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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.

“It has always been, in Quebec, that the government or the church takes care of you,” says Constance Pathy, president of Les Grands Ballets and a prominent arts patron. “That’s changing, but it’s slow.” Her company already has lead gift commitments for $13-million of the $19.5-million it needs to raise for its new home, she says, but coaxing the remainder from the population won’t be easy.

In 2005, the province launched a program called Placements cultures, under which private donations to dozens of arts groups would be doubled or tripled by the state. Over $4-million has gone to Montreal in seven years – not exactly a river of cash.

The main financial engine of cultural growth remains the government. Quebec’s culture budget for 2009-2010 was $1-billion; $595-million went to Montreal. The city government spent $55 per capita on culture, up 34 per cent from three years earlier; Toronto spent $19 per person.

In 2010, Quebec’s Agenda 21 plan proposed the convergence of cultural initiatives with other workings of government. The redevelopment of the Wilder Building for Les Grands Ballets and two smaller companies may be a perfect example: The upper floors will house offices of the provincial culture ministry. The project, which is to open by the fall of 2014, will be supervised by the province’s Société immobilière du Québec.

The dance component will include new studios and a dance academy built on a small portion of land donated by neighbouring TD Canada Trust. There will also be a dance-therapy centre, a café and an exterior wall surfaced for large-scale dance projections. The Pointe-à-Callière expansion will add four new spaces to the museum: the century-old Mariners’ House and three underground areas, including an archeological dig opened two summers ago on the site of the Parliament of United Canada (1844–49). The museum opened in 1992 with a goal of attracting 150,000 visitors per year; annual attendance now tops 350,000.

“It’s not a caprice, this expansion. We need to do it,” says Louise Pothier, the Museum of Archeology and History’s director of exhibitions and technology. The museum also needs to raise $10-million in private donations, with a target date of 2017.

That’s a big anniversary year on Montreal’s planning horizon: the 375th since the founding of the city, the 150th since Confederation and the 50th since Expo 67. It will also be a year of reckoning, as to how far Montreal will have succeeded in its self-branding adventure as a cultural metropolis.

A HISTORIC CHURCH GETS A NEW LIFE AS A CONCERT HALL

Montreal music lover Marc Bourgie was looking for a disused church that might be convertible into a small concert hall. Someone introduced him to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil, who saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream and extend her museum.

Last fall, the dream opened: a concert hall in the former Erskine and American Church on Sherbrooke Street West, with the newly constructed Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art nestled right behind it.

The $42.4-million project increased the MMFA’s display space by 20 per cent and sparked a renovation of all museum spaces that nearly doubled the number of works on display. The new six-storey pavilion, designed on the site of the old church hall by Provencher Roy + Associés, presents a sleek, articulated exterior in glass and marble, mined from the same Vermont quarry used 100 years ago for the original MMFA building across the street. The 600 artifacts inside the pavilion have been treated to 13,000 hours of restoration work, according to curator Jacques Des Rochers.

Each floor represents a different era in Quebec and Canadian art, subtly differentiated by Daniel Castonguay’s room design. A hall of 19th-century work, for instance, is hung in salon style, with a central raised platform for sculpture. Quebec music of the period plays from a sound system – a new departure in MMFA displays.

“The presence of the concert hall has opened our minds to the idea of using music to help display the collections,” says Bondil. Museums need to become less like mausoleums and more like “théâtres de mémoire,” she says, and music suits that purpose better than video screens.

The Bourgie Hall is a round, domed, neoclassical room, with restored Tiffany stained-glass windows, a sensuous curved balcony and an acoustical shell built around a low stage. The sound, as heard during a Violons du Roy matinee, was clear and warm, with remarkable bass resonance and none of the boomy echo heard in many churches.

Both hall and pavilion are handsome additions to Montreal’s cultural scene and an innovative way of repurposing a heritage building. The MMFA’s fundraising included $20.9-million to cover ongoing operating costs of the two spaces – an innovative and attractive strategy for any arts organization’s expansion plans.

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