Since taking the reins some 11 years ago as director of the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Naomi Cass has strategically worked to define the space as a unique site for people from the Melbourne community to experience world-class photography and video. Her first major priority in achieving this was to relocate the gallery from its original Johnston Street location to the current site in the leafy, residential backstreets of Fitzroy. Cass approached Sean Godsell, the same architect who designed RMIT’s Design Hub and the inaugural 2014 MPavillion, to complete the project. Cass sings the praises of Godsell, who she says, “did more than relocate us, he repositioned the organisation.” In talking to Cass, it becomes apparent that this “repositioning” was just as much ideological as it was geographic.
This year the CCP turns 30. It has not been an easy journey. Over the decades, gallery directors have had to constantly reassess their strategies to keep up with shifting attitudes towards the medium of photography. “We work very hard for artists and we work with artists and have done so over the last 30 years when ‘photography’ was not on the tip of everyone’s tongues, when it was not as central to art or communication,” says Cass.
Indeed, during her directorship, Cass has taken pains to shift the way the gallery engages with its audience and artists. “One of my achievements,” she says, “has been to ensure that CCP was open to many different interpretations of photography, and to build and sustain other forms of access and engagement through a very broad cross section of public programs, workshops and activities that enable artists to engage with communities and communities to engage with artists.”
Over the years, for instance, CCP has hosted public lectures by the likes of Patricia Piccinini and Tracey Moffatt right through to internationally acclaimed American photographer Gregory Crewdson. Cass also cites the annual salon exhibition, a show in which members of the public can exhibit their own works in the CCP space, as a means of building an understanding of the relationship between the artwork and the institution.
Cass believes CCP has set a “curatorial benchmark” in presenting exhibitions that have brought historical, international and contemporary artists together. These include In Camera and In Public, 2011, Crossing Paths with Vivian Maier, 2014, and a very exciting future exhibition based around the work of seminal 20th century American photographer Walker Evans.
“We want to make a productive relationship between the historical, the internationally important and the well known with the best work being produced now in Australia,” Cass says. This strategy is a way of “creatively building new audiences for contemporary art and new audiences for historical, international art.”
Of course, it is no secret that CCP suffered in the recent Australia Council funding cuts. However, thinking about their ability to go forward, Cass is extremely optimistic. She is adamant that the lost funds can be gained through other avenues. “The loss for us was relatively small and we feel really excited and confident about the future,” she says. “We will be applying to the Australia Council through project grants and feel confident we are going to be able to make up the difference.”
What’s more, in light of the highly public funding cuts, CCP has been overwhelmed by the volume of donations by artists for the gallery’s 30th Anniversary Fundraiser. “Artists subsidise the entire arts sector and, once again, they have given spontaneously and generously to CCP,” says Cass. Works from over 70 local and international artists, including Brook Andrew, Zoe Cröggen, Simryn Gill and Daniel Crooks will be available for purchase at the fundraiser. Patrons have also turned out in support of the gallery. One extremely generous patron, in particular, has donated some very early pieces by Bill Henson.
Ultimately, photography is the real champion according to Cass. “CCP by courtesy of its engagement with this critical medium will always be relevant. Because photography is a part of personal, political, scientific and artistic work.” The secret of CCP’s longevity is then perhaps in its unique capacity to recognise the universal value of this multi-faceted and ever-evolving medium.