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Places: Joe Battat’s Playhouse

Places: Joe Battat's Playhouse, Fall 2009, pp. 70-72 / photo Alex Meyboom

Things are changing for Montreal, the perennial little brother of North America’s big cities and big art scenes. In a review of last year’s Québec Triennial, the Globe and Mail asked, “Is Montreal the real art capital of Canada?” It’s now a fair question. The city’s art scene has seen a number of new spaces rise up to stake a claim in the community in the last decade—DHC/ART, Parisian Laundry and the Darling Foundry, to name a few. Together, they have fleshed out the city’s gallery scene and enticed viewers to venture beyond the Belgo Building, which has served as the city’s art headquarters for the past two decades.

Among these new galleries is Battat Contemporary, which is tucked away in Montreal’s Little Italy, in an old industrial building shared by manufacturers and painters. Opened in April, 2008, it is the brainchild of the toy magnate Joe Battat. “I didn’t intend to have a gallery at all, initially,” says Battat. “I just didn’t want to deal with it. I wanted to have a studio, I wanted to be able to draw and to offer drawing sessions—which we might still do.”

Battat has a gentle voice, soft eyes and a relaxed manner that belies his quick, practical mind. Born in Lebanon, he emigrated to Canada in 1968 and has always had a foot in both the art world, as a student and longtime collector of drawings, and the business world, as the overseer of a large company that has eschewed the war-toy track to make award-winning, educational toys.

“G.I. Joe has been an evergreen for Hasbro,” Battat says. “Every six to ten years, there’s a war. You can capitalize on trends, but our approach is much more low-key,” he says. “It’s a tougher path, but we always have good reviews. The process takes time, and it can be tempting to do it an easier way.”

Battat has applied his slow-and-steady working philosophy to the gallery space, which works on a flexible business model and was created to support artists that he feels need to be recognized. He has studied models of the relationship between artist and gallery and has emerged with ideas more common to the early modernist era—namely buying some of the work that you show.

“Since galleries don’t take positions, it becomes a consignment business,” he says. “I try to do things a little differently. Buying the work can allow the artist to keep going.”

Other gallerists support Battat’s efforts to foster local work. “It’s great that Joe’s here,” says Ben Klein, director of Galerie Division, in the Belgo Building. “He’s committed to helping young artists. He’ll buy art so that they can continue to work. He believes in the people he’s chosen to work with—as people and as artists. The first question Joe asked me was ‘What can I do to be involved with young artists in this city?’”

“The idea is to be a conduit,” says Battat. He views his gallery as a combination salon/school/exhibition space, a catalyst for a network of support that will help develop a critical mass for Montreal’s contemporary-art market. He has sought out advice from established gallerists such as René Blouin and Pierre-François Ouellette too. “René said, ‘Look, you’re going to be nervous about things. And you’re going to have bad shows. Don’t worry about it.’ I went with that,” he laughs.

The gallery has attracted the interest of the city’s art community already. The opening of its inaugural show, which featured works by Sophie Jodoin and David Jhave Johnston, was a wall-to-wall black-clad squeeze of Montreal artists, writers and curators. The next exhibition was by Allison Katz, a young Montreal painter now based in New York.

Battat expects to leave the mandate of the space open to allow for both exhibitions and other kinds of projects. However, the gallery’s direction is informed by an interest in traditional media—its developing stable includes painterly artists like Katz, Amy-Claire Huestis and John Ancheta. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering Battat’s collecting habits: he owns Old Master drawings by Tiepolo and Bernini and newer works by the likes of Betty Goodwin, Marion Wagschal and David Hockney.

“I’ve had people call and ask, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Battat says. “I tell them, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing— come and see.’”

For Montreal, it is an open invitation to watch him play.

This is an article from the Fall 2009 issue of Canadian Art.

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