A NEW ACQUISITION has enriched both the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the communities it serves. Presented with the opportunity to help the Toronto museum acquire more than 3,500 historic photographs, members of the local black and Caribbean communities stepped up, helping to raise $300,000.

The largesse of 27 donors made possible the AGO’s acquisition of The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs through a gift/purchase arrangement, announced June 5. Spanning a century, the vast collection dates from 1840 to 1940, documenting the region and its people following the abolishment of slavery. The images provide a visual record of the period and the changing economic, political, and cultural environment.

 


UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, “Jamaican Women,” circa 1900 (gelatin silver print, 16.51 cm x 21.59 cm). | Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. * Purchase 2019, with funds from 27 donors

 

Thirty-four countries are represented, including 23 across the Caribbean—Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago, among them—in addition to nations such as Colombia and Venezuela.

AGO describes the collection as the largest of its kind outside the Caribbean. Comprised of prints, albums, postcards, daguerreotypes, lantern slides, and stereographs, the collection was assembled over the past decade by Patrick Montgomery, a New York-based filmmaker, photography collector, and archivist.

Reflecting the complex history of the Caribbean, the photographs depict people with African, South Asian, and mixed-race roots. Portraits, group shots, landscape views, and documentary images are captured by international and regional photographers, unknown photographers, and studios.

Curator Julie Crooks is drawn particularly to a circa 1900 image of five women (above). “These women are wearing a particular attire. They all look very different. It’s really showing you the variety of people who live in Jamaica, even at that time,” Crooks said.

The acquisition has been particularly meaningful for Crooks, whose family is from Barbados. “I have been really thinking about how to engage these communities beyond just an exhibition,” she said. “This was an opportunity to bring them into the fold, to cultivate new patrons and supporters and give them a sense of ownership.”

Speaking recently with Culture Type about the Montgomery Collection, Crooks shared some news. The day before, she was promoted from assistant to associate curator of photography at AGO, effective July 1. During our phone conversation, she also discussed how the acquisition came about, plans for exhibiting the photographs, and the importance of the community at large being able to recognize itself in the museum:

 

CULTURE TYPE: How did the museum learn about the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs?

JULIE CROOKS: My colleague, curator of photography Sophie Hackett, and myself were attending AIPAD, the photo fair in New York, about a year and a half ago and a colleague mentioned that there was a collector with an incredible photography collection related to the Caribbean region. While we were there, we made arrangements to visit Patrick Montgomery, the collector in question. First of all, we were really impressed with the prolific nature of his collecting of the region. He’s also a collector of photography globally and very interested in the history of photography. He was actually interested in stopping his collecting in this region and looking for an institution that could care for it, preserve it, use it, and engage with it. That’s how we met and continued the conversation up to the point of acquisition.

Patrick Montgomery “was actually interested in stopping his collecting in this region and looking for an institution that could care for it, preserve it, use it, and engage with it.” — Curator Julie Crooks


UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, “At The Market, Martinique,” circa 1895 (albumen print, 22.23 cm x 18.42). | Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. * Purchase 2019, with funds from 27 donors

 

Once you saw the collection and realized it was something the museum could benefit from having, what was the acquisition process? What was the timeline and what did it take to make it happen?

It happened quite quickly. I was really determined that, in terms of the fundraising effort, that this would be a project or a campaign that was instigated and owned by the black and Caribbean communities here in Toronto because these are communities that have not historically had engagement at this level with the AGO. I thought this would be a really good opportunity to do so.

Can you say more about that, what you had in mind?

Since my arrival here, more than two years ago now, I have been really thinking about how to engage these communities beyond just an exhibition. This was an opportunity to bring them into the fold, to cultivate new patrons and supporters and give them a sense of ownership. We’ve all talked about it as a kind of legacy project. I reached out to someone on our board, Dr. Kenneth Montague, who is a trustee and a very prolific photography collector in his own right, and other individuals and to their networks—individuals who have the capacity and have the interest. We had a series of events where I pulled out 50 of the objects as a sample of the larger collection and they all, more or less, came on board right away and were committed to the fundraising effort.

An exhibition is scheduled for 2021. Do you anticipate showing all 3,500 of the photographs? What lies ahead in terms of assessing and studying the collection and planning the show?

In terms of the exhibition, it’s virtually impossible to do one show. It’s almost 4,000 objects at this point. (Since the first meeting with Montgomery, Crooks says he has continued to acquire photographs, adding 200 to 300 to the collection.) It’s difficult to even imagine how to start thinking about this in a very meaningful way, but we will. We have some time to do so.

In the meantime, once the objects, are cataloged, I would say by the end of the summer, researchers and scholars and the interested public can come in and take a look at a small sample of the images. We are also thinking of study days, which is really important to me, where we reach out to my colleagues in the region—in Barbados and Jamaica and Trinidad who are working in their own museums— about this collection, about their own collections. How can we do some cross referencing in terms of a deeper dive around the complex histories of the region and the diaspora? Those are the immediate plans. Aspects of the deeper research are the things that we are just beginning to think about now.

How significant is this collection, compared with the holdings of other institutions? What does it represent in terms of telling the story of the people and the region?

It’s very significant because the migratory patterns of the Caribbean diaspora in Toronto—coming since around 1910 in small waves and larger waves in the late 50s early 60s—really tell a backstory. It’s a Caribbean story, but there are also Caribbean diasporic stories. That’s what makes the collection so very significant in a place like Toronto. When people come and the show, or shows, is eventually up, I imagine, as I saw with the donors, this kind of visceral reaction to the images and the photos. People see themselves or their ancestors—their grandmothers, their grandfathers, etcetera, in the photos. They recognize areas. They recognize the flora and the fauna. That’s really, really special and important because it’s about locating yourself in the museum through objects that reflect your history.

“People see themselves or their ancestors… in the photos. They recognize areas. They recognize the flora and the fauna. That’s really, really special and important because it’s about locating yourself in the museum through objects that reflect your history.” — Curator Julie Crooks


FELIX MORIN, “Fakirs, Trinidad,” circa 1890 (albumen print, 17.15 cm x 23.5 cm). | Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. * Purchase 2019, with funds from 27 donors

 

More than two dozen donors helped make the acquisition possible, including Charmaine Crooks and Nathaniel Crooks. Who are they?

They are relatives. Nathaniel is my husband and Charmaine is my sister in law, a five-time Olympian.

You said you have roots in Barbados. Do they have roots in the Caribbean, too?

Yes, they are Jamaican.

AGO’s entire collection is about 95,000 objects and a substantial portion is photography—nearly 70,000 items. Is the general collection international or primarily reflective of Canada? In terms of photography, is the black Canadian community represented among the photographers or reflected in the subject matter?

The answer to the first question is “yeah.” We are an international institution for sure. Our departments are European, Indigenous, contemporary, modern, which reflects a global approach in the collections. I think that is changing now, to represent an even more global perspective. It is urgent and important that the collection reflects the larger community in Toronto, which is made up of kind of an older set of immigrants and also new immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, who you want to reflect. You want the collection to speak to them. I would say that is slowly changing. You asked about the African Canadian community, whether it was reflected in the museum’s photography collection?

Yes, in terms of the existing collection.

That is still a work in progress. But I do think that our department is working steadfastly to change that. The Montgomery Collection is transformative in that it really does begin to change the makeup of the permanent collection and we will continue to build on it. I would say that this is a really good start. We’ve previously collected Ming Smith, James Van Der Zee. Our thematic focus in our department now is actually the African diaspora. (Last year, AGO acquired Fade Resistance, a collection comprised of mostly found Polaroids documenting African American family life from the 1970s to early 2000s that was assembled by Toronto artist Zun Lee.)

We are very singular, I think, in our intention to change the collection, to have it reflect the character of our city, of the world. And we can also build on the Montgomery Collection. It stops in the 1940s, so what’s happening in a place like Jamaica with the burgeoning reggae scene?

“We can also build on the Montgomery Collection. It stops in the 40s, so what’s happening in a place like Jamaica with the burgeoning reggae scene?” — Curator Julie Crooks

You joined AGO in 2017. You are included the Culture Type round up of new curatorial appointments that year. In terms of your career or maybe just your tenure at the museum, acquiring this groundbreaking collection of photographs from the Caribbean must be a milestone moment.

It’s truly thrilling and tremendous to work on this project. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the institutional support and of course the support from the community. Personally, it means a lot to me because I have roots in Barbados. I see the photographs from Barbados, and I am just thrilled because I know some of these stories. In terms of my career, it feels sort of monumental. It really is. I’ve been heartened by the response. People are just really pleased, and I can’t wait to open it up and have people begin to dig in and discover some of this material and its history. CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

IMAGE: Top left, Julie Crooks. | via AGO

 

FIND MORE about collector Patrick Montgomery’s background

 

BOOKSHELF
Julie Crooks co-edited “Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires.” Published earlier this year, the catalog accompanied Mickalene Thomas’s recent exhibition at Art Gallery of Ontario, her first major solo show in Canada.

 


VALENTINE & SONS, “A Boat on Kingston Harbor,” 1891 (variation) (albumen print 21.59 cm x 26.67 cm). | Promised Gift of Patrick Montgomery

 


FELIX MORIN, “Coolie Woman, Trinidad,” circa 1890 (albumen print, 21.27 cm x 14.92 cm). | Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. * Purchase 2019, with funds from 27 donors

 


UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, “Glendairy Prison Officials, Barbados,” 1909 (albumen print, 13.97 cm x 19.69 cm). | Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. * Purchase 2019, with funds from 27 donors

 


PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN, “Martinique Woman,” ca 1890 (albumen print, 15.24 cm x 20.32 cm). | Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. * Purchase 2019, with funds from 27 donors

 


J.W. CLEARY, “Coconut Palms, Kingston Harbour,” circa 1895 (gelatin Silver print, 17.53 cm x 23.11 cm). | Promised Gift of Patrick Montgomery

 

* AGO’s acquisition of the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs was made possible by the generosity of 27 donors: Dr. Liza & Dr. Frederick Murrell, Bruce Croxon & Debra Thier, Wes Hall & Kingsdale Advisors, Cindy & Shon Barnett, Donette Chin-Loy Chang, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, Martin Doc McKinney, Francilla Charles, Ray & Georgina Williams, Thaine & Bianca Carter, Charmaine Crooks, Nathaniel Crooks, Andrew Garrett & Dr. Belinda Longe, Neil L. Le Grand, Michael Lewis, Dr. Kenneth Montague & Sarah Aranha, Lenny & Julia Mortimore, and Ferrotype Collective

 

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