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From the Gallery of the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts to the SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art

         In the mid 1960s, in response to a request by Montreal’s Jewish community centres (YM-YWHA), architect Phyllis Lambert designed the Saidye Bronfman Centre. Offering a theatre, art gallery and fine arts school, the institution opened its doors in 1967. For 40 years, the centre excelled in its ability to bring together all artistic disciplines as well as Montreal’s myriad cultural communities. The gallery, which in 2001 was renamed the Liane and Danny Taran Gallery, earned an enviable reputation that extended across the country. With its museum status and financial assistance from all levels of government, it seemed the gallery would endure forever. However, in 2007 its fortunes changed when the YM-YWHA board of directors announced its closure and elected to shift the centre’s focus towards the performing arts. The building’s interior was also radically altered to suit the needs of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts at The Saidye, which opened its doors in 2008. The gallery officially ceased its activities on July 1, 2007, with the end of the exhibition Comic Craze.


             A number of individuals then decided to mobilize to assure the survival of the gallery despite the decisions made. And while it is no longer part of the Bronfman Centre, the current gallery has inherited the archive fonds of its predecessor and has maintained a link to its past through the acronym SBC. With the exception of an initial cursory inventory-taking, the fonds has never been explored in-depth. The research conducted to create this Web site therefore represents a first and necessarily non-comprehensive attempt to bring this institutional memory to the virtual site offered by the new gallery.


            Unlike museums that acquire symbolic and economic capital through their collection, the gallery at the Saidye Bronfman Centre—which was designed according to the “Kunsthalle” model—relied exclusively on loaned works or works created in situ to conceive its exhibitions. The display would then be dismantled into each of its parts, and the space would once again become a blank canvas. The catalogues and archives are all that remain on record to attest to this series of events. This role of the gallery as a site for ephemeral mises en scène explains in part why its curatorial activities developed in such a singular fashion. From the time it opened, the institution entrusted its director with the task of establishing the programming. The gallery also became a testing ground for many fledgling independent curators.  


            The exhibitions presented by the gallery were made up of both directly perceptible content and a latent meaning that drew on the range of social codes and standards of the day. This dimension was revealed through the interplay between the artworks themselves and the building’s architecture.[1]


            Although founded with a view to bringing art to within everyone’s reach, much in the tradition of the Age of Enlightenment, over time the centre’s gallery was obliged to adapt to artistic practices that laid claim to a formal hybridity and postmodern discourse. A gap therefore gradually emerged between this series of transgressions represented by the works displayed from the end of the 1970s forward and the gallery as conceived by Phyllis Lambert in the mid 1960s. The building itself was inspired by the minimalist works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Its clear volume—free of columns, partitions and decorative elements—initially loaned itself to pictorial and sculptural offerings as well as to the paradigm of medium specificity (paintings hung from rails, sculptures mounted on pedestals). The large windows let in ample natural light, but curtains could also be used to block this light as required. Until the end of the 1970s, the suspended wooden rails meshed perfectly with the building’s architecture, reflecting other features of the site, such as the wood panelling that graced the sidewalls. However, these elements would prove to be a constraint when the gallery featured artistic practices that required a backdrop of absolute neutrality. The rails were therefore abandoned in favour of geometrically varied plastered walls and the generic white cube of other museums. New media works were neglected in the gallery’s programming, although by the mid 1990s, the proliferation of video installations required that a black cube be erected from time to time.


            From its beginnings in 1967, the centre’s gallery produced hundreds of exhibitions, each of which generated a relatively large number of photographic prints or slides documenting the layout of the works. With few exceptions, these images are absent of human presence, and the exhibition as an event is viewed from a distance as by a removed spectator. When compared, they invariably represent the same framework, altered only by the configuration of objects and certain museological apparatuses (rails, stands, lighting). Within the catalogues, they complement the texts of the curators or guest authors. The images were also reproduced as illustrations for newspaper articles. But at the end of this process, they were relegated to the archives, emerging only on very rare occasions.


            This project exposes and comments on a large selection of these photographs, which span three decades of the gallery’s history. However, as the archival fonds was consulted, many gaps became apparent. Although the institution launched its activities in 1967, no exhibition files exist prior to 1972. Moreover, certain expanses of time (primarily the 1970s and the end of the 1980s) have few visual documents to their credit. The chronological approach of this project corresponds approximately to the length of each of the contracts of those curators who were also directors of the gallery (Georges Dyens, c.1969-1979; Peter Krausz, 1980-1992; Régine Basha, 1992-1995; David Liss, 1995-1999; Sylvie Gilbert, 2000-2003; and Renée Baert, 2005-2007).






[1] On this subject, please see Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge; London, The MIT Press, 1998.

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