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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

More proof Montreal is different, and likely to get better still.

Howdy!

Once again things here are not like in other places. Today's example is the interview with Marc Mayer in yesterday's Le Devoir. When was the last time the director of any museum made it onto the front page of your local newspaper? Unfortunately the powers that be decided that they want to charge you cash money in order to read it on line.

Fortunately, I got a copy, unfortunately I also translated it. Be forewarned, I play fast and loose when I go from French to English, there are some things in the English version that are only there for the easy laugh. It's best if you're bilingual. If you want more proof of how bad I am as a translator, check out some of the previous newsletters.

Quelques jours après sa nomination comme nouveau directeur du Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), Marc Mayer a croisé une petite famille de touristes québécois sur le parvis de la Place des Arts. Le père a vu un panneau annonçant le musée et a proposé une visite. La mère a refusé tout net en lançant qu'il n'y avait «que des cochonneries là-dedans». La remarque grossière a traversé le muséologue comme un coup de dague.

A couple of days after his appointment as new director of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), Marc Mayer came across a small Quebecois family of tourists on the promenade of Place des Arts. The father had seen a billboard announcing the museum and suggested that they go for a look-see. Mom completely refused and screeched that there was "only a bunch of stupid stuff in there." The coarse remark crossed the museologist like a blow of scraping-knife. [that last sentence was done completely by computer - but was too wonderful to change.]

«Ça m'a fait rire jaune, dit Marc Mayer, rencontré la semaine dernière. Y a-t-il encore beaucoup de gens ici qui pensent comme ça ? C'est épouvantable ! Il faut tout faire pour abolir cette perception. Il faut que ce musée devienne un point de référence, un centre d'excellence, dont les gens seront fiers.»

"It made me feel very embarrassed," said Marc Mayer, when we met last week. "Can there still be that many people from here who think like they do? It's terrible! We have to do everything in our power to get rid of that perception. [note to Mr. Mayer - next time you do an interview with the press, make sure that the Journal de Montreal gets a day of exclusivity, getting interviewed by Le Devoir is preaching to the choir.] The museum needs to become a point of reference, a center of excellence, a place for which people can feel proud of their heritage."

Après huit mois d'examen et de rencontres, Marc Mayer est prêt à lever le voile sur ses intentions de refonte du Musée d'art contemporain, ce qu'il appelle son «énoncé de vision». Il rêve de rapprocher son institution de la ville et des artistes. Il souhaite aussi agrandir son musée et le doter d'un important fonds de dotation qui lui permettrait de multiplier les achats pour bonifier sa collection.

After eight months of meetings and discussions, Marc Mayer is ready to lift the veil on his intentions to recast the Musée d'art contemporain, what he calls his "statement of vision." He dreams of bringing the institution, the city, and the artists together. He also thinks it would be a kick-ass idea to enlarge the museum and get a much bigger and more serious acquisition fund which would permit him to score more kick-ass Quebecois art and make the permanent collection much better.

Osons une allégorie catholique, d'autant plus de circonstance que Marc Mayer remplace Marcel Brisebois, un vrai de vrai abbé à la tête du MACM. En forçant le trait, on pourrait proposer que ce dernier fasse figure de Pie XII tandis que son successeur incarne une sorte de Jean XXIII. Ainsi, à un pape de l'art contemporain d'une relative passivité, succède un dirigeant qui proclame l'aggiornamento de son institution, c'est-à-dire sa mise à jour, afin de l'adapter au monde actuel.

Because the Pope just died, let's make a catholic allegory out of this whole contemporarily Art/Museum thing, 'cuz if you can remember back when Marc Mayer took over from Marcel Brisebois, Brisebois was a priest's priest, if you want to force the issue it was sort of like when Pius XII died and John XXIII took over. Going from a passive Pope of contemporary art to one that wants to modernize the institution, in other words make it more up-to-date, you know - give it a little zing. [note to Stéphane Baillargeon: There probably are more similarities between Brisebois and Pius XII than you could shake a stick at - but the Mayer - John XXIII comparison seems a little sketchy to me.]

D'abord, Marc Mayer souhaite donc mieux inscrire son musée dans la ville et dans le monde, pour ainsi dire urbi et orbi.... «Cette institution est vraiment originale, dit son directeur. C'est le seul musée d'art contemporain au Canada et le seul en Amérique du Nord qui fonctionne en français. Mais il faut se décrisper un peu. Il faut devenir encore plus dynamique et multiplier les contacts avec toutes les forces vives de la culture actuelle.»

To start with, Marc Mayer wants to make his museum more involved in the city and in the world, or to speak what looks like Latin in a French newspaper, inside and out. "This institution is truly original" say its director, "the only contemporary art museum in Canada, and the only one in North America that speaks French. But it needs to get a little looser, become more dynamic and make friends with the various cliques and tribes of coolness that are here in town." [note to Marc Mayer: There's this thing in Toronto called MOCCA. While you may not consider it a museum, there are other people who do.]

Il parle par exemple d'inviter plus de compagnies de théâtre ou de danse et même des groupes de la riche scène musicale underground de Montréal, dont The Arcade Fire, dont il admire le travail. Il veut également réserver des soirées complètes à des fêtes artistiques. «Le MACM doit devenir un lieu de rassemblement», résume-t-il.

He speaks of potentially inviting theatre or dance companies or even the phenomenally popular underground music scene here in town. Heck The Arcade Fire who he likes an awful lot. He'd also like to kick off a series of nights dedicated to artistic endeavors. "The museum needs to become a meeting place" he continues.

Le nouvel organigramme de l'institution témoigne de cette volonté de jeter des ponts vers les communautés environnantes plus ou moins proches. Le service du marketing et des communications devient la direction des services aux publics. La nouvelle direction de l'administration et des activités commerciales comprend notamment les services de l'édition. Surtout, l'éducation et la conservation fusionnent dans un nouveau service intégré. Paulette Gagnon prend la tête de cette direction tout en demeurant conservatrice en chef.

The organigram of the institution bears witness to this building of bridges between communities near and far. Marketing and Communications becomes "in the public service." The administration is being pushed in a new direction and its commercial activities will notably include publishing. Above all, the education and conservation departments are being combined and Paulette Gagnon does not lose her job as chief curator.

«Les musées ont tendance à accepter les chapelles, dit M. Mayer. Je crois que les conservateurs doivent devenir de grands vulgarisateurs et qu'ils peuvent beaucoup apprendre des éducateurs. Je souhaite fusionner les mentalités et encourager les dialogues.»

"Museums have this habit of becoming like bank vaults" Mr. Mayer says, "I think curators need to become the hippest folk in town, and they can learn an awful lot from the educators. I hope to combine the two ways of thinking and get them talking."

Né à Sudbury, diplômé en histoire de l'art de McGill, ancien directeur de la Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery du Harbourfront Center, à Toronto (1998-2001), il arrive du Brooklyn Museum de New York où il était directeur adjoint de l'art (deputy director for art). Il y a notamment organisé une rétrospective de l'oeuvre de Jean-Michel Basquiat qui a largement contribué au renouvellement de la peinture américaine dans les années 1980. Le travail, exposé jusqu'en juin, a été salué de manière dithyrambique par la critique new-yorkaise.

Now M. Baillargeon tosses in some boilerplate material about Mr. Mayer's background and then gets way too academic for a family newspaper in explaining how the reviews of the Basquiat show, which Mr. Mayer co-curated, were "poetic."

Fort de cette expérience, le directeur souhaite s'impliquer davantage dans le travail de conservation et annonce qu'il organisera personnellement un nouvel accrochage de la collection permanente en 2007. Marcel Brisebois, qui aura finalement dirigé l'institution montréalaise pendant une vingtaine d'années, soit la moitié de son existence, n'a jamais monté d'exposition. De ce point de vue, Marc Mayer se rapproche plus du modèle de Pierre Théberge (au Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, à Ottawa) ou de Guy Cogeval (à celui de Montréal), aussi bons administrateurs que conservateurs.

Back to my bastard translation: Flush with this experience, the director wants to take advantage of his curatorial skills and organize a "new and improved" hanging of the permanent collection in 2007. Marcel Brisebois who finally directed the Montreal institution for well nigh twenty years, which was almost half of its existence never curated a single show. Taken from this angle, Marc Mayer is much more like Pierre Theberge or Guy Cogeval, who besides being kick-ass administrators are very capable curators. [note to Stéphane Baillargeon: Brisebois was not hired to curate, not were Theberge or Cogeval. Brisebois got a new building for the museum, downtown, I might add. Theberge got an extension built here in town and then skidaddled for the hinterlands. Cogeval (as far as I know) has never been asked to build a building - it’s a completely different skill set.]

«Je trouve ça important de rester impliqué de manière intellectuelle», résume le principal intéressé en annonçant du tac au tac une nouvelle manière de négocier avec les expositions. «Il faut oser frapper plus fort et affirmer beaucoup plus nos coups de coeur», poursuit-il en donnant cette fois l'exemple de l'exposition consacrée en 2003 par le MACM au photographe montréalais Nicolas Baier. «Nous ne lui avons pas donné assez de place et nous avons produit une petite plaquette qui n'était pas à la hauteur de notre admiration. Cet artiste majeur méritait mieux. C'est à Montréal de souligner à fond l'importance et l'originalité de son travail, pas au Musée des beaux-arts de l'Ontario.» Le MACM se reprendra à la fin de l'année avec une exposition conjointe sur Nicolas Baier organisée avec le Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.

"It is important to say involved in intellectual pursuits," continues the head honcho, interested in announcing point by point (can anybody out there translate "tac au tac" better?) a new method in dealing with exhibits. "You gotta aim higher, stronger, and really make people aware great this stuff is, he continues, Giving as example the Nicolas Baier exhibit that was at the museum in 2003. "We didn't give him enough space and he produced something that wasn't up to our level of admiration. He's a major artist and he deserves better, much better. It's Montreal which should be underlining his importance and showing the originality of his work, not the AGO. The Museum will get a second chance at the end of the year when it combines forces with the Musée des beaux Art de Montréal on the next Nicolas Baier exhibit to get shown in town.

[Update April 13: MACM and MBAM aren't combining on a Baier show, they are just producing a catalogue on Baier together]

Marc Mayer rêve aussi de pouvoir déployer davantage la collection permanente et ses quelque 6000 oeuvres de 1500 artistes, dont 80 % sont toujours vivants. «Nous avons deux grandes forces : d'abord l'histoire de l'abstraction à Montréal, que l'on peut raconter du début à la fin, de Borduas à Charles Gagnon; et puis les installations, dont on possède plusieurs exemplaires magnifiques, de Bill Viola à Louise Bourgeois. Nous devrions continuer à enrichir cette collection unique qui peut attirer les touristes et les amateurs d'art du monde entier.»

Marc Mayer also dreams of the day (sounds much better than "power deployed" don't you think?) when the permanent collection with it's 6,000 pieces by 1,500 artists (and heck 80% of them haven't kicked the bucket, yet) can be better displayed. "We have two big themes here: Abstract painting which goes from the beginning to the end, from Borduas to Charles Gagnon; and then you can't forget about installation art, where we have some kick-ass examples from Bill Viola to Luoise Bourgeois. We need to continue nourishing this unique collection, which can then be used to attract art lovers from all over the world."

Pour exposer ces merveilles, il faudrait donc de nouvelles salles, et le directeur connaît bien les réticences étatiques à investir dans une nouvelle aile à court et à moyen terme. «Le musée a été bien pensé, dit-il. Mais nous n'avons pas assez d'espace. Je souhaite lancer le débat. Je ne dévoile pas de solution concrète, seulement un problème pour l'instant. J'ai beaucoup d'ambition pour cette institution, mais je n'irai pas trop vite.»

To exhibit this stuff, we need more rooms, and the director knows well the bureaucratic difficulties in investing in a new wing for the short to medium term. "The museum was well thought out," he says. "But, we don't have enough space. I want to start a dialogue. I don't have the solution, but I do want to make people aware of the problem right now. I have lots of hopes for this museum, but I don't want to go too fast."

Pour bonifier la collection par contre, il propose une solution qui a fait ses preuves ailleurs et qui implique à plein le secteur privé. Le MACM ne dispose que de quelques centaines de milliers de dollars par année pour acquérir des oeuvres d'art qui font encore malheureusement tiquer les contemporains.

To make the collection better, he is suggesting a solution that has worked elsewhere, by bringing in the private sector. The museum only spends chump change each year in acquiring art which only continues to piss off the contemporaries (I don't understand that sentence, either.)

«Je veux un fond de dotation substantiel qui nous permettrait d'acquérir beaucoup plus d'oeuvres racontant l'histoire de l'art contemporain, résume le directeur. Notre fonds n'a que deux millions en caisse actuellement. Il faudrait atteindre environ 25 millions pour s'activer correctement sur le marché de l'art. Nous allons donc lancer une campagne permanente et retenir les dépenses tant que ce seuil ne sera pas atteint, ce qui nous donnerait au moins un million par année, voir un million et demi, pour acquérir des oeuvres nationales et internationales.»

"I want a substantial acquisition fund which would permit us to get lots more work that would tell the story of contemporary art," resumes the director. We only have two million dollars in cash actually, and it would require about $25 million to enable us to act responsibly in the art market. So we're going to launch this permanent campaign and lower our expenses until we get there, those who give us $1 million/year will see us turn it into $1.5 million to get national and international treasures."

End of story. If you'd like more, there is an awful lot of similar stuff in my interview with him.

As for what I would do to make the museum better?

First off, fix the freakin' restaurant. There's a festival dedicated to this city's food, and at the museum you're only choice of a view is between a post, or some scrawl done by a sixth grader on a school trip to get some learnin'. Ditch the vault, so as to get more space for diners, and then ditch the chef. Toss in some new menu items that somehow relate to the exhibits there. And make sure that the food gets you into En Route's best restaurants in Canada for the next dozen years.

Second, make sure Beverly Webster Hall is being used every gosh-darn night. Whether for Arcade Fire (who for the record wouldn't be able to fit into the museum) or some other band, poet, lecture, film or what have you.

Third, make the memberships mean something. Give discounts on catalogues, discounts on events at BW Hall, bring a friend for free, stuff like that. And aim higher. Right now the levels are $25, $50 and $75. Umm, not to belabor the obvious, but if all you ask for is chump change, all you're gonna get is chump change.

And I could go on, but I do have some work to do here, feel free to email me for more.

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