Girder-like bridge cranes span the high ceilings of each of the three huge main-floor rooms at Montreal's Arsenal art contemporain. These are the kind of cranes used in steel and paper mills, and like everything else in Arsenal's rugged industrial spaces, they may yet be converted to an artistic purpose.
"We're kind of hoping we'll find the right artist to do something with these cranes," says director Jean-François Bélisle with a grin. "Play with them or modify them a bit."
Playing with things is a robust concept at Arsenal, a private exhibition and event space created by Montreal collectors Pierre and Anne-Marie Trahan in 2012 in a former shipyard. The place has been in flux ever since, rapidly expanding three-fold through an adjoining space formerly occupied by a maker of super-hot plasma torches.
Arsenal now occupies more than 7,400 square metres, and may be one of the only art spaces in Canada where you can drive a truck in from street level. Some people come here to look at the art, others to attend a charity benefit or corporate event and dine with 1,000 others.
"We're not a gallery, not a museum, sort of everything together," says Bélisle. Events come and go continually in the cavernous western space devoted to them, while the art in the central hall shifts between curated shows and displays of pieces owned by partners in the facility, who also include high-flying collector François Odermatt. There are a couple of video rooms between the big spaces, and more art hanging in the long hallway that leads to Division Gallery, the Trahans' commercial gallery on the second floor. The whole place has a feeling of openness and activity that you don't often find in spaces for contemporary art.
Arsenal, which also has a smaller outpost in Toronto, is the first Canadian instance of what has become known in the art world as "the Miami model." Unlike collectors who keep their holdings quiet, Miami-model collectors open big display spaces, show their treasures to everyone, and create hubs for art education and networking. The Miami model is one big reason that Art Basel began an annual winter event in Miami Beach, which over the past dozen years has become a glitzy fixture in the international art-world calendar.
"When you go to Miami, to the Rubell Foundation or Margulies Foundation, you see what avid collectors are buying and showing," Trahan says. "I wanted to do something like this in Canada."
Like Donald and Mera Rubell, who began collecting in the early 1960s, the Trahans focus on advanced contemporary art, with an eye to artists for whom a market is still developing. Trahan and Odermatt are also keen on very large works that are difficult to take home.
Arsenal's central hall is full of such works, including a pair of David Altmejd mixed-media giants that are probably five metres tall. Everything in the room makes an immediate impact that resonates – something Trahan calls "the 'wow.' If you don't have the 'wow,' there's something wrong with the art."
"The shows at Arsenal are not what you would see in a museum," says veteran top-flight dealer René Blouin, whose gallery was housed at Arsenal for about a year. "In a museum, you have curatorial teams that reflect on the art and offer intellectual justification for their choices. Pierre and François are intuitive people. They don't have a professional background in art – they go with their nose, their intuition, their passion."
The dominant work in the David Spriggs exhibition that opened last week in Arsenal's eastern hall is an enormous equestrian figure called Regisole, which looks like a 3-D thermal-imaging trace of an armoured rider charging through fog. It's actually made from 96 sheets of acetate, spray-painted individually with marks that coalesce into a sculptural form when suspended and seen in layers. The piece is ingenious yet simple, displays endless complexity as you survey it from different angles, and is just busting with "wow." I could walk around it all day.
On the opposite wall, a life-sized animated projection shows a thermal-imaged cross-section of a container truck and its contents, which are mostly human beings, presumably waiting to sneak over a border. Surveillance and its way of seeing through things is Spriggs's theme, developed also in etched and layered glass plates that simulate the internal 3-D anatomy of bags as seen by airport security scanners.
The Trahans are enthusiastic collectors of Spriggs's work, but Arsenal doesn't represent or manage sales for the artist the way a private gallery would. Division Gallery, which also has space in the Toronto facility, does that kind of business with the artists it presents, but it is separate from Arsenal, which is involved in a much broader game. Just by opening the venue, and running it at a Miami scale of activity, the Trahans achieved a new kind of credibility. It was a sign they had moved to a higher level.
"People know us now, in Europe and in the United States; they know something is happening here in Montreal," Pierre Trahan says. That helps him make connections for the artists he champions, and no doubt also opens doors for him as a collector. In a New York Times piece published in January, Odermatt, who also owns a private gallery in Miami with his wife, Isabelle Kowal, said that one of the reasons he got involved with Arsenal is that "it gave me great access to amazing works from dealers."
Trahan speaks with obvious enthusiasm about the art he loves, but he never lets you forget he's also a businessman. "Contemporary art is a multimillion-dollar business," he notes. "Canadian artists are as good as international artists. We just have to create an international market for them."
Arsenal is part of his way to do that, and to inject something into the Montreal art scene that wasn't there before – something more dynamic, spontaneous and open-ended. Some people who go to Arsenal for a society function or bar mitzvah come back to take a closer look at the art they weren't expecting to see the first time.
"I'm really in awe," says Blouin, speaking of the Trahans's adventure in the Miami model. "Instead of buying a boat in Florida, they're putting their resources behind exhibitions of art, behind confronting people with what creators are doing."
Prism, an exhibition of recent works by David Spriggs, continues at Arsenal art contemporain Montreal through May 9. Next, a selection of recent acquisitions by collector François Odermatt, continues at Arsenal contemporary art Toronto through Feb. 19.