaboration with the NGC featuring works by Kim Adams (Toronto), Thomas Demand (Berlin), Geoffrey Farmer (Vancouver).
Carte Blanche 2: Painting
Nov. 15-Dec. 28, 2008 (paintings): A survey of the state of Canadian painting, in association with the Magenta Foundation, featuring works by 30 Canadian artists – emerging, mid-career, established.
(See details and images at www.mocca.ca)