Thoughts on Montréal Museums and Major Cultural Institutions

Avenue du Musée - Montréal (su

I took in the recent Impressionism exhibit at the MMFA on closing day – always an exciting time to visit a museum, even if it is chocked-full of the dilettantes and bridge & tunnel types of our local cultural community. I count myself proudly among them, and either way it’s a nice feeling to see the place at maximum capacity, because I know more often than not I’ve seen the place too empty.

As an aside, after seeing the lines two weeks prior, I decided to get a VIP membership. Would highly recommend, many excellent little bonuses (i.e. no waiting, 10% off in bookstore etc.) and have a gander at the MMFA’s beautiful website while you’re at it.

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Though perhaps times are changing. The museum has been expanding considerably over the last few years – they just opened a dedicated children’s education centre where there was once an ill-suited eye-glass store, and the renovation of the old Erskine & American Presbyterian Church into the new Canadian arts pavilion was completed last year and is an excellent demonstration of the re-purposing of heritage architecture. It looks like the museum is gearing up once more to expand, this time into a fifth pavilion south of the main halls of the Desmarais Pavilion on Sherbrooke. The new building will be completed in five years to house a sizeable collection of Old Master paintings donated by Michal and Renata Hornstein. Cost is $25 million and to be paid by the province. Here’s the presser announcing the finalists.

Based on some of the renderings I’ve seen, this new pavilion will extend far enough south to make it nearly at the Hall Building’s doorstep, and thus it’s likely the city, Concordia and the museum may conspire to connect the museum to the university. Doing so would link up to disconnected pieces of the Underground City, the museum’s tunnel under Sherbrooke Street and Concordia’s tunnel system, recently extended from the Métro to the library and hall buildings.

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Though the initial cost estimate may seem very low and likely to change, perhaps what we build over the next five years (in the lead-up to the city’s 375th anniversary and the nation’s sesquicentennial) won’t get taxed by “Monsieur 3%”. From what I’ve heard from some ‘well-placed sources’ in the local construction industry, the Charbonneau Commission has at the very least succeeded in making people far more discreet in their dealings, and cost throttling and the various other acts of brazen corruption we’ve been discussing are not occurring to the same degree as they once did. All that to say, build now while we’re being cautious.

The provincial government, whether federally-inclined or not, should nonetheless take advantage of up-coming anniversaries and invest heavily in the development, renovation, rehabilitation and beautification of the city of Montréal in particular. Call it Keynesian economics, call it keeping up appearances or straightforward opportunism, regardless, investments in these areas helped us mitigate economic troubles in the past, we’d be wise to consider them again. In fact, it would be nice to have a civic administration that took a leading role in cultural development, but I digress.

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In other museum-related news, the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal is also planning an expansion of sorts, though the scuttlebutt is that rather than acquire a new building or renovating the existing structure, the MACM needs to build an entirely new facility.

I tend to agree. Though I wouldn’t call it an eyesore I also wouldn’t call it a museum – it looks like they repurposed a parking garage. I’m generally disinclined to knock down anything built as recently as 1992, but considering how much of an imposition an uninspired and far too small building can be on a site such as the Place des Arts, Place des Festivals, I honestly think it needs to be re-conceived nearly from scratch. Apparently less than 2% of the total collection is on display at any one time and this is aside from the current difficulties regarding public access to their archives and documentation centres. Moreover, the museum is not directly connected to the Métro.

Perhaps this is why Alexandre Taillefer is so keen to move Calder’s Man – maybe he wants it as an integral part of a wholly redesigned MACM (of which he is chairman of the board.)

I would rather see our contemporary art museum prominently display an original piece created with a specific purpose in mind. Moreover, I’d want that piece to not only be emblematic of the museum, but made by a local as well.

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Of course, should a complete re-development be required (and I’d argue that it should be seriously considered given that a new facility could better unite Place des Arts with Place des Festivals) we’d have to deal with the collection and where to store it. I’d argue strongly in favour of putting it up at the airport, something done by Atlanta’s fascinating mayor quite recently, and otherwise put as much of the collection on display in choice public areas – institutional buildings, public space, Métro stations and perhaps even strewn about the city in small temporary rented galleries. Why not make art far, far more accessible and public?

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A few after-thoughts. Some museums we could use:

1. Either a new pavilion for the McCord or an independent gallery altogether, dedicated to the photography of William Notman & Sons. There’s simply no better record of late Victorian and turn of the century Montréal than Notman and I’m absolutely certain it would be a smash hit – the displays along McGill College always seem to catch passers-by. I’d love to know if there’s ever been any serious thought concerning this.

2. A museum and ‘interpretive centre’ dedicated to hockey, and Montréal’s role in the development of modern professional hockey as we know it. I say interpretive centre because I think it would be neat to give people the opportunity to experience hockey as it was back in the beginning, such as by offering a venue for ‘historical hockey’ (in a manner similar to old-rules 19th century baseball re-enactors). Not exactly hip but definite fun for tourists, school outings and families. Plus we have an added advantage in that the Victoria Rink still stands on its original location downtown. Though it would be a considerable renovation effort to convert it back into a functioning hockey rink (especially if the original details were to be restored), I can imagine some corporate sponsors could turn this into a reality. Plus it would provide a venue of sorts, something the deep downtown is sorely lacking.

3. A larger and more comprehensive natural history museum, ideally located far from existing ‘cultural focal points’ while remaining within the periphery of the central business district. I can’t think of a location off the top of my head, but having been to the Redpath within the last few years I can say it’s clearly too small even for their small collection, and a more modern facility could help it secure far higher attendance and better serve the local school boards, among others. Putting a collection together these days is a little more difficult considering no one wants to be responsible for the slaughter of elephants, tigers and other endangered animals, and the concept of a natural history museum may seem a bit antiquated, but I’m certain we could put a sufficiently modern twist on the notion to make it more suitable for Montréal’s needs.

And yeah, we need to make sure kids understand that the oil in Alberta comes from extinct dinosaurs and not the magical hand of god. A natural history museum with some fearsome looking dinosaur recreations can help us inoculate our children against creationism, and if there was ever an unaddressed public health concern that’s it in my books.

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