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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Simon Blais makes it into Le Devoir

Howdy!

Simon Blais, the owner/operator of Galerie Simon Blais got himself 1,100 words in yesterday's Le Devoir. Congrats! As the article is moneywalled, I figure I can translate it, and comment about it, so y'all can read it - after all it isn't everyday that some guy who runs an art gallery gets an article written about him in Le Devoir.

Marché de l'art - Simon Blais : portrait d'un galeriste

The Art Market - Simon Blais: Portrait of a dealer

René Viau
Édition du samedi 10 et du dimanche 11 mars 2007


Marchand, galeriste, amateur d'oeuvres sur papier, dénicheur de talents, Simon Blais (50 ans) n'est jamais demeuré statique. Autodidacte, faisant jeune ses classes en vendant des reproductions de maîtres, encadreur, puis, après avoir appris les 1000 facettes du sujet, longtemps expert en estampes et en livres d'artistes auprès de l'Hôtel des encans, il fait le grand saut. Avec Sylvie Cataford, sa femme, comme associée, Simon Blais ouvre sa galerie en 1989. Presque 20 ans plus tard, il reste toujours aussi enthousiaste envers ses chères oeuvres sur papier, «surtout abstraites», insiste-t-il, issues de la modernité québécoise, de 1945 à aujourd'hui. Son flair et son expérience lui ont aussi ouvert les yeux sur des artistes plus jeunes.

Salesman, dealer, collector of works on paper, talent scout, Simon Blais (50 years-old) has never stood still. Self-taught, he learned at an early age how to sell reproductions of the masters, framer, and after learning the 1,000 different sides to the subject, longtime print and artist books expert at the Auction house, he made the big jump. With his wife Sylvie Cataford as partner, Simon Blais opened his gallery in 1989. Almost 20 years later, he remains enthusiastic about his treasured works on paper, 'especially abstract' he insists, coming from the modern Quebec of 1945 to today. His flair and experience have also focused other people's eyes on young artists.

I quite like the idea that he is self-taught. At some point I'm going to have to ask around as to the education of other folks who run galleries. I would imagine that there are other (a lot of other) self taught dealers.

«Nous avions deux enfants et peu de moyens, dit-il en évoquant ses débuts. J'ai vendu mes fonds de retraite, refinancé ma maison, pour lancer ma galerie dans un local excentré, rue Clark.» Il mise au départ sur l'estampe, qu'il connaît bien et pour laquelle il avait déjà développé une clientèle. À peine sa galerie ouverte, l'euphorie des années 80 est paralysée par la récession des années 90. Avec le reste des ventes, le domaine de l'estampe traditionnelle, première entrée de gamme vers l'art contemporain, s'effondre. Pour tenir, il lui faut s'adapter et faire aussi de l'encadrement. Il pense alors à retenir des artistes à peu près inconnus pour se diriger vers les originaux sur papier. Ce faisant, il hausse d'un cran la qualité des pièces qu'il expose. «Le collectionneur Maurice Forget nous a acheté une très belle encre de Jean McEwen, aujourd'hui conservée au Musée de Joliette. Cette vente a été un déclencheur. J'ai ensuite monté une exposition en 1995 intitulée Autour de Jean McEwen, 40 ans d'oeuvres sur papier. Cela a été ma première exposition à caractère historique accompagnée d'un catalogue.» Les premiers tâtonnements passés, la galerie bascule vers le succès.

'We had two kids and not much money' he says in discussing the beginnings of the gallery. 'I sold my RRSP and mortgaged my house to start the gallery in a storefront on Clark street.' He concentrated on prints at the beginning, which he knew well, and had already developed a client base. At the same time that his gallery opened, the euphoria of the 80s was paralyzed by the recession of the 90s. Sales bottomed out in prints, usually the entry point into collecting contemporary art in tandem with the rest of the market. To hold on he had to adapt and also decided to do framing. He thought that in order to keep his artists, who weren't terribly well known, that they should do original work on paper. 'The collector Maurice Forget bought a very nice ink piece by Jean McEwen that is now in the Joliette Museum. That sale opened things up. I had an exhibition in 1995 called "Around Jean McEwen, 40 years of paperwork. That was my first historical exhibit that had a catalog.' The first shaky steps taken, the gallery moved towards success.

Props and shout outs to M. Blais for slogging through those first six years, they sound like they were pretty darn tough. More props and shout outs to Maurice Forget for nudging M. Blais in the new direction. There are scads of framing shops that also do art exhibits, but there are not all that many art galleries that publish catalogs (I can think of about a dozen off the top of my head).

Des oeuvres rares et fortes

Puisant dans «les trésors de l'inventaire québécois», la présentation annuelle d'oeuvres historiques et souvent à caractère rétrospectif devient chez Simon Blais une tradition, avec ensuite Rita Letendre ou Gaucher. Déterminante également, sa rencontre avec Yseult Riopelle. L'exposition d'oeuvres sur papier qu'il consacre à Riopelle, Tigre de papier en 1997, est une première. Le catalogue demeure une référence.


Strong and rare work

Pushing in the direction of 'the treasures of the Quebecois inventory,' the annual presentation of historic works, frequently characterized as retrospectives has become a Simon Blais tradition, with Rita Letendre and Gaucher coming soon. Significant as well, was his meeting with Yseult Riopelle. The exhibit of works on paper by Riopelle, Paper Tiger in 1997 was a first. The catalog remains a reference.

I've got nothing much to add or say here, exhibiting historical work is extremely safe and conservative (probably a significant reason why he switched in that direction). And last I heard, all catalogs were references, although I would venture a guess that the one Ms. Riopelle did was more of a reference than M. Blais'.

Ouvert, avide d'apprendre et de faire partager ce qu'il sait, porté par son goût des contacts et par un sens commercial judicieux -- il offre parfois en prime des exemplaires d'une édition de tête à ses clients --, Simon Blais a su communiquer ses élans. Il est désormais réputé pour les oeuvres souvent rares et fortes qu'il découvre. En 2002, il rejoint un nouveau quartier plus propice aux affaires. Dans ce nouveau local, la galerie Simon Blais prend alors sa vitesse de croisière. Aux côtés de ses peintres «historiques» qu'il aime, le déménagement fait affluer du «sang neuf» et «un changement radical» par rapport à ses goûts de départ: des jeunes artistes plus figuratifs (Stéphanie Béliveau, Julie Ouellet, Marc Séguin).

Open, eager learner and sharer of what he already knows, carries his contacts and commercial sense judiciously - sometimes he offers discounted collectors editions to his clients - Simon Blais knows how to communicate his style. He is famous for his reputation of discovering rare and strong talents. In 2002 he moved into a new neighborhood, more befitting his style of business. In this new space, the Simon Blais gallery quickly hit cruising speed. On the sides the 'historical' painters which he loves, however, they move over to allow the flow of 'new blood' and 'radical change' in comparison to his originla tastes: The young figurative artists (Stéphanie Béliveau, Julie Ouellet, Marc Séguin).

Unfortunate choice of artists by Rene Viau in this paragraph. While I am wholely convinced that M. Blais has discovered lots of artists, none of the three mentioned would qualify as his discovery. Stéphanie Béliveau, and Marc Séguin both had exhibits at Galerie Trois Points long before M. Blais' gallery, and Ms. Ouellet was in a show that M. Séguin organized before being in a show at M. Blais' space.

Le travail en équipe. Des publications documentées. Des services comme la livraison. L'accrochage touffu et généreux, voilà quelques-unes de ses signatures. Et surtout, ici, pas question de snober les visiteurs. «Nous avons 1000 tableaux en réserve et notre personnel a pour mot d'ordre de les faire voir en guidant les amateurs avec amabilité. Et ce, sans compter les cabinets d'estampe.» Du côté des jeunes artistes, Max Wise vient de se joindre à sa galerie. Boulimique, Simon Blais a acheté ses deux expositions actuelles d'un coup. Pour 2007, Simon Blais vient de recruter François-Xavier Marange et ces ténors que sont Michel Goulet et Jacques Hurtubise. Françoise Sullivan fait aussi désormais partie de la galerie. Son oeuvre est une traversée depuis un demi-siècle des mouvements artistiques québécois. Elle expose actuellement des estampes jusqu'au 17 mars.

Teamwork. Documented publications. Delivery. Large and sturdy hooks for hanging, these are some of his signatures. And on top of it all no question of behaving like snobs to visitors. 'We have 1,000 in stock and the staff only has to be asked if someone wants to see them. And that's not even including the flat files. As far as young artists go, Max Wise [sic] has just joined the gallery. Bulimic Simon Blais bought both of his exhibits in one fell swoop. For 2007 Simon Blais has recruited François-Xavier Marange and his serious stuff is Michel Goulet and Jacques Hurtubise. Françoise Sullivan has also become part of the gallery. Her work has traversed the various quebecois artistic movements for more than half a century. There are prints of hers being exhibited until march 17.

I'm not quite certain what to make of the various things that are 'signatures' of M. Blais. Unless of course M. Viau is obliquely trying to make a point that M. Blais is a forger. Any gallery worth its salt (including Zeke's Gallery) requires teamwork, documents everything, and makes sure that when things are hung they stay hung. How this makes M. Blais unique doesn't make sense to me. I also don't quite understand what he means by 'Bulimic' unless of course M. Blais has a weight problem (which did not appear to be the case last time I saw him). But what really pisses me off about M. Viau is that back on August 19, 2006 he spelled Max Wyse's name correctly, and again on January 20, 2007 he spelled Max Wyse's name correctly, and on February 3, 2007 Michel Hellman spelled Max Wyse's name correctly in Le Devoir. So how or why did M. Viau screw it up this time? And also, if Ms. Sullivan's prints are on exhibit until the 17th, why isn't there (or wasn't there) a review of the show by M. Viau? Or is there an embargo on printing her name too much because she was front page news on March 1?

Dynamiser le marché ?

Reste, même si Simon Blais a su bien tirer son épingle du jeu, la situation préoccupante du marché montréalais, qui ne décolle pas vraiment. Peut-on vraisemblablement penser que la scène artistique locale pourrait connaître l'engouement qui frappe en ce moment les grands centres? «Nous n'avons pas de grosses vedettes, de locomotives avec des prix d'appel de 200 000-300 000 $ qui pourraient entraîner les autres à leur suite, se désole Simon Blais. La seule façon d'arriver à quelque chose serait de propulser nos jeunes artistes sur les grands marchés internationaux, donc de les perdre! Il faut pousser nos meilleurs jeunes artistes. Si quelques-uns d'entre eux voient leur étoile briller dans les grandes capitales, alors Londres ou New York s'intéresseront enfin à ce qui se passe à Montréal.»


Making the market dynamic

Even if Simon Blais has has played the game well, what preoccupies the Montreal market is that it hasn't really become unstuck. Can we really think that the local artistic scene will experience the massive increases in price that have hit the major centers? 'We don't have the large stars, the locomotives with prices in the $200,000 to $300,000 range who can pull everyone else up with them' This makes Simon Blais sad. The only method to arrive at something is to send our young artists to the large international markets, in effect to lose them! We need to push our best young artists. If on of them shines bright in the firmament of London or New York, interest will be shown finally in Montreal.'

Sorry M. Blais. I respectfully disagree with you. 100%. David Altmejd is a young Montreal artist in New York and London, he hasn't done diddly for the market. I can (if pushed) name about another half dozen as well. And shame on you M. Viau for printing the quote, like it was true. In my estimation, M. Blais as the dealer is one of the reasons why the Montreal (and by extension Quebecois) art market is so horrible. One of a dealer's responsiblities is to set prices for the art. Another of a dealer's responsibilities is to represent artists. Why is it that Françoise Sullivan and Jacques Hurtubise did not have local gallery representation until now? And instead of sending artists abroad, it is possible for dealers to send the art abroad by participating in art fairs (much like Landau Fine Art does). Going to where the buyers are, if there is nobody local who can afford the work.

Avant de s'insérer dans ce marché de l'art contemporain de plus en plus mondialisé, dont les acteurs sont happés dans un vaste et coûteux mouvement qui les emporte, de biennale en foire, aux quatre coins de la planète, les jeunes artistes au fort potentiel doivent aussi être valorisés sur place. Aidé de l'État en tant que prescripteur mais aussi d'un mécénat qu'il faut savoir diriger vers ce domaine, les musées «qui investissent au compte-gouttes dans des jeunes artistes prometteurs» doivent faire plus. Au Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, notamment, Simon Blais souhaite que le futur directeur qui sera nommé à l'automne prochain s'intéresse davantage à l'art canadien. Présenter ici en galerie quelques-uns de ces artistes hyper-médiatisés à travers le monde n'est pas, selon lui, la solution, car les collectionneurs locaux qui en ont les moyens peuvent les acquérir dans les grands centres. Pour élargir «ce petit marché», des jeunes artistes québécois à fort potentiel doivent accéder à ces «ligues majeures» dont ils sont absents. Les jeunes artistes de talent doivent se démarquer sur deux fronts, tout aussi bien à Montréal qu'à New York, Zurich, Berlin ou Londres. «La représentation et la défense d'artistes québécois par des musées de l'importance du Musée des beaux-arts, du Musée d'art contemporain, du Musée national des beaux-arts de Québec ajoutent tellement au prestige d'une carrière. C'est le point de départ. Imaginez le Musée des beaux-arts, le Musée d'art contemporain et l'A.G.O. appuyant massivement un artiste comme Marc Séguin, qui a tout pour réussir internationalement! Afin de se faire connaître à l'étranger, il faut d'abord que de tels artistes soient soutenus par leur propre communauté et leurs musées. Pour faire le poids, cela prend des artistes qui ont déjà du poids. Nos institutions doivent faire l'effort financier de soutenir ces artistes émergents.»

Before getting involved in the more and more internationalized art world, where the players are but mere pawns in much larger and much more expensive force going from biennial to art fair flying all over the four corners of the earth, young artists must also be validated at home. With the help of the state not only as a mentor, but also as a patron and supporter things must be directed much more towards the visual arts, the museums 'which invest baby tears in promoting young artists' need to do much more. Specifically at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Simon Blais hopes that the new director who will be named in the upcoming fall takes an interest in Canadian Art. To present some excessively multi-media artist you jetsets around the world is not a solution, because the local collectors who do not have the means to spend as much as those in the major markets. To enlarge this 'small market' young Quebecois artists need to graduate to the 'major leagues' which they aren't in right now. The young good artists need to work on two fronts, not only Montreal, but Zürich, Berlin or London as well. 'The representation and defense of Quebecois artists by important museums like the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Quebec adds an awful lot of prestige to a career. We're at the take off point. Imagine the MMFA, the MAC, the AGO pushing hard for an artist like Marc Séguin, who has everything necessary to succeed internationally! In order to get known internationally, artists first have to be supported by their own community and their own museums. To make this impression, it takes artists who have already have made an impression. Our institutions must make the financial effort support these emerging artists.'

All I have to say to that is this:
Communicating Vessels, September 20 to December 2, 2007 at the MBAM. (Philip Beesley, Luc Courchesne, Jessica Field, Georges Legrady, Rafaël Lozano-Hemmer, and David Rokeby.
Once upon a Time Walt Disney, March 8 to June 24, 2007 at the MBAM (Trevor Gould)
Sound and Vision, July 11 to October 22, 2006 at the MBAM (Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Michael Snow, Geneviève Cadieux and Lynne Cohen, Ken Lum, Stan Douglas, Tim Lee, Stephen Shearer, Mark Lewis, Nicolas Baier and Pascal Grandmaison)
Nicolas Baier — Hunting Gallery, March 22 to May 28, 2006 at the MBAM
John Oswald instandstillnessence, From April 7 to August 14, 2005 at the MBAM
High Points, June 10 to October 3, 2004 at the MBAM (too many for them to mention)
Françoise Sullivan, June 18 to October 5, 2003 at the MBAM

And many, many more at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. As it has taken me two days to do this post, I unfortunately don't have the time to go through the archives of the Musee d'art contemporain, the AGO, and the MNBAQ, but I think it was pretty darn shoddy of Le Devoir to let that last paragraph through, and if no one else has responded on Monday, I'll send them something for their op-ed page.

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