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Eastside Westside: Montreal Art Today

"Eastside Westside" by Christina Bagatavicius, Canadian Art, Winter 2008

A new generation of Quebec artists is producing work that is experimental, fresh and sophisticated. Last summer’s Québec Triennial met with a frisson of excitement: it showed how a provincial exhibition could not only live up to the demands of a wider global context, but also pay homage to a delightfully eclectic scene. The inaugural triennial energized the arts community, prompting national newspapers to ask, “Has Montreal become the new Vancouver?” While regional rivalries overlook the sense of internationalism that frames contemporary art practice, they do draw attention to significant changes in the scene. As the established art dealer René Blouin asserts, “There is something going on in Montreal that is stimulating and encouraging. The city has a buoyant art scene and at the moment many young Canadians are building their reputations here.”

Even though Montreal is renowned for its cosmopolitan flair, there have been difficult periods in the past when the French/English cultural split has come across as insular and parochial. In recent years, however, the city has been pervaded by a new-found confidence and a growing sense of ambition. Leading this fruitful synergy are Montreal’s pre-eminent university programs in the visual arts—at l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Concordia University. These schools are at the forefront of a shift in mindset, and have received much credit for their role in the Québec Triennial’s success.

Both schools are nurturing the talent at the heart of a budding arts scene. Of the 38 artists selected to participate in the Québec Triennial, 25 are affiliated with one or the other university. David Altmejd, Raphaëlle de Groot and Gwenaël Bélanger are products of UQAM’s program. Adad Hannah, Nicolas Baier, Carlos and Jason Sanchez and Karen Tam developed their skills at Concordia. The work produced by Michel de Broin, Patrick Coutu and Manon De Pauw reflects these artists’ experience studying at both institutions. Even artists whose exclusion from the exhibition raised eyebrows—Pascal Grandmaison, Geneviève Cadieux, Jean-Pierre Gauthier and Alexandre Castonguay, to name a few—either graduated from these schools or are teaching there.

Higher education is not the only reason Montreal’s cultural reach has grown in recent years; a number of factors have contributed to the art community’s momentum. A younger generation of art dealers, including Pierre-François Ouellette and Donald Browne, has settled in, and Marc Mayer was appointed director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2004 and has emphasized new art in its programming. As well, the city hosts a string of vibrant festivals that generate unexpected opportunities for hybrid cultural collaboration. For instance, the 2008 Festival TransAmériques saw the choreographer Paul-André Fortier join forces with the multidisciplinary artist Rober Racine and the filmmaker Robert Morin. While the city’s manifold nonprofit galleries and artist-run centres have had a long-standing presence, they continue to be a powerful outlet for fresh talent.

The influence of UQAM and Concordia is also nothing new: they were among the first universities in Canada to offer master’s degrees in art. François Morelli, an artist and director of the Studio Arts M.F.A. program at Concordia, recalls that the university’s program was launched in 1972: “It was one of the only places offering an M.F.A. and it grew into a model for other Canadian schools. Concordia set the pace by graduating an early generation of Canadian Masters of Fine Arts.” At UQAM, the Fine Arts department was part of the university when it was founded in 1969. Its M.F.A. program was developed in 1977 by a group of professors who had taught at L’École des beaux-arts de Montréal. Both programs were decisively restructured during the 1990s and began to transform into the institutions that we recognize today.

The philosophies that underpin these graduate programs are notably different. At Concordia, the M.F.A. program in Studio Arts offers an immersive, open environment that places strong emphasis on artistic process. In the 1990s, the school oriented the degree towards practice, which led to the elimination of the written thesis requirement and extended the program to three years—the longest in the country. As the Concordia professor and artist Evergon explains, “The three years is a benefit to the program. In the old days, some students deliberately stretched it out to seven years, since you can take advantage of equipment that you may never have access to again.” In contrast, UQAM’s graduate program in Visual and Media Arts takes a more formal, academic approach to art education: it is a two-year degree that potentially leads into a Ph.D. One of the program’s requirements is a written thesis, something in which Robert Saucier, director of the School of Visual and Media Arts at UQAM, sees intrinsic value: “A thesis forces students to be aware of what is going on, what their work is based on and what the references are in relation to what they are doing.” This has earned the university a reputation for attracting students who seek intellectual rigour and favour a conceptual methodology.

The other major difference between these two programs involves the way they grapple with the interdisciplinarity of contemporary art. At UQAM, once M.F.A. students are admitted, they attend studio and theory seminars that are collaboratively developed by faculty across disciplines. While students can choose to concentrate their studies in Creation or Art Education, Alain Paiement, an artist and UQAM professor, explains, “The degree is not defined by a tradition. Throughout the program a lot of students will develop a different understanding of their artistic path. For example, a painter can easily switch to video.” At first glance, Concordia’s approach seems to sidestep the trend toward integrated thinking, as it is organized according to medium-based categories. However, these divisions still represent an engaging starting point: the school focuses on time-honoured practices such as painting and sculpture alongside more groundbreaking areas such as open media, textile art and film production. The artist and professor Ingrid Bachmann considers this a major strength. “We offer an interdisciplinary base—given that this is the nature of contemporary art practice— but within a disciplinary context,” she states. “At the same time, students are choosing discrete disciplines with different histories and values, which makes for more complex discussions.”

There are other reasons why these graduate programs are in high demand. The M.F.A. environment at both institutions is supported by a dynamic infrastructure that provides students with ateliers and studio space, access to state-of-the-art equipment, platforms for exhibiting publicly and a wealth of invaluable contacts. At Concordia, the discipline specializations create intimate, tightly knit communities that can be powerful networks for young artists. At UQAM, the fact that the school offers a full range of undergraduate and graduate degrees in Museum Studies, Art History and Visual and Media Arts means that there is a rich continuum of learning across related fields. Young curators can develop alongside researchers and artists, creating a meaningful synergy among like-minded cultural professionals and artists.

The outstanding reputation of UQAM’s gallery gives some indication of how this breadth of expertise benefits the school. Its director, Louise Déry, believes that “University galleries are in the best position for uncovering new trends and young artists…This is the way I discovered David Altmejd. In 1998, he was part of the graduate show at Galerie de l’UQAM.” When Déry was chosen to oversee Canada’s pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, this put the university gallery on the map as a place for the discovery of new and local talent. Over the years, exhibitions at Concordia’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery and at UQAM have provided a platform for emerging talent, becoming destinations for established artists as well. In fact, many of the artists selected for this year’s Québec Triennial have shown their work at these venues in the past.

While there is no guarantee that studying at Concordia or UQAM will result in a thriving career in the arts, both programs are highly respected. The art dealer Pierre-François Ouellette has remarked that in choosing a location for his gallery, “One of the things that really interested me about Montreal was the strong graduate programs.” The artist and UQAM professor Alain Paiement maintains a measured perspective on what an M.F.A. can bestow: “It is a good way to make connections between your background and the art world. It’s not the only way, and it is a privileged way. There are a lot of great Canadian artists who have never completed a B.A. However, you jump right into the scene when you do a master’s degree, and for a young artist, it is important to be connected.”

As success breeds success, expectations have risen in terms of what these programs can deliver and why students are motivated to apply. As François Morelli points out, “There is a new professionalism to the career plan of an artist. In the last five years, a number of our students have held their M.F.A. graduating exhibitions at the top commercial and artist-run spaces in the city.” Artists in this savvy young generation are approaching M.F.A. programs with specific goals and exacting demands. In many cases they are seeking enrichment and creative autonomy rather than a degree that will allow them to teach art. Pierre-François Ouellette has seen a number of artists that he represents—such as the painter Dil Hildebrand and the photoconceptualist Alexandre Castonguay—return to university years after building their careers. The reason is simple: “The need to go back to school shows maturity.” Artists are attending these programs to create opportunities to invigorate their practices and to push their work to its full potential.

This current generation of artists is also working within a broader context. The balance has tipped and the local arts scene needs to define itself in relation to the fast-paced international arena. These M.F.A. programs are responding to a shift in the arts that can be traced to the rise of the Young British Artists in the 1990s, the appearance of new biennials, triennials, itinerant festivals and art fairs—many of which have a global focus—and the commercial market’s increased emphasis on discovering young art stars. Robert Saucier, at UQAM, recognizes the effect of these developments on Montreal: “The art world is more international, which makes the local scene richer and poorer at the same time.” Students now have to position their art career and educational path within a global context. Universities such as Concordia are now competing for applicants with such heavyweights as Yale, Columbia and Goldsmiths.

The art dealer René Blouin points out that the local university is still a player within an international setting: “There is a prominent arts scene at Concordia that attracts people from outside Canada, and this speaks volumes.” The program has attracted a steady influx of foreign students, with about 20 per cent of new M.F.A. candidates coming from outside the country—the United States, Asia, Europe and South America. Even at UQAM—where the student body is traditionally made up of French-speaking Quebecers—the demographics are changing. The program has deliberately broadened its appeal by allowing students to submit work in English or Spanish. Like Concordia, UQAM has proactively developed exchange opportunities with eminent European institutions such as Le Fresnoy, L’École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, the Glasgow School of Art and Bauhaus. UQAM and Concordia have also initiated collaborations with one another, generating opportunities for dialogue and partnership. For instance, the universities jointly founded Hexagram and CIAM with the goal of providing students with access to state-ofthe- art technology and equipment for media arts. Moreover, in the last few years an annual interuniversity exhibition has been held at Parisian Laundry, revealing the growing relationship between the two art programs.

While language remains an obvious difference between Concordia and UQAM, there are no longer two separate cultures running in parallel. Creative tensions between anglophone and francophone perspectives—and their cross-fertilization—have been assets to the city’s art, adding depth and richness to both programs. François Morelli is quick to point out that some of Concordia’s most gifted graduates have been French-speaking. Drawing on her experience, Ingrid Bachmann thinks that the language split can provide a richer context for making art. At the same time, language is a factor in artists’ sources, which are often a focus of critical discussion. As André Clément, director of UQAM’s M.F.A. program, explains, “The authors, source material and current thinking are not always the same as what is studied within an anglophone milieu…perceptible affinities exist here, for instance with certain French authors, philosophers and movements, such as Georges Didi-Huberman, Nicolas Bourriaud and the Situationist International movement.”

Montreal might be characterized as an experimental laboratory for making art—language notwithstanding. The artist and professor Evergon puts outdated assumptions into perspective: “There is a bit of a split, but that is not a bad thing…The Montreal art scene is eclectic. You can be doing almost anything and get a show somewhere.” Within this diverse and accessible environment, it is difficult to pinpoint any “ism” that sums up the scene or isolates particular trends. There is a general sense that, as Alain Paiement puts it, “This new generation is dynamic, enthusiastic and much less formalist.” Perhaps the difficulty in identifying a nameable movement among recent UQAM and Concordia graduates is symptomatic of how contemporary art, like everything else, is now part of an ever-shrinking global village. Whatever the case, both of these programs provide a degree of artistic and intellectual freedom that is only intensified by Montreal’s embrace of the production of art for art’s sake.

This is an article from the Winter 2008 issue of Canadian Art.


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