Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – The Basics

MMFA - 2012

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal) is located at 1380 Sherbrooke Street West in the heart of the appropriately-named Quartier du Musée district of the city’s downtown. It can be accessed by the Guy and Peel stations of the Métro’s Green Line and is located within proximity of the Underground City tunnel network (getting off at Guy station, one can walk underground to the corner of Bishop and Boul. de Maisonneuve; the museum is up the block, no more than a two-minute walk on the coldest of days). Frankly, it’s hard to miss.

What most people first notice is the Hornstein Pavilion, in the middle of the photo above, a Beaux Arts styled building completed by the noted Maxwell Brothers architectural firm in 1912. Today, this pavilion is dedicated to world cultures and archeology. If I recall correctly, it also houses Ben Weider’s collection of Napoleon memorabilia, including one of the late emperor’s undershirts. The Hornstein Pavilion features four massive Ionic columns and intricate bas-reliefs with a variety of sculptures and installations gathered in front. It doesn’t need the stately lettering along the edge of the roof, nor the signs out front, to make it any more obvious it’s an art museum.

The museum was previously located in the former Art Association of Montreal building on the northeast corner of Phillips Square, roughly on the same location of where that godawful Burger King stands today. The association traces its roots back to 1860, seven years before Confederation, when it was established by Bishop Fulford (this building’s name suddenly came to mind, it’s an old-folks home next to the Bar-B-Barn, steps away from Concordia).

The first major expansion of the museum was, logically enough, immediately behind the Hornstein Pavilion, and is quite possibly the least severe brutalist structure in the city. The Liliane and David M. Stewart Pavilion opened in 1976 and is today dedicated to design and decorative arts. It is built into the rising side of the mountain, the low, flat boxes of the pavilion jutting out like rock formations. Ivy, earth tones and set-back, dark-tinted windows enhance its natural aesthetic by reminding one of caves and crags, in actuality open-air spaces, terraces and balconies.

In the run-up to the city’s 350th anniversary in 1992 the museum expanded once more, this time across the street, reclaiming a vacant lot and repurposing the New Sherbrooke hotel-apartments, another Beaux-Arts styled building dating from 1905. The former apartment building was gutted and converted into large exhibition halls, while the vacant lot received a miniature arch in white marble, as well as an angled glass atrium, to serve as the museum’s new principal entrance. The Desmarais Pavilion was designed by noted Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Today it houses International Art from the Old Masters to the contemporary, in addition to photography and graphic arts. A tunnel was completed under Sherbrooke Street to link the pavilions together, thus leading to the creation of another ‘autonomous’ segment of the Underground City. I’ll get back to this in a minute. The Desmarais Pavilion tends to house most of the major temporary exhibits, and has office space, a café, bookstore and boutique, and also features Safdie’s ‘ruminating’ staircase, one of the museum’s various design quirks.

The most recent development is the Bourgie Pavilion, the converted former Erskine and American Church, a Romanesque Revival building with Tiffany stained-glass windows dating from the 1890s. The Bourgie houses Canadian and Quebec art, in addition to a large performance space, and is located across Avenue de Musée on the north side of Sherbrooke Street. It too is connected to the other pavilions via an underground tunnel, though outside the avenue serves as an open air gallery of sculpture and diverse installations.

The most recent news is that the museum is set to expand again, as it has recently received a $75 million donation of Old Masters paintings from Michal and Renata Hornstein. The caveat is that a new facility must be built to house the collection, and the MMFA has indicated they’re looking to expand south along Bishop, potentially leading to the demolition of two old Victorian-era row houses. The expansion has the potential to go far enough south on Bishop the museum could conceivably be connected directly to the Guy-Concordia tunnel system. Here’s a conceptual rendering compared with how it currently looks.

I’m not crazy about this new design as I feel it’s too out of step with its surroundings. We’ll see how it works out, I have a feeling the design may change a bit between now and it’s intending opening in 2017, for the city’s 375th anniversary.

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