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Stéphane Aquin, new director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is concentrating on lower-key exhibitions that speak to diverse local audiences.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Stéphane Aquin, the new director at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, has been busy taking down banners. The signs that used to hang between the classical columns on the museum’s old Sherbrooke Street wing advertising the latest blockbuster are gone, decluttering the 1912 façade. A photography banner from a community project that used to hang in a passageway in the 1991 Desmarais wing has also been removed, exposing a sculpture by Montreal artist Betty Goodwin that hasn’t been properly seen in years.

The blockbusters themselves are gone too, victims of both the pandemic and Aquin’s no-nonsense approach to running a museum. After the showmanship, record crowds and multiple expansions offered by his flamboyant predecessor Nathalie Bondil, who was controversially fired from the job in July, 2020, Aquin is concentrating on lower-key exhibitions that speak to diverse local audiences. After all, there aren’t many tourists around any more.

“Fabergé eggs painted by Monet and found in King Tut’s tomb; we know that formula,” Aquin said in a recent interview. “But what is meaningful is a harder thing to define and more significant. How you look at what you thought you knew in a new way. … We are trying to see how we can have intelligent programming that truly reflects our values.”

Those values are fairly predictable: In an era when collections dominated by male artists are no longer considered acceptable, Aquin wants to achieve gender parity in programming. And, 17 months after the death of George Floyd launched the Black Lives Matter protest, he is extremely aware of the need to diversify audiences. Meanwhile, the museum is starting the search for its first Indigenous curator.

“I don’t know if we want to do another show about an emperor,” Aquin said in a crisp reference to the museum’s lavish 2018 exhibition devoted to art and court life under Napoleon.

'How long does it take for one voice to reach another?' is an exhibition on the theme of the voice that is largely drawn from the museum’s own collection of contemporary Canadian and international art.MMFA

In that regard, the pandemic (during which the museum was closed twice, for a total of seven months) has produced some hard realities and some opportunities.

“I’m not chasing numbers,” Aquin said, waving aside the 1.3 million record attendance that the Montreal Museum achieved in 2017, making it the most visited art museum in Canada.

There’s really no point these days. The pandemic has made it impossible to attract such crowds, partly because of the decline in tourism and partly because it has made the big name, big box-office show stuffed with important international loans logistically difficult and increasingly expensive to mount. Because of COVID-related delays in France, the MMFA had to cancel The Origins of the World: The Invention of Nature in the 19th century, a large touring exhibition from the Musée d’Orsay that was supposed to open in June. But even if that show could have come, the museum would have had to weigh the wisdom: Would reduced box office cover increased expenses? Aquin talked about that even before the pandemic blockbusters were attracting fewer visitors; the museum was raising its attendance through its education programs and concert hall.

“Is it still meaningful? Is it ecologically responsible … to freight works around the world for a short-lived extravaganza?” he said, adding, “We have to make better use of the collection.”

Works by Irene Whittome, who repurposed pages of a student’s art history notes, and, in the foreground, Shilpa Gupta, who cast a gunmetal book for each of 100 poets who have been jailed by a regime.Denis Farley /MMFA

That is what the museum’s fall shows are doing. “How long does it take one voice to reach another?” is an exhibition on the theme of the voice that is largely drawn from the museum’s own collection of contemporary Canadian and international art. Impressively installed in temporary exhibition galleries that have recently housed paintings by brand-name Post-Impressionists and the sexy costumes of French designer Thierry Mugler, it’s a complex show, devoted to art that isn’t instantly accessible and to a theme that is not always transparent. Meanwhile, another part of the temporary exhibition space in the Desmarais pavilion is devoted to portrait photographs by Yousuf Karsh, also from the permanent collection.

Aquin may find that visitors’ appetite for big names dies hard, however. On a recent Friday afternoon, “How long …” had a few visitors in every room – but the Karsh show, with its portraits of Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Brigitte Bardot, was crowded in the way art galleries used to be.

The challenge will be balancing less flashy shows with the need to generate revenue. The institution, which relied on government wage subsidies to pull through the closures, is not currently running a deficit and, after a period of almost continual expansion, it cautiously cancelled plans for a new wing devoted to Quebec abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle. All arts institutions are worried about what happens next, Aquin said, as they fear governments may tighten purse strings to cut pandemic deficits.

If there are financial challenges ahead, there is also the challenge of updating the museum’s social role, whether that means decolonizing collections or responding to Black Lives Matter. One of the works in “How long … ‚” which was organized by chief curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais, is a new acquisition by Haitian-Canadian Stanley Février: a full-size cement cast of the Montreal artist’s body, lying on the floor in the same position in which George Floyd died.

“When George Floyd was killed I was working in a museum on the Washington Mall,” Aquin said, referring to his recent five-year stint as chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. “I come here very sensitized.”

One of the works in 'How long … ' is a full-size cement cast of Haitian-Canadian artist Stanley Février’s body, lying on the floor in the same position in which George Floyd died.Jean-Guy Turgeon/MMFA

Aquin, a Montreal native who grew up in the United States and Switzerland and has worked at the MMFA twice previously, sounds like a centrist on these issues. He draws a distinction between the museum’s community outreach and treatment of its own staff on the one hand, and its programming on the other.

“We are institutions of the Enlightenment,” he said when asked about the divisive debate over the International Council of Museums’ plan to add social justice and human rights to its definition of a museum’s purpose. “Our education department has high alertness to issues of social justice and human rights. Are we going to do shows about human rights? That’s a different question.”

The one thing that seems straightforward is the MMFA’s stress on wellness: Aquin is a bit surprised that people ask him if he will keep this key tenet of Bondil’s philosophy, saying that of course art therapy and the notion of art appreciation as healing will remain central. Still, he suggests that encouraging doctors to prescribe museum visits for stressed-out patients – the headline grabber of Bondil’s tenure – is an initiative that needs to be handled with care. Imagine if an unhealthy patient arrived at the museum on the final weekend of a blockbuster exhibition!

Review: “How long does it take for one voice to reach another?”

A massive wooden megaphone, created by artist Rebecca Belmore in the aftermath of the Oka crisis, plays exhortations by Indigenous land-claim activists.Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The big fall show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a complicated backstory, a long title and an abstract theme. But at the core of “How long does it take for one voice to reach another?” is a decision to haul a bunch of big and fabulous contemporary art works out of storage and into the light.

Making a virtue of necessity, chief curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais has fashioned a thematic exhibition from the permanent collection because delays and cancellations related to the pandemic left the institution with an empty spot on the exhibition schedule. The title is from a poem by the American poet Carolyn Forché and it inspired the late Betty Goodwin, who included it, in metal letters embedded in pavement, in a site-specific architectural installation she created in a glass-covered walkway when the museum opened its new Desmarais wing in 1991. Not too subtly, the work, which sits just outside the opening to this new exhibition, features a giant ear.

The nearby exhibition also opens with a blast: the massive wooden megaphone created by artist Rebecca Belmore in the aftermath of the Oka crisis and now playing exhortations by Indigenous land-claim activists of the day. From there the show mixes historical, modern and contemporary art as it wafts about considering different kinds of communion – with the spirit, with music, with each other.

Aquin poses in front of an installation by artist Betty Goodwin featuring a giant ear.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

This all feels a bit vague until you hit the central rooms where the juxtapositions of work are so visually strong that the themes they are serving quickly crystallize. There is a much more evocative Goodwin work: Carbon, a charcoal and pastel drawing on aluminum with her signature images of bodies twisting and hurting. It meets another kind of quiet sorrow or menace in the robotic jackets fashioned by Montreal designer Ying Gao from hundreds of straight pins and electronics. They are programmed to respond to the human voice and, rather creepily, if you speak loudly to them the pins will gently wave, as though they were the hairs in the ear canal hugely enlarged.

The next room features three impressive works suggesting power relations in communications, arranged in an installation that stresses their formal grace. The Indian artist Shilpa Gupta has cast a gunmetal book for each of 100 poets who have been jailed by a regime and touchingly arranged these small sculptures on a long, horizontal tabletop. Hannah Claus has placed straight pins in rows on red wool blankets to represent 17th-century covenants between the Haudenosaunee and the British – and their betrayal. And Irene Whittome has taken pages of a student’s art history notes, marked, obscured and papered over passages, and then mounted them in a grid, a beautifully mysterious wall of eclipsed text.

The show ends as resolutely as it began with a special loan from sound artist Janet Cardiff of Forty-part Motet, in which the visitor can hear each separate voice in a choir by drawing close to one of 40 speakers. It’s a crowd-pleasing work, accessible yet lyrical, and in this context sends a crystalline message about the power of the voice multiplied by community.

How long does it take for one voice to reach another? continues at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to Feb. 13, 2022.

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