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Features / February 24, 2016

How to Turn Your Local Mall into an Art Space

Frederic Loury, director of Art Souterrain, curates a 7-kilometre-long Montreal exhibition in 13 different non-art spaces. Here, his insights on success.
Visitors take in a public-art display at Art Souterrain in 2015. Visitors take in a public-art display at Art Souterrain in 2015.

In recent years, there seems to have been a surge of interest in repurposing shopping mall and office spaces for contemporary art. Take the Long Winter in Toronto, which recently used the derelict Galleria as an art-party venue, or at Eyelevel in Halifax, which has used a space in the Park Lane Mall for an artist-run exhibition, or the Arts Commons Ledge Gallery that exists in the Plus-15 corridors connecting Calgary’s downtown office towers.

One of the most impressive and large-scale instances of this type of practice in Canada is Art Souterrain in Montreal. An annual exhibition founded in 2009, Art Souterrain this year will, starting on February 27, transform 7 kilometres and 13 buildings in Montreal’s “underground city”—a linkage of walkways, office buildings and shopping-mall spaces—into a three-week-long exhibition involving 63 works by 86 Canadian and international artists.

Here, Art Souterrain founder and director Frédéric Loury shares some of his top tips for pulling this special type of public art experience together.

1. Tune up your negotiation skills.

Loury is upfront about the challenges of dealing with so many stakeholders—“it’s not easy,” he says.

“You have 7 kilometres and 13 different buildings. And all the buildings work in different way—they have their own philosophy, their own specificities in security, in the way that you could use the electricity.”

As a result, the cornerstone of negotiation—understanding shared interests—is key.

“First of all, you have to understand what the main preoccupation of these differing building administrators are,” Loury explains. That helps “build a trust they are more open to present artwork.”

2. Get ready to hear “no”—and to say it.

“When we are presenting all these installations to the buildings,” Loury says, “They could say no to some of the artwork because they are not very comfortable with the content or with the message.”

Sometimes this can be resolved, Loury says, through that continuing negotiation—explaining the messages behind artworks that stakeholders might initially find shocking. But sometimes that doesn’t work.

“Every time you are showing an artwork outside of a white walls, you have many, many different kinds of reactions,” Loury says. “Every year we could have 2 or 3 artworks which we are not able to set in the space.”

Interestingly, it’s not just office-building or shopping-mall managers who kind find a work too dangerous or risque—it can also be art-gallery partners, Loury admits.

And, he adds, you always need to be willing to say “no” too—whether working inside the art world or not.

For professionals working inside art institutions, for instance, Loury notes, “Do we have to accept that somebody from the board, which could be somebody outside of the art history influence, influences the program of a museum or a festival or an organization?”

What it comes down to every year, Loury summarizes, is that “everyone wants to give a piece of advice, a comment, to propose and artist, and every year we say no” when a suggestion doesn’t fit with Art Souterrain’s creative vision—even if it means losing collaborations and partnerships.

3. Practice patience.

“First of all, you need to be very patient.” Loury asserts when asked for his prime piece of advice for those who wish to reproduce Art Souterrain’s success in other cities.

“In the past, I was contacted by different people who wanted to do [something like Art Souterrain] in different cities…they tried, and they failed, because after the first year they were so discouraged and so tired with all the different communications you have to do every day—to say to all the different people, come on with me, you have to trust me, let’s work together—even the spaces which are more comfortable with art.”

In other words, building relationships and enacting effective negotiation takes time—a lot of time. And repeated attempts. So view it as a chance to practice patience.

4. Keep taking risks.

“For me, the real success in the long term is to curate and build a trust relationship and education with the different landlords,” says Loury, so that “if that people say, OK, let’s take a risk… it will be fantastic.”

“You have to take risks every year,” Loury continues—even if they don’t work out. “If we just throw in landscapes, then for sure every landlord would be very pleased—but if we want to provide a real sense of contemporary art today, there are so many fantastic works, and it could be very subversive.”

For instance, this year Art Souterrain is including a video by Jesper Just of two women dancing together—while some buildings were not comfortable with the work, Loury did manage to secure a site.

5. When the going gets tough, remember your successes.

When encountering frustration, Loury tries to keep in mind some of the positive viewer feedback that has kept him going.

Two years ago, Loury and his crew were siting a complicated artwork in a building when he encountered a cleaning man.

“I came to him and told him how we very sorry to be there, because we knew it’s wasn’t easy for him to work and clean, and we were creating a mess. And the guy says, ‘You know what? I am so happy you are here, because it [Art Souterrain] is the only days that I can bring my family to my workplace.’

“I was so shocked and happy,” Loury recalls. “I have to stay very optimistic…for each huge project, the first decade is very hard, and maybe the next one will be less so.”

6. Take heart in knowing you are developing new audiences for art.

The network of office and retail spaces that Art Souterrain uses as exhibition venue has “around 400,000 people passing through every day,” says Loury. That makes it a perfect venue to explore developing “a specific and special relationship between contemporary art in public space and all the citizens.”

“The main goal is to push the public to understand that visual art could be interesting for them—even if they don’t know the artist, even if they don’t know the artist statement,” says Loury. To meet this goal, Art Souterrain tries to develop signage and audioguides that reach out to interested publics.

The project, in many ways, is a generational and long-term one.

“If the younger generation is not in contact with contemporary art, it will be very, very difficult when they are adults to go, in a very natural way, in artistic centres and galleries and museums,” Loury says.

And the Art Souterrain director knows firsthand just how closed the usual art-viewing loops can be.

“During the 12 years I was running a gallery, year after year it was the same people who were coming by. It’s the same community—and it’s great because you know everybody—but if you are not developing any relationship with citizens, the risk is to be off the radar. And if you are off the radar, people will see other things—theatre, cinema, circus—but not visual arts. So it’s a huge responsibility that we have.”

7. Grow in ways that make sense for your project.

In addition to adding more didactic materials over the years to its displays—like an artist bio, artist statement, and audio guide—Art Souterrain has added live interpreters, daily tours, and other new features in hopes of enhancing the public’s connections with art.

For the first time this year, for instance, the festival will be presenting a new satellite route which with permit festival-goers to prolong view art at 10 Montreal cultural partners, including le Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, l’Espace Ubisoft and the Goethe-Institut Montréal.

Art Souterrain will also be continuing an initiative it began last year—offering guided visits of private collections. In addition, it has organized visits to selected artists’ studios.

“I wanted to think about the way to create an opportunity for the public to understand what contemporary art is today,” Loury says. “All of the visual art community has to take responsibility to develop new publics.”

Art Souterrain opens in various spaces in downtown Montreal on the evening of February 27—coinciding with Montreal’s Nuit Blanche. It runs until March 20.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via