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In the eye of the beholder…

In the second installment of The Daily’s four-part series on local cultural tastemakers, David Levitz takes a look at the Montreal art scene

Marc Mayer wants philistines in his museum. Surrounded by sweeping views in his downtown office, the director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) tells me that no one can really hate contemporary art anyway, because one can’t possibly know it in the first place.

“I don’t know it,” he adds.

It’s surprising that one of the most influential figures in the Montreal art scene, whose job it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, sees his world as an enigma. But arbiters of taste do operate within certain parameters, and it’s important to understand how the Montreal art world works – and why the system functions so differently here than it does elsewhere – before putting a finger on who is calling the shots.

Montreal art venues, as in many cities, include museums, commercial and underground galleries, student galleries, artist-run centres, cafés, and bars. What’s different here is that public funds are easier to come by than private capital, making the museum’s voice louder than the galleries’. Art journalist Lisa Hunter explains that, “In the United States, you have the museums following the market a couple of years behind. There’s a sense that how good the art is is reflected in how much it costs.” Isolated from the international art market, even the best Montreal artists sell for a fraction of the prices commanded by their American counterparts.

The result is that market value does not have the same sway here as abroad. Low market prices are due in part to government agencies such as Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. These organizations pump money into local artists and institutions, creating a wealth of art that doesn’t have a high price tag because artists can rely on grants to make a reasonable living. The prevalence of governmental backing means that publicly funded institutions like the MAC and their curators have more influence here than commercial galleries.

Montreal art critics don’t have much sway either. While Roberta Smith at The New York Times can still make or break an artist, sources say that Montreal’s only truly influential critic in years, La Presse’s Jérôme Delgado, was fired for being “too academic.” Mayer, too, tells me that art critics “are the least influential people in the art world now.”

Local private collectors may rank even lower; there are no Peggy Guggenheims swinging from the chandeliers in Montreal. In New York, where art is much more of a status symbol, private collectors are eager to show off their purchases. But when the Musée des Beaux-Arts exhibits works from local private collectors, many of them choose to remain anonymous.

Piercing the inner circle

In the absence of these traditional tastemakers, the question becomes: how does an artist make it here? The short answer is that you need to be good, and you need to get yourself noticed. Art galleries at Concordia and Université du Québec à Montréal exhibit student work, and there is a good chance of getting your work displayed in cafés or influential artist-run spaces like Vox, Optica, Galerie B-312, or SKOL.

The top contemporary art galleries – René Blouin, Simon Blais, and newer names like Parisian Laundry – are a lot harder to crack. These galleries look for artists they know will sell. Blouin has a proven eye for finding young, up-and-coming Quebec artists such as Nicolas Baier. Baier’s bio in particular reads like a manual for how to make it in Montreal: first he showed at artist-run centres Clark, SKOL, and Optica. He was then given a solo show by René Blouin, and a year later he scored another solo show at the MAC.

The underground scene is another way in. Chris “Zeke” Hand opened Zeke’s Gallery, an anti-institutional space dedicated exclusively to first-ever solo shows, because, as he says, “If you go to René Blouin or Simon Blais, the first thing they will ask you is, ‘Where have you shown before?’” Hand’s model seems to have caught on: his was the only gallery of its kind when he opened in 1998, and by the time he closed last September there were a dozen like it in the city.

While there may be a few ways to enter the scene, possibly the best promotion for a Quebec artist is getting into the MAC, which under Marc Mayer’s influence is giving more and more solo shows to young artists. Yannick Pouliot, for example, who currently has a solo show there, was not a name five years ago. Working as a “gallery schlep” in Quebec City, Pouliot began to be noticed by fellow artists. “Artists create the art scene, essentially. They’re the ones who discover each other,” says Mayer.

Of course, the MAC is working hard to bridge the gap between Montreal and the rest of the world, and still relies on major international artists like Anselm Kiefer to bring in the money and the crowds. To find new international artists, curators travel extensively to international art fairs around the world – “the major gathering place for art tastemakers in the last decade,” according to Hunter. “Last summer,” she says, “there were so many different shows and things, it’s like people in the art market spent their whole summer in airport lobbies air-kissing each other and saying, ‘Oh, here you are!’”

In terms of Montreal’s art audience, private galleries can be intimidating or out of the way, remaining uninviting to newcomers. In recognition of this problem, the MAC works hard to attract a new contemporary art audience, hosting free indie concerts and showing music videos. They aim to promote both local artists and local art-goers, and their upcoming Triennial, which is the result of countless studio visits throughout the province, promises to present Quebec’s best new art, boosting local artists and disseminating cutting-edge art to the masses. “Triennials are an important way for people to get crash courses on what’s going on, and they’re extremely useful for the artists,” says Mayer.

Mayer insists that “taste” has nothing to do with this selection process. “It’s not about us. It’s about the public, and it’s about the art. They didn’t hire me because of my good taste. What they care about is our objective opinion of what we should be looking at.” Rather, he asserts, it’s about collecting broadly, finding the artists who fill a gap in art history, and exposing them to public. At the same time, he also says, “You can’t get launched into the market without us.” A discerning eye is necessary these days when “there are no movements anymore” and “the cult of originality has pretty much a hegemonic grasp on the scene.”

While the MAC works ambitiously to promote Quebec art and bring local audiences up to snuff, Mayer also understands that to make it really big – even locally – an artist has to move to a bigger city where the market is stronger. As it is, Montreal collectors are going to the Toronto International Art Fair to buy from Montreal artists. In recent years, there has been a trend towards nomadism, and successful Canadian artists like David Altmejd live in two or more cities – in his case Montreal and London. Parisian Laundry director (and practising installation artist) Jeanie Riddle says, “I don’t really think that artists are from a place anymore. Any artist I’m working with, they have the potential to go on a residency for a year, so where are they from?”

The next Berlin?

In just a few years, the Berlin art scene has undergone a snowball effect, attracting artists and galleries to become the hotbed of the avant-garde, ex-pat art scene. Montreal is one of many cities poised to undergo a similar transition. Dealers and museum directors are doing what they can to move Montreal in that direction, and at this point it seems to be just a question of fate.

Montreal has been yearning to enter the world art stage for decades. “There’s been avant-garde here since the twenties,” according to Mayer, and Montreal artists have always chosen to make more international art as opposed to the Group of Seven who strove to make patently Canadian art. The question is whether Montreal’s big-league aspirations can be realized as they have been in Berlin. Jeanie Riddle believes that “Montreal is in a Renaissance as well, and we are an emerging city. I think. Well, why did I go to Berlin? Why couldn’t people come to Montreal? Why can’t we set ourselves to be this really vital, important place for the visual arts?”

Artists themselves spurred Berlin’s renaissance, choosing the city for its rich history, international character, and cheap rent; the galleries soon followed. “I see an interesting sort of pattern in the cities that become Berlin, or Paris in the 20s, or New York post-war,” says Hunter. “If you have a major, international city with a very sophisticated infrastructure that’s fallen on hard times, that’s cheap to live in, that’s where you see a boom.”

If nothing else, Montreal is a sophisticated city, and dirt-cheap by international standards. While Montreal artists may not be breaking the international art market by staying in Montreal, they are potentially avoiding the kind of starving-artist lifestyle they might experience in New York. Given the city’s position as a cosmopolitan art scene outside of the international market, it has potential to attract outside artists who are fed-up with the bloated New York scene. Ironically, if enough starving artists came here to escape the market and enjoy the local perks, they might actually bring the market with them.

With its current artist networks and the largest contemporary art museum in Canada – as well as a government which subsidizes art in a big way – Mayer believes Montreal just needs a push in the right direction. “What I’m encouraging the government to do here is to invest in artist studios downtown. I think that lots of other artists from other places in North America and Canada would move to Montreal and live here happily ever after if they could get just the studio space. And if they moved here in large enough numbers, then the galleries would follow. The dealers from all over the country would take a crash course in French and open a gallery here, which we desperately need.”

While Montreal tastemakers primarily operate through public institutions, in some ways it all comes back to the market. To have internationally recognized art stars – and to keep them here – the prices must go up.

A Berlin-style art revolution could dramatically raise Montreal’s standing in the art world and effectively lift the long-held cap on local artists’ financial success. But the globalization of Montreal’s art scene could also mean bidding farewell to the notion of a local brand and of an art scene which still values aesthetics over the mighty dollar.

But then again, in Mayer’s words, “it’s really every man, woman, and child for themselves in the art world.”