Saturday, December 11, 2010

Millennium Library - Andrew Carnegie Portrait

Carnegie Portrait
Title: Andrew Carnegie Portrait
Location: Millennium Library, 251 Donald Street (Map)
October 1905, (re-dedicated October 2005)
Victor A. Long

The portrait that now hangs prominently in the Millennium Library had a rocky history.

The artist is Victor Arthur Long. Born in 1866 in Fort Erie Ontario, Long studied art in Europe for four years before returning to Canada and setting up shop in a studio on Main Street around 1887. He became well known for his portraits, including some high profile works capturing royalty to premiers, merchant princes to prominent clergy.

In 1905 Winnipeg was about to open its first central library. Up until this time libraries were mostly private institutions open to people who belonged to that club or a university. The Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (forerunner to the Manitoba Historical Society) offered a public lending room in a cramped space in city hall.

Former Carnegie Library

The librarian at the city hall book room applied to the Carnegie Foundation of New York, requesting funds to build a central library building. Andrew Carnegie, industrialist turned philanthropist, was responsible for funding the construction of hundreds of libraries around North America by this time.

The city received a $75,000 grant providing that it set aside the necessary land and agreed to pick up the annual operating costs.

Re-dedication by Mayor Katz, Oct. 2005: (Source)

Weeks before the October 1905 opening city council got a surprise at their monthly meeting.
Unveiled before them was a huge mural of Andrew Carnegie by Victor Long. The artist had painted it without commission and offered it to the city for unveiling at the opening ceremony for the sum of $550.

If Long was expecting accolades, he did not get many that day.

Alderman Latimer felt that such a picture was a poor choice, saying that Carnegie had donated to this fine building and that to honour him with a pricey portrait "making him look like a fashion plate" was unnecessary. Others questioned whether the portrait was of Carnegie at all, given that none of them had ever seen the man in person. Alderman Cox exclaimed "It's nonsensical! We're buying a picture and we don't even know if it is a good likeness."

In the end, the artist got his $550 and the portrait was purchased. (source: Manitoba Free Press, Oct 3, 1905).

Debate again erupted days later when the purchase came up at a labour meeting:

The question was one which brought out considerable fire, and some strong words were used to emphasize the feelings of the delegates.” They struck a committee to get legal advice to see if they could get an injunction to stop the city from “being so free and easy with the ratepayers cash”. (The Voice, Oct 6 1905).

The portrait hung at the library for nearly seventy years. In 1977, after the facility was closed and the contents moved to the new Centennial Library, a reporter noted the massive portrait in the boiler room leaning against a wall. It had been ‘banished to the basement’ a number of years before and was not going to the new facility.

The following year a small branch library opened inside the William Avenue building and the majority of the space became storage for the city records department. Carnegie's portrait remained in storage.
Millennium Library

In 2005, the centenary of the Carnegie Library building, the portrait was restored and rededicated. It now hangs in Winnipeg's Millennium Library on the south staircase overlooking what will be Millennium Library park.

A smaller Carnegie inside St. John's Library

Long moved to Vancouver in 1910 but made annual journeys across the prairies, stopping in major centres to collect new commissions. His works He died in 1938.

Carnegie's initial donation was not his only involvement in the Winnipeg Public Library system. A few years later he funded an expansion of the William Avenue building. In 1915 he contributed $35,000 for the construction of The St. John’s (Salter Street) and Cornish (West Gate) branches.

He did not attend the opening of any of the Winnipeg buildings but in 1907 on the occasion of the opening of the Washington D.C. public library, the 730th he funded to that time, he said:

“Free libraries maintained by the people are cradles of democracy, and their spread can never fail to extend and strengthen the democratic idea, the equality of citizens, the loyalty of man.” 

Carnegie funded the construction of 2,500 libraries in his lifetime. His foundation still gives millions of dollars each year toward educational projects around the world.

For more on Victor Long, see my West End Dumplings post.


  1. Great post. I remember getting a tour of the Winnipeg Archives at the old Central Library circa 2004, and seeing that painting leaning on its side against a wall in the basement... there was a giant tear in it, as I remember.

    It always makes me happy to see it hanging on display at the downtown Library today.

  2. I remember it there in the 90s when I was in Uni. There was also that display of the Gingerbread House that was cleaned up and put on display at city hall.

    If the city only had a museum there are some fabulous things it could put on display.

  3. When I was a kid circa 1954 or55 my father was the janitor on the 4pm to midnight shift at the old library at 380 William Ave (also profiled in Downtown Places).

    On Fridays when the library closed early my mother and I would walk from our house on Elgin Ave. about 10 minutes away and bring him his supper. My mother would help mop floors so he could come home an hour or so early.

    Being children of the Depression they would turn off lights in the rooms they finished cleaning although they considerately left me a pool of light nearby in which I could play with my toys or read picture books.

    The Carnegie portrait then hung on the second floor and I always felt under scrutiny because the eyes followed me wherever I went. Between the darkness and Carnegie I had effective chaperones.

    Later, in 1969, I worked at William Ave. as a Library Assistant and after the building was taken over by the City of Winnipeg Archives I spent some time there doing research. Lots of memories of that old building.