Category Archives: Public art proposal

Money for Nothing

Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 - credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj
Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 – credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj

The Mordecai Richler Gazebo will now cost the taxpayers of Montreal nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

And a series of granite waypoints, apparently taking the form of stylized tree-stumps, are to be installed across Mount Royal at an estimated cost of $3.4 million.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory will get over $62 million in public money over a five year period to make it a better tourist trap, or as Mayor Coderre put it: “a heritage site… for god’s sake, it’s an investment.”

Credit where credit is due: Coderre is a great populist. He’s quirky and has a knack for puns and one-liners.

However, he’s also spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Sometimes I wish he and the city would stop trying to spend money. I understand municipal government can help stimulate the economy by spending public money on make-work projects designed to keep people employed. And I’m generally in favour of doing so in the name of public beautification projects.

But in Montreal – astoundingly – such efforts seem increasingly misguided if not wholly illogical. For every success – like the multimillion dollar multiphase overhaul of Dorchester Square and Place du Canada – there are far too many projects that are so outrageously ill-conceived it begs the question what our city planners are smoking.

What I find particularly astounding – in our age of austerity for education, health, transit and welfare – is our ability to spend astronomical sums of money to accomplish, in some cases, quite literally nothing at all.

Take for instance the recently cancelled police and firefighter games; if the city is successful in recuperating half the sum already allocated to the now-cancelled event, it will still cost us nearly $3 million.

More jaw-droppingly, the city’s plans on installing over two-dozen granite ‘tree-stumps’ all over Mount Royal.

Paul Arcand interviewed Réal Ménard, a member of the city’s executive committee, and asked him whether the city was really going to spend over three million dollars to erect a series of granite structures (that resemble tree stumps) all over the mountain. Ménard did his best to attempt an explanation, but did so by a) indicating the stumps are in fact part of a much larger eight million dollar project designed to ‘link’ the peaks of the mountain, and b) that (after much obfuscating) the cost of the planned park installations is in fact going to be about three million dollars. It didn’t help that he spent much of his time accusing Arcand of positing the city was intending to build granite trees on Mount Royal, an entirely unconvincing tactic Arcand saw right through and rightly ridiculed Ménard for having the gall to suggest.

It was also delightful to hear Arcand chiding Ménard for not reading the Gazette…

Research by the Gazette’s Linda Gyulai indicates the cost of the winning bid for the granite installations is 43% higher than the city’s initial estimate, and that the whole contract is 27% higher than what the city was estimating before the call for tenders.

The list of over-the-top civic beautification projects, all of which are being rushed through with seemingly no concern for appallingly high cost estimates so that they can coincide with the essentially pointless 375th anniversary celebrations, has grown steadily for the past few years, and this on top of a steady supply of infrastructure mega-projects that either never get off the drawing board or wind-up being delivered late and over-budget. Unfortunately, given the decades-long dearth of Stanley Cup victories, this has now become our most consistent accomplishment as a city: we’re spending a lot of public money for nothing.

For his part, Mayor Coderre insists the project will make the mountain more accessible and help beautify the city. The reaction of Arcand, the Gazette and much of the local social media sphere, is one of derision and incredulity. The firm that won the contract to build the granite ‘statues’ (in more official parlance) is Aménagement Coté Jardin, a landscape architecture firm that’s responsible for Domtar’s ‘front yard’ (by Place-des-Arts Métro station’s stand-alone édicule on Bleury) and more recently, the renovation of Cabot Square.

To put it succinctly I’m disappointed it would cost so much to accomplish so little. I doubt you could make Mount Royal any more accessible than it already is, and given that it is valued almost entirely because it is a refuge of wilderness in the very heart of a bustling metropolis, installing granite stumps and concrete slabs is fundamentally flawed. It makes me wonder when exactly was the last time Denis Coderre took a walk on Mount Royal…

If the plan is to spiff up Mount Royal for next year’s ‘spendiversary’, I’m fairly confident three million dollars could buy more than enough trees to replace those felled to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. It would likely be enough to also replace or repair the park’s existing benches, water fountains and garbage bins and maybe even pay for a year’s worth of superior park maintenance too. Whatever the final call, the city (more than anyone else) should be acutely aware that Mount Royal is precisely what it is because it was designed to be as such. We have a great park designed by one of the all time greatest park designers, and it is in part because of this that we can claim our status as a UNESCO City of Design (and by the way, we’ve gotten far more than our fair share of milage out of that ten year old distinction). This is not a wheel that needs to be re-invented, and there are far superior, less expensive methods to renew Mount Royal than by turning half of it into a construction site in the very same year we’ll want to have the greatest access to it.

If the gazebo project is any indication, Montrealers can be forgiven for being so intensely critical of yet another suspiciously expensive civic ‘beautification’ project. And much like the inappropriately rechristened gazebo, the granite stump project is also amazingly ill-conceived in that it will likely do the very opposite of what it ostensibly intends to do. Montrealers have contently stretched out their legs in the tall grass of Mount Royal for just about 375 years… all of a sudden we need concrete curbs and granite stumps, and this has something to do with maintaining our status as an important centre of design?

I don’t buy it. If this was an aspect of the plot of some novel about the intriguing life of an urban planner you’d find it completely absurd. The city’s plan to beautify Mount Royal is an excellent example of missing the forest for the trees.

And like just about everything else in this city, ultimately it’s not actually the city’s decision to make. Because Mount Royal is a heritage site, it’s the province that will decide whether this plan goes ahead. So there’s always the outside chance the province’s incessant meddling in our affairs may actually be worthwhile, if they put the kybosh on this ridiculous project.

Plus que ça change. Forty years ago the city was doing precisely the same thing, albeit with the hope of a greater return on investment than the 375th anniversary.

Sabotaging Viger Square

Rule no.1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase drew shady characters, install better lighting.
Rule number 1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase draws shady characters, install better lighting.

Here’s a hypothetical situation:

A city builds a park costing x millions of dollars with the intent to rehabilitate a given sector of its urban environment and cover over an exposed highway trench. It hires leading landscape architects and local artists to develop a master plan for the park and then sets about building it. At some point in time between the beginning of construction and the new park’s opening day, the city changes fundamental aspects of the master plan and eliminates others with an aim to lowering overall projected costs, claiming the initial vision developed by the relevant experts was too expensive.

Smart politics: a park gets built and various officials make claims they got the job done under budget.

The park opens and then for the better part of the next thirty some-odd years the city a) stops fully maintaining the park and b) actively sets about removing the park’s infrastructure – benches, garbage bins, picnic tables, fountains, lighting etc.

At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square,  I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.
At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square, I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.

After thirty years the city proposes to demolish the old park and replace it with an entirely new park costing y millions of dollars because the park has become undesirable in the intervening thirty-year period. The city argues the park is considered undesirable because a semi-permanent homeless population now lives there, and that the solution to both the park’s undesirability and (somehow) the homeless camp is to spend public money on building a new park (and not a new homeless shelter).

The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.
The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.

This is the situation with Viger Square; the city of Montreal intends to spend public money building a new park to replace the one they – for lack of a better word – sabotaged. Though Denis Coderre seems to have backed off a bit after considerable public outcry from preservationists, urbanists and the family of one of the people responsible for Viger Square’s design, there’s little doubt in my mind the political intent is fundamentally misdirected. As of this writing the proposal presented at the beginning of June has been rejected, more or less at the eleventh hour, after Coderre decided the project was unsatisfactory. Still, he qualifies the park as ‘a bunker.’

Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.
Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.

Up until quite recently the city’s plan called for the destruction of a significant work of homegrown landscape architecture and sculpture to replace it with something banal and unimaginative at a cost of $28 million. This is your money. It was your money that financed the extant Viger Square as well. The idea that we should pay a considerable sum (think of how many new elementary schools $28 million could build) to tear down a fine example of local landscape architecture and sculpture so that the CHUM can have a nondescript ‘front yard’, and then further to lay the blame for the park’s disfunction on its design, rather than the city’s perpetual disinterest in adequately maintaining it, is simply inexcusable.

Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.
Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.

Without question renovation and rehabilitation is the best way forward for Viger Square, but this doesn’t mean starting from square one. Elements of the original design, such as a café kiosk, or a public market, could be easily integrated into what’s already built, and would serve to draw new interest to the square.

Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.
Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.

But what drives me up the wall is that the simplest and least expensive solution would be not to add anything at all; fixing Viger Square is as straightforward as making the fountains work, re-installing park furniture and picking out the weeds. While there’s considerable debate concerning the application of the ‘broken windows theory’ by law enforcement, the idea that a well-maintained urban environment serves to dissuade petty criminality and attract respectable public usage is fairly sensible. If we don’t want our parks and public spaces to become open air drug markets and homeless camps, then we need to ensure these spaces are well-maintained as a bare minimum. It’s common sense.

Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.
Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.

As is, Viger Square is roughly as well-maintained as Place des Nations, which is to say the grass gets cut and that’s about it. As I mentioned previously, someone had the bright idea to remove all park benches and cover over all the garbage cans. No wonder people don’t go there to relax and read a book. Neither of the large fountains, arguably the main attractions to the square, work, nor do the smaller drinking stations. Weeds grow through the cracks of uneven paving stones, metal drains are broken, a waterfall, long since deactivated, has been painted blue. The only flowers I noticed were planted along the periphery; inside the square there are no gardens to speak of. And the periphery is probably the square’s single greatest problem – cement walls disconnect the squares from the street and provide too sharp a distinction from the surrounding urban environment. Removing these could do a lot to change the park’s fortunes.

There's no good reason for this wall. Removing it would  improve pedestrian access to the square.
There’s no good reason for this wall. Removing it would improve pedestrian access to the square.

But if we want a sustainable solution to Viger Square’s homeless population, then the city should consider acquiring the former CHSLD Jacques-Viger, located in the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute at 970 René Levesque East (a stone’s throw from Viger Square and the CHUM). The building is a threatened heritage site that was originally built as a convent and hospital complex, and was then used as a long-term care facility. This would be an ideal location for the CHUM’s public outreach programs, and could easily serve as a homeless shelter, and that’s ultimately what’s needed to make Viger Square inviting again. Closing the square for renovations will force the displacement of the homeless temporarily, but without better services and more beds to get the homeless off the streets, we’re either just delaying the inevitable return of homeless camps to Viger Square, or are displacing them to another public space.

This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?
This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?

Rehabilitating the square is a good idea, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We do need to look beyond the mere aesthetics of the park, however, and address the core problem of lacking services for the homeless and transient population. This is why we should start thinking of Viger Square and the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute as inter-related urban rehabilitation projects. As inexcusable as bulldozing Viger Square without acknowledging the city’s role in its demise is, it is unconscionable for the city to displace the only people who have made any use of it, leaving them to continue sleeping outside when a usable building stands just up the street.

Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.
Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.

Politically Motivated Memory

Victims of Communism monument original design conceptual rendering

Generally speaking I’m in favour of building monuments and creating new public spaces, particularly when said space reflects the nation’s history, culture and society. However, two projects with federal backing have been making the news lately and for good reason – there’s a lot of very public opposition to the final designs and, in both cases, the rationale behind the very purpose of these monuments has also been questioned. On top of it all, these projects seem to be politically motivated and specifically intended to appeal to Conservative voters.

The projects include Tribute to Liberty, a memorial to the victims of communism (the name alone is problematic, conflating a political ideology with the acts of tyrannical dictators. Communism is not inherently tyrannical, humans are, but I digress) and Mother Canada, centrepiece of the Never Forgotten National Memorial. The organizations formed to direct the projects are charitable organizations, though in the case of the former the Heritage Ministry is involved, and in the latter case the monument is to be ‘gifted’ to Parks Canada. In the case of the communism memorial, the land in question sits adjacent to the Supreme Court of Canada owned by the National Capital Commission, and was for a long time considered for development into a new government office building. Mother Canada is supposed to open her arms to the war dead up the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. So even though the organizations may be nominally independent registered charities, both projects require direct interaction with government agencies.

The Never Forgotten National Memorial is projected to cost $25 million and has recently lost some high-profile supporters.

Tribute to Liberty is estimated to cost $5.5 million, roughly $400,000 over budget and on land currently valued at $16 million.

Ostensibly the funds are to be raised by the charities tasked with developing these projects, but as it stands both groups seem to be far from their fundraising goals (this despite the fact that the NCC has begun soil-decontamination work at the communism memorial site).

Financial matters aside, there’s the question of why build these particular projects at all.

Tribute to Liberty was intended to occupy much of the prime real estate in question in downtown Ottawa, though the project has since been downsized (and may shrink even further), with several features of the original plan either proportionally shrunk or axed outright (such as the lighting and the downward-facing faceless victim of communism, centrepiece of the original design). It’s bad when monuments are imposed upon the urban landscape; it’s worse when the artistic vision is altered by committee.

The revisions seem to indicate the committee was paying attention, at least in part, to some of the most immediate criticisms of the project – namely that it was imposing, looming, inappropriately violent (etc).

Here’s a fantastic piece of propaganda that looks like it belongs in the introduction of some post Cold War scenario video game; it shows what the original monument was to look like. The folded section was to generate a an image when viewed from the top of the chevron-staircase arrangement, apparently one of a row of dead bodies in a forest. The image would be created by 100 million ‘memory cubes’ representing the 100 million people ‘killed by communism’.

The figure of 100 million killed by communism is meaningless and intended uniquely for shock value. Yes, communist, Marxist and Maoist states have all demonstrated authoritarian if not totalitarian and genocidal tendencies throughout the 20th century. So have a number of capitalist democratic states during the same period of time. Germany invaded and occupied much of Europe in the early 1940s specifically to defend ‘freedom, liberty and capitalism’ from ‘godless communism’. The United States kickstarted wars and supported dictatorships all over the world that killed off millions of people throughout the 20th century, either directly (such as in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) or indirectly (the first Persian Gulf War, the Bush Wars in Sub-Saharan Africa, civil wars throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, etc.)

You could further make the argument that capitalism is just as destructive – just about everything there is to buy in capitalist, liberal democratic countries today is manufactured in impoverished nations all too often mismanaged by kleptocrats. The computer I’m using was made by people who work in near slave-like conditions, the factory dormitories they live in is lined with nets to catch workers if they attempt suicide. The clothing there is to buy is all too often sewn together by children. Where is the monument to those capitalism has killed and enslaved?

The project is entirely politically motivated to serve the interests of the Conservative party of Canada, obviously intended to secure support from the nation’s comparatively sizeable Ukrainian, Polish, German, Czech, Chinese and Vietnamese communities. If there is a desire to inform the public about the atrocities of the Cold War or otherwise honour all the Canadians who escaped persecution and totalitarianism abroad, fine, that has my support, but those stories can’t be summed up in a monument, especially not this one. Develop a new permanent exhibit at the war museum, create a graduate program at a university… anything but this.

Tribute to Liberty is anything but: it is ludicrously facile and demonstrative of a profound ignorance of the reality of contemporary geopolitics and recent history. Apt that it would have the backing of the Harperites…

The great irony of the Tribute to Liberty and Mother Canada monuments lies in their obvious similarities, in form and function, to the kinds of monuments erected by the very totalitarian dictators Canada ostensibly stands in opposition to. Both monuments are overbearing, cold, fundamentally unnecessary and intended to secure support for a particular political party. In the case of the former, it arguably attempts historical revisionism.

Mother Canada conceptual rendering

Mother Canada is intended to secure what I call the ‘military enthusiast’ vote – a subsection of the Tory support base that believes, despite mounting and damning evidence to the contrary, that the Tories are pro-military and all other parties are anti-military, and that Canada will only ever be safe under the watchful eye of a Conservative government. Supporters of the monument are chiefly former and current high-ranking officers in the Canadian Forces.

The monument is to be a 24-metre tall female form with arms outstretched, facing the Atlantic Ocean as though the welcome the souls of the dearly departed, all those killed in foreign wars, again, ostensibly in defence of liberty, freedom and the nation. As if we didn’t have enough goddamned cenotaphs in this country to the war dead, now a proposed allegorical representation of Canada is to stand with it’s back to the nation…

Supporters argue it will be a boon to Cape Breton tourism, but I can’t fathom many Canadians trekking out to Cape Breton just to look at the backside of a somewhat diminutive statue. Again, much like Tribute to Liberty, this monument serves no real purpose and provides no additional information or perspective. Parks Canada is reviewing 6,000 ‘comments’ (I have a feeling they’re mostly complaints) and there’s opposition to the project on ecological grounds, arguing the monument’s location in a national park is inappropriate and that the environmental impact of creating this tourist trap is being ignored outright.

Worse of all, it’s just so boring. Is this the very best we can come up with to represent the nation, or it’s war dead? There’s nothing inspired nor attractive about the monument. I’m all for a ‘Canadian Statue of Liberty’ but this isn’t it, this looks like the kinds of monuments erected all over Central Europe during the Cold War and subsequently destroyed during the Spring of Nations a quarter-century ago.

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Combined, these projects require something like $30 million to complete, and the funds are to come principally from charitable donations secured through fundraising activities by the federally-backed charities organized to complete the projects.

This is not the best use of $30 million in charitable donations, nor the best use of federal support for fundraising initiatives. Imagine what good that money could do if used for other purposes.

$30 million could certainly help ensure fewer Canadian children go to bed hungry, could support numerous soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or used to send medicine and food to impoverished nations abroad. Are these not better examples of what Canada ultimately stands for?

Corridart; Charney’s Oeuvre Going Up & Coming Down

Found this video on the CCA’s YouTube Channel, a film n’ funk track I feel is somewhat representative of experimental documentary film from mid-1970s Canada. It shows the construction and demolition of Melvin Charney’s primary installation for Corridart, the cultural component of the 1976 Montréal Olympics deemed unfit by Mayor Drapeau but a few days after completion (and prior to the opening ceremonies).

As deemed unfit, grotesque, inappropriate by Drapeau the Autocrat, it was completely and utterly destroyed, largely in one overnight sweep when city workers, escorted by police and firefighters destroyed everything with blowtorches and various others pieces of heavy equipment.

For the uninitiated Corridart was quite literally a corridor of art and culture that stretched along Sherbrooke Street from Atwater to Pie-IX, with diverse installations positioned along its length, in addition to indicators of major cultural institutions and temporary performance venues and other facilities and exhibits located on the thoroughfare. It was the cumulative effort of sixty or so well-known local artists and was designed to feature nearly 700 performers of all manner, to entertain the masses moving from the city to the olympic park and back again along a principle ‘showcase street’ (and rightfully so; we’re a city of great and grand streets, avenues, boulevards and thoroughfares, and Sherbrooke is truly of the greatest, most diverse and multi-faceted streets we have). There was a psychogeographic component as well, in that a bridge of culture and ‘linear, public art-happening’ connected disparate parts of the city for the sake of the many tourists moving from the Games to their hotels. The Olympic Stadium was, in a sense, further away from the city than as it is today, as you can see in the video the city itself and its concentration of services was much smaller and further west in 1976.

Charney’s installation went up at the corner of St-Urbain and Sherbrooke in part of a parking lot than it now the UQAM Western Residence. The buildings on the east side of the street are still there, and from what you can see in the video, the area has ‘fattened up’ quite significantly in the last thirty-seven years. From what I’ve read and seen a considerable portion of the more central and eastern parts of today’s ‘downtown’ business district was little more than massive parking lots back in the day, all of which have since been converted into more useful things, like hotels, condos, institutional buildings, government offices and class-A office space.

The installation was a representation of the facade of the buildings directly across the street, though reversed as though to produce a mirror image. It was, in part, a statement concerning the drive to tear down old buildings in the city centre seemingly to do nothing more than create parking lots, a statement that irked Mayor Drapeau. Other installations included a replica of the cross atop Mount Royal laid on its side on McGill Campus, over-sized Mickey Mouse hands pointing, almost accusingly, at municipal offices, an audio recording played over loud speakers detailing the cost of the Games to local taxpayers, an apocalyptic bomb shelter entrance. All that said, no one expected Drapeau to destroy so much art. That was the sting – Drapeau felt that since the works had been commissioned by the city it was his right to destroy them, and thus few outside the artistic community directly implicated in Corridart’s creation ever got to see what it looked and felt like.

Drapeau was an ass.

It’s too bad, because had it not been destroyed I think we’d have different memories of the Games – after all, its the festival atmosphere and public art that many remember most fondly when discussing Expo 67.

Corridart wouldn’t make too much sense today, as it was very much intended to be a criticism of its time and place, but the concept of creating cultural bridges through the use of installation art and/or linear concentration of venues (or any combination thereof) is nonetheless one I still find very fascinating and think is very much applicable, novel and rather distinguishing.

After all, we spend a lot of time walking around in climate controlled corridors and our museums keep nearly their entire collections in storage as they lack the physical space to exhibit them; let’s extend the galleries underground.

Corridart’s enduring legacy, that art can be used to direct people’s physical movements, is one I’d like to see far better implemented into our overall city design. A more direct reconstruction of Corridart, based on similar themes and seeking to establish a cultural corridor along Sherbrooke for the benefit of tourists and the artistic community alike could be rewarding endeavour, especially if part of the street were converted for pedestrian only-access over a long weekend. People just love walking down streets normally clogged with cars – there’s a very liberating feeling in it, as though the city suddenly had a new common ground.

But of course, such things require a mayor who isn’t afraid of public art. For all he managed to accomplish, I think Drapeau flinched and showed his true colours when he ordered Corridart’s demolition. It’s an insecure man who finds himself threatened by artistic commentary, even if it is scathing.

Let’s be sure, when we head top the polls in November, we choose a mayor who isn’t afraid of a little art.

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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Please Mr. Mayor, I want some more… public art.

So I’m a big fan of the Art Nouveau style, especially the works of Czech artist and interior decorator Alfons Maria Mucha. So as you might imagine, I was quite impressed when my brother told me about a new mural that had gone up recently in NDG at the corner of Madison and Sherbrooke Street West. You can read all about the A’shop graffiti crew’s work on this mural here.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed some interesting new murals have gone up, like the one on the side of the Old Brewery Mission (which can be seen from Viger and St. Laurent) or the one on the wall next to Briskets on Beaver Hall Hill near Boul. René-Lévesque. There are public art gems all over the city, some official, some less so. A personal favourite is the portrait of René Lévesque just in from Stanley across from the Odyssey book store – you’d never see it unless you were attracted to exploring back alleyways in the first place.

That said, there’s also an inordinate amount of shitty graffiti and tagging (like scrape tagging, bane of plexiglass everywhere) which is causing small business owners and landlords a fair bit of consternation, given that the City tries to get them to foot the clean-up bill and will fine those who don’t take care of the problem immediately. This isn’t entirely fair, though the City wants to encourage property owners to take the necessary precautions to prevent vandalism, such as installing lights in darkened areas around buildings, not to mention using motion detectors and exterior paints that allow for easy graffiti removal etc. Typically, property owners are disinclined from doing such things, given the added costs, and instead ask that the City provide more public security, if not police, to prevent vandalism.

I personally think this is a waste of tax-payer money; police need to focus on real crimes and public security, well frankly they could use a gigantic chill pill. Some kid tagging a building is hardly akin to an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, though given the actions of some law enforcement, you wouldn’t know it. Clearly property owners have a responsibility to keep their buildings well lit, and generally speaking this is the best way to deter vandals or up-and-coming artists with a lack of canvas.

That said, the City also has a responsibility to try and sift through the masses and figure out who has actual artistic talents. Our city’s artists need places to hone their skills and craft, and when it comes to graffiti, we have a lot of ugly white/beige/grey walls that could use some public art. The City should solicit graffiti artists and art collectives to decorate our big blank walls – we have far too many of them. Small discounts on taxation or utility costs to property owners would be an excellent incentive, and a further treatment of finished murals could prevent them from being damaged by vandals, the elements etc. If we were to take this a step further, we would secure abandoned properties to be used by graffiti artists so that they can practice. But we need to go about this in a more enlightened fashion.

I think we can all agree, graffiti is a legitimate artistic style and medium. That it is still commonly, subconsciously, thought of being akin to vandalism is unfortunate, but this is merely another reason for the City of Montréal to come out ahead and try doing things a different way.

Murals such as the one above aren’t merely impressive, they can increase land value (for what should be obvious reasons), and offer necessary outlets for the vital creative class within our community. Apply this on a city-wide scale and we might be able to put a real dent in ‘vandalism’ while offering bored kids a method of expressing themselves. Moreover, if the City were to secure abandoned properties to be used for this purpose, we can prevent kids from getting killed in train and Métro tunnels. R.I.P. Jays.

Speaking of which – when the Métro was originally designed, public art and art of a particular historical/socio-cultural significance was featured prominently in each station. This is still largely the case, though I find there are still plenty of drab concrete walls that could be spruced up. Point is, whatever investment funds are necessary to stimulate the creative class and support new public art projects is really a drop of water in an immense bucket. Such an investment will lower the crime rate, provide creative outlets to inner city youth, increase property values and generally brighten people’s days. If a crowd can be formed to watch a demonstration or the demolition of a building, then they will certainly congregate to see some public art.

Ultimately, it’s an investment in ourselves.

Final thought: Grain Silo No. 5 as an immense mural (with at least one part featuring a trompe-d’oeuil giving the perspective of what’s on the other side).

We’re not doing much else with it, so why not? We could probably get every single artist in the City working on it at the same time. It would certainly generate a lot of buzz in the art world.

So please Mr. Mayor, I want some more public art in my city. Let’s give the creative class, the guts of our society, a real stimulus package.