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A new building and a new era

The Musée national des beaux-arts has a new glass pavilion, a welcoming atmosphere and even more exhibition space

The large, new exhibition spaces are often filled with natural light. (Bruce Damonte)

Gold-mining executive and philanthropist Pierre Lassonde has a nickname in the business world: “Lucky Pierre.” His knack for fortunate outcomes seems to have rubbed off on the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, which opened a new pavilion this week that has doubled the museum’s exhibition space.

Lassonde is the MNBAQ’s board chair, and also gave the lead gift of $10-million that put his name on the newest addition to Quebec City’s Grande Allée. But he helped make the project happen even before there was a plan to build, by buying the development option on the site of a disused Dominican monastery near the museum’s three existing pavilions.

“I thought, ‘This land’s got to be for us, and we’ll figure out what to do with it later,’” he said during an interview at the museum. His proudest claim is that this handsome, much-needed pavilion ran only 3 per cent over its $103.4-million budget – an overrun that, in the world of museum-building, counts as freakishly small.

The new Pierre Lassonde Pavilion has a clear view of the Grande Allée through the glass face. (Bruce Damonte)

As is the fashion in cultural buildings of all kinds, the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion engages with its urban environment as openly as a fishbowl, thanks to its glass envelope and luminous interior plan. It faces the Grande Allée through a 330-square-metre expanse of extra-clear glass, with the building’s cantilevered top storey jutting over the entrance. The three above-ground levels back onto the parkland at the rear like descending stairs. That arrangement gave New York architectural firm OMA (working with Quebec’s Provencher Roy) space for two fabulous rooftop sculpture gardens, planted with hardy low succulents whose colourful arrangement mimics the park topography.

The new exhibition spaces are large, and lit to an unusual degree by natural light, often filtered through textured glass. The exhibitions include an impressive show of contemporary Quebec painting, a super-fun display of Quebec design since the late 1950s and a superb installation from the museum’s large Brousseau Collection of Inuit art, in vitrines shaped like icebergs. A big ground-floor show of installation art seems designed to revel in the museum’s expansive new spaces: Almost every piece on display is huge.

But the Lassonde Pavilion also illustrates in dramatic fashion how many purposes, beyond its traditional mandate, a modern museum must serve to stay alive. Exhibition areas account for only one-third of the building’s nearly 15,000 square metres of floor area.

The new space has a staircase with the names of donors who gave at least $50,000. (Bruce Damonte)

The enormous foyer off the Grande Allée, for instance, is meant to be usable as a party space, reception hall or whatever else a client might want. On Wednesday, a large band was setting up at one end for a museum bash that evening. “It’s almost like a street, where a lot of activity could happen,” said lead architect Shohei Shigematsu.

It’s kind of mind-blowing that such a simile could be applied to the interior of an institution historically devoted to the care and exhibition of artworks. But Shigematsu’s imagery is right in tune with the museum’s intention to get the whole town to come through the door and spend money, one way or another.

The multipurpose imperative also shows up in room-sized landings off the elegant curved staircase – one of Shigematsu’s few breaks from the building’s straight-line geometry. Another open lounge takes up a large swath of the lower level, adjacent to a 256-seat auditorium, which museum director Line Ouellet said could be used for film screenings, lectures and performances. It’s easy to imagine a corporate or festival event occupying those spaces and expanding into the main foyer at the top of the stairs. A new 70-seat gourmet restaurant on the main level offers fabulous views of the neighbouring parklands.

As is the fashion in cultural buildings of all kinds, the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion engages with its urban environment as openly as a fishbowl, thanks to its glass envelope and luminous interior plan. (Bruce Damonte)

All this accommodation to purposes that may have little to do with the MNBAQ’s collections is necessary because the museum needs income. Admissions and grants only go so far, even after a larger commitment from the province to help with operating costs, and probably more money in future from an expanding Canada Council (whose new chair is Pierre Lassonde). Donations don’t go far enough, especially in Quebec, where charitable giving operates at a much lower level per capita than anywhere else in Canada.

The museum met its capital fund-raising goal of $24.6-million, and Lassonde believes his lead gift prompted a few acquaintances to sign cheques of $250,000 – more than he might have expected. That’s great, but in Toronto, those cheques would probably have been for $1-million or more, and the museum wouldn’t still be trying to meet an operating-fund goal of $10-million. It still has a few steps available on Shigematsu’s staircase, for any donor who would like to see their name prominently written there in gold letters, for a mere $50,000.

The good thing about being forced to plan for spaces that the museum can rent out, Lassonde said, is that people who come for a wedding or office event may return to see the art. Perhaps; but symphony orchestras that play Star Wars concerts aren’t seeing those people flocking back for Mahler.

In any case, these are golden days for MNBAQ, which is celebrating its expansion with special events and free admission all this weekend. Its new pavilion is welcoming and intelligently designed. Its new exhibitions contain many wonderful pieces, brilliantly installed. It has, at long last, a range of purpose-built spaces for its contemporary collections. Best of all, it gets to display twice as much of what it already owns, and showing art to the people is the first and truest mission of a public art museum.

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