Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jocelyne Aumont, Simon Blais, & Pierre-François Ouellette vs. Joan Griffith, Tuppi Long, and Vicki Boyce


Last Sunday I went to Stewart Hall to hear Jocelyne Aumont, Simon Blais, & Pierre-François Ouellette talk about what it is like to run a gallery here in Montreal. It made it into the West Island Chronicle. If you'd like to read what I thought about the art exhibit on the walls at the time, click here.

Two days later, Joan Griffith, Tuppi Long, and Vicki Boyce did what appears to be the exact same thing in Scottsdale, Arizona. As far as I can tell from 30 seconds of research, their's didn't make it into any newspaper, but it did get blogged about obliquely.

Obviously, I wasn't able to attend the one in the United States. One interesting difference. In Pointe Claire admission was free. In Scottsdale it cost $20, and was one in a series of seven lectures (or as we call them here, conferences). [Note to Joyce: Charging money might not be a bad thing in the future.]

The Montreal Gallerists being introduced by Joyce Millar (standing). From left to right. Lise Lamarche (moderator), Jocelyne Aumont, Simon Blais, and Pierre-François Ouellette

In her introduction, Ms. Lamarche mentioned the demise of Parachute, and how Eric Devlin (one of Jocelyne Aumont's original partners in Galerie Trois Points) now was running a 'virtual gallery' without walls, as examples of Montreal's 'art scene' and how it is fairing. Wanting everyone in attendance to think that everything was down in the dumps and that the people on the panel were 'survivors.' I think it would have been slightly better if she had mentioned Projex Montreal, Galerie Dominique Bouffard, Headquarters and Tra Ca (all of whom I visited on Friday), Donald Browne's Gallery, Galerie Espace Arts du Feu, Galerie Alternance, Art Neuf, Quartier Libre, Galerie Attakus, Anthracite Diffusion, Le Kop Shop, or any of the other gazillion and a half new galleries that have opened recently instead of the breast beating and melodrama over one magazine outliving its usefulness, and Mr. Devlin finally realizing that if one of the better art dealers in town didn't need an exhibition space, then why should he bother with the hassle of rent and business taxes?

For the most part it was quite entertaining, as I had initially thought that I was going to be the attack dog during question period. However, not only would I have had to fight in order to ask a question (and there appeared to be some tough hombres there) but after hearing a couple of questions realized I would have been laughed out of the room as being namby-pamby and just too polite.

The whole thing started out quite nice, simple and fairly structured. If you want to read how serene it was, go back to the article from the West Island Chronicle. Where it started to get wonky, was when Ms. Lamarche's microphone got passed into the audience so that everyone could (theoretically) hear the questions. As Ms. Lamarche no longer had a microphone, it became rather difficult for her to moderate anything. As most of the audience had no prior experience with a microphone, it was hit and miss as to whether the microphone actually helped. Thankfully I had washed my ears just the night before so even if someone used the microphone as a fashion accessory I was able to hear what they said quite clearly.

My guess is that some of the gallerists thought that people in the West Island who frequented Stewart Hall were going to be art collectors, or potentially some other type of consumer of visual arts. Or somehow that was the thought that had been in my head as to what the audience was going to be like - after all I was there, and betcha by golly, wow I am extremely representative of the typical person who visits Stewart Hall. Don'tcha think? So maybe the folks from the galleries had different ideas.

Anyhows, I was surprised as to how many times, and how many different ways, artists could ask "How can I get you to show my work?" It ended up sounding to me like most of the audience was made up of artists who did not have representation. At first (as one would expect) things were fairly polite and diplomatic. Terms like 'if I like the art,' and 'if I get along with the artist' were bandied about like nobody's business. But then, it became apparent that the gallerists (like most people with full time jobs) were overworked and underpaid, and not really in any position to take on new artists, and were extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being approached blindly.

To her credit, Ms. Aumont did her best to try and handle the crowd, as she takes pride in the fact that her gallery is known for starting artists' careers. M. Blais did not really talk much about finding new artists (I'd love to know more details about how he came to represent Marc Seguin) but spoke more about the ongoing relationships he has with artists. He used a term that surprised the heck out of me, when he called working with an artist like a marriage. It surprised (and scared) me, because those are the very same words I use to describe the relationship between an art gallery and an artist, and I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams that me 'n' Simon Blais spoke the same way.

What I found particularly interesting was how M. Ouellette quite astutely decided to stay as far away from the fray as possible. He told the audience, with a straight face and point blank, 'I am not interested in taking on any new artists.' I think it also might be him who led me to think that they all came expecting art consumers, as he was mighty prepared with invitations for his next show and pamphlets with pictures of all the artists that he represents, almost as if he had been at an art fair. But I digress.

For a moment (after the first time the question of 'how do you find artists' was asked) it became calm again. And government policy was brought up as a topic. M. Ouellette ended up sounding the suavest, as he was able to link the federal government's policy with regards to literature, and explain quite succinctly how it was discriminatory to visual artists. (Or if you don't like my attempt at suave-speak, there is no GST on the sale of books, M. Ouellette thinks it would be a good idea to remove it from the sale of art as well.) Ms. Aumont was a little bit more succinct and to the point. She wants the government (any government) to either give her more money for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and admission fees to art fairs, which can be quite expensive. (Or if you would prefer suave-speak; More help from all levels of government in order to be able to attend internationally recognized art fairs.) Which sort of led to what I think was a question (or some sort of follow up) on are there other ways of finding buyers? Because all my notes tell me is: "Other Places?" And then I have something in my notes that says "JA complains Gazette too expensive." But my guess is that there was some mention of advertising (which is not something I am a big fan of for art) and M. Ouellette pulled some study out of a hat to say that you need to see a piece of art seven times before you will buy it (umm, if that was the case with food, I would starve. If that was the case with music I'd be better off deaf, if that was the case with clothing I'd be wearing the same things I wore 20 years ago...)

And then things got messy again, there was a question about education - but M. Blais hadn't had his chance to answer the government question. So he tossed in his two cents about how art should be tax deductible. The only problem with that idea is that art is already a tax deduction for businesses. And if you donate art to a Quebecois Heritage Institution (like say, a museum) you receive a tax deduction of 25% more than the appraised value of the piece. So either M. Blais is in agreement with M. Ouellette, and just has a different way of expressing it, or he is a little bit behind the times.

As for the education question - M. Blais wants students to visit his gallery.

And then the knives came out again. All I have in my notes as the question is 'elitism.' But as you might expect, it really has to deal with elitism in contemporary art galleries. Or as I put it, 'The White Cube effect.' Basically, how you feel the need to whisper when you enter into an art gallery, and if you have a question about the art, you feel like you are not worthy of being inside the gallery.

Ms. Aumont explained it away as being a case of time management. Or 'sometimes she is too busy to talk.' Note to Ms. Aumont, Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world, they very specifically hire people whose sole job it is to talk to people as they walk in the store. No, I am not suggesting that Wal-Mart and Galerie Trois-Points are the same type of business. But there are certain things that can be considered similar. Saying 'hello' to people as they walk in, and attempting to make them comfortable sure as shootin' ain't gonna hurt sales. And while she said that she will always answer any question asked, if I'm in a gallery and someone who works there is on the phone, I'm not likely to interrupt their conversation. As the initial question was about education she ended with the pithy statement that she is in her gallery to sell, not to educate.

M. Ouellette countered that he does want to educate. He also pointed out that there are 22 different art galleries in the Belgo building (372 Sainte Catherine West) and all of them are completely and utterly free to enter. He then emphasized the difference between the artist run centres in the building (like Circa and B-312) the for rent art galleries (like Luz), and pointed out the various expenses involved in educating the public, such as photocopies.

Claudine Ascher, director of the Centre Culturel de Dollard's art gallery, and an artist as well explained how she feels entirely shut out of the commercial gallery world. Ms. Aumont piped up with sometime to the effect of 'it is my sandbox and if I don't want to play with you tough luck.' She went on to stress how it was not a French/English thing, but what I got most was her repetition of the word 'can't,' three times in one sentence according to my notes.

M. Ouellette pointed out that as itsy-bitsy (he used the word 'micro') companies there is only so much that they can do, and how they are all committed to what they are doing. Some how he then tried to make a comparison to the situation in Berlin, where according to his research there are more than 300 galleries, and the visual arts are fundamental to life there.

This is where I should have added my voice - There are 62 places that are members of the Société des musées québécois here in Montreal, 21 artist run centres in Montreal, 20 galleries that are not artist run centres in the Belgo building. For a total so far of 103 art galleries in Montreal without even breaking a sweat. Another ten members of AGAC who are not in the Belgo Building, we're up to 113. At least four galleries at Concordia University (I have never quite got the nerve to venture out to the Loyola campus), three at UQAM, three at McGill University, and at least one at UdM. 124 without beginning to count the commercial galleries on Sherbrooke street near the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (roughly another 20) or the commercial galleries in Old Montreal (roughly another 40 or so). Now the total is 184. Add in Monkland Village, Laurier and Bernard avenues in Outremont, Victoria avenue in Westmount and we are way over 200 even if each of those shopping areas averaged only had four galleries each. And then what about the neighborhoods/boroughs of Saint Henri, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, NDG, Verdun, Anjou, Saint Leonard, Anjou, Beaconsfield, Ahuntsic, etc? 30 boroughs or ex-boroughs. All they need to do is average 4 galleries each to get to 320 art galleries on the island of Montreal. If M. Ouellette honestly believes that there are less than 300 art galleries in Montreal and that the visual arts are not fundamental to life here in Montreal, then I have a sweet deal on some swampland in Florida or a bridge in Brooklyn that I'd like to show him.

This serves to illustrate exactly what I think Joyce Millar was trying to accomplish by programming the 'Art in the City' exhibit. Far too many people have an extremely myopic view of art in Montreal. The local art critics Nicolas Mavrikakis in Voir, Henry Lehmann in the Gazette, Rene Viau in Le Devoir review the same 50 galleries over and over and over and over again and again and again and again. Nobody reads any of the 10 magazines that the Quebec government supports who only cover the visual arts (which is why there used to be 11). Nobody seems to be aware of how much art is exhibited here in town, nobody seems to have a clue as to how many artists are here in town, everybody just follows along like sheep and says 'woe is us!'

Thank heaven for people like Ms. Millar who attempt to get suburbanites; people with mortgages, white picket fences, two car garages, 2.2 children with soccer practice on Wednesdays, and piano lessons on Tuesdays, PTA meetings, fine folk who actually shop at Wal-Mart, and The Gap without any sense of irony to come see contemporary art that isn't quite as institutionalized as the Group of Seven nor as safe as an oil painting of some kids playing hockey.

On the flip side, I wish that Jocelyne Aumont, Simon Blais, and Pierre-François Ouellette had actually pushed some boundaries instead of playing it extremely safe with their choices of artists to show in Pointe Claire. I can only think of one artist who was really expanding and questioning stuff in the whole exhibit - Nathalie Grimard. Everybody else was firmly on the Post-Modern bandwagon, which while theoretically and potentially 'new' to the citizens of Pointe Claire was about as ground breaking and innovative as Windows XP.

But enough of what I think. Back to the conference.

Someone in the audience wanted to know where the galleries found buyers for the art the exhibited. M. Blais decided to answer a variation of the question by explaining that his buyers were local, and young, and while he has a considerably larger advertising budget that either of the two other galleries he can't advertise everywhere. He feels that any and all of his international sales are completely by chance, and that companies buying art from him account for less than 10% and museums even less, although he did not specify if this was 10% of the number of pieces sold or 10% of the dollar value of his sales.

He then somehow decided to compare artists to musicians with the throw away line that 1% make it internationally. Which is wrong, the percentage is way lower. But also confuses the topic because there is no company in the art world that behaves and acts anything like a record company. ie a publicly traded multi-national corporation with a vertically integrated international distribution network that also had ties to the management, and marketing of the musicians.

Thomas Kinkade used to be publicly traded, and still has a vertically integrated international distribution network. But he doesn't care about any other artists besides himself. And Sotheby's and Christies don't care about any specific artists (actually given how much record companies care about musicians - Christies and Sotheby's might be a match...)

There was a follow up question which led me to believe that the person asking it was an artist, as they were asking about 'link making' and 'opening doors.' This unfortunately didn't lead to any mindblowingly insightful answer. M. Blais said 'All walls are good' and counseled using whatever means possible to sell one's art (ie the cynical view: the more you sell, the more you show, the more likely it is that there will be someone who notices your work and thinks that they can make a buck off of you. Or if you prefer the innocent view: the more you sell, the more you show, the more likely it is that there will be someone who notices your work and thinks that they can help you attain all your unrealized goals).

M. Ouellette then started bashing the media for the supposed lack of coverage. Ms, Aumont pointed out to him that they weren't at Stewart Hall to complain (I got a kick out of that comment). M. Ouellette also pointed out that his clients were his 'ambassadors' and that for the most part most of his clients were also artists, and some how was able to toss in the fact that he liked art being exhibited in restaurants (I think my notes missed the linking statement).

By this point there were people in the audience who wanted to make grand statements, and now in going over my notes I get the impression that after the slightly aggressive questioning, and the slightly aggressive responses, that this might have been in order to exert a calming influence on the proceedings. And it seems to have worked as I have lots of "thanks" and 'thank yous' all over the last two pages of my notes, along with 'everyone having their role' and my favorite; 'more is good, there is plenty of room for everybody.'

So as you might have expected, the conference sort of wound down and finished with everyone (or at least it seemed to me like everyone) being happy and content. After having written these 3,374 words (and counting) of doing something similar here in the future. If I do, it will probably be closer in style to the one in Scottsdale (how's that for linking the beginning and the end) although everyone from Pointe Claire is welcome.

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