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Nathalie Bondil, director of the MMFA, inside the galleries of the new Bourgie Pavilion in Montreal, February 1, 2012. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Nathalie Bondil, director of the MMFA, inside the galleries of the new Bourgie Pavilion in Montreal, February 1, 2012. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

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Montreal builds its cultural brand - one piece at a time Add to ...

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director Nathalie Bondil likes to call her museum a village. It’s an apt word for the heterogeneous buildings that cluster around a pair of intersections on Sherbrooke Street and that now include the new Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art and concert hall.

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“The ensemble is very complex,” Bondil says, referring to the buildings, the underground passageway that connects them, and the changing purposes to which they are being put. The Bourgie Pavilion complicated the picture further, by prompting the movement of 4,000 pieces of art as collections were shifted and reinstalled, while the museum remained open.

A complex village – that may also be a good description of the increasing agglomeration of cultural buildings in the city core. Montreal has always had a vibrant culture, but these days there’s a new will to intensify it, by raising new buildings and emphasizing the links between them.

Last fall, La Maison Symphonique opened on a corner of the newly spruced-up Place des Arts. City crews had barely finished a $120-million redevelopment of public areas in the Quartier des Spectacles cultural district, including open-air performance and display spaces, and a “luminous pathway” around the area. Recent additions to the Quartier’s 80-some cultural spaces include the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan, which houses a museum, médiathèque and club-style performance space. Across the street, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and two other dance companies plan to move their offices and studios into an extended and redeveloped industrial building. Le Musée d’art contemporain has plans for an $88-million expansion of its facility at Place des Arts, though it has yet to secure government funding.

Further afield, new theatres have sprung up for Théâtre Denise-Pelletier, Théâtre de Quat’Sous and Théâtre La Licorne. In Old Montreal, the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archeology and History is in the first phase of a $60-million expansion. At the historic Saint-Sulpice Library, 25 new-music organizations occupy a redeveloped facility that includes offices, residential studios and a concert space.

This building boom, all accomplished since the start of the recession, is no coincidence. Over the past decade, a series of strategic-planning summits and an overlapping network of partnerships between government and corporate entities, have put culture near the top of the civic agenda.

“Culture and creativity is our DNA,” says Helen Fotopulos, a City of Montreal executive committee member responsible for culture, heritage and women’s issues. “It’s not an expense any more, it’s an investment, and we have to increase and identify it.”

Seven years ago, Montreal’s physical plant for culture seemed to be in decline. Major institutions such as l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the MMFA chafed against the limitations of their spaces. Serge Joyal, a senator and arts patron, published an open letter called “Montréal declassé,” in which he lamented the city’s faltering cultural ambitions.

Two years later, three levels of government convened a summit meeting that yielded a 10-year plan to make cultural activity a major part of Montreal’s brand. Called Montréal, métropole culturelle, the plan put collective official will behind the Quartier des Spectacles and other cultural projects seen as key to the city’s competitive identity in the global economy.

An important aim was to repurpose heritage buildings that been underused or empty, such as the Erskine and American Church on Sherbrooke Street West (bought by the MMFA in 2008 and now a concert hall), the Mariners’ House in Old Montreal (Phase I of the Pointe-à-Callière expansion) and the Blumenthal Building (now the Maison du festival Rio Tinto Alcan). These moves are a dynamic extension of the Entente de développement culturel between the city and the provincial culture ministry that began in 1979 as a heritage-preservation initiative and now supports all kinds of cultural activity.

Aside from La Maison Symphonique, which cost $110-million to build, the investments per site are not especially large. Bondil points out that the $42.4-million cost of the six-storey MMFA expansion and hall conversion is tiny compared with the sums spent on recent makeovers at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum ($270-million) and Art Gallery of Ontario ($276-million), which included levels of private largesse Bondil can only dream about.

For all its cultural ambition, Montreal’s arts scene lives under a glass ceiling, imposed by the city’s reduced corporate base and by local attitudes toward donations. According to a recent report from Imagine Canada, which charts philanthropic giving, Quebeckers gave far less to all charities than other Canadians: $620 on average in 2010, compared with $2,251 per citizen in Alberta and $1,611 per Ontarian.

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