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May we suggest

Features / April 24, 2014

A Primer on AGAC, the Papier14 Powerhouse

Montreal’s Association des galeries d’art contemporain appears to be having a moment. Papier14, the latest edition of its annual works-on-paper fair, kicks off today in the city’s Quartier des Spectacles, and it continues to grow, with more dealers attending from across Canada. In a few weeks, AGAC also announces the cherry-picked lineup for its new Feature Art Fair in Toronto, which ambitiously coincides with Canada’s stalwart fair, Art Toronto. But can an organization rooted in the (often insular) Quebec art market succeed as a truly national enterprise? We interviewed AGAC director Julie Lacroix in advance of Papier to ask her this, and to get the scoop on the organization’s plans for Feature and beyond.

David Balzer: There’s increasing interest in the activities of AGAC, given the recent announcement of the Feature Art Fair in Toronto and the growing national presence of Papier. I also get the sense that the current market for works on paper is pretty strong. This is the seventh edition of Papier: seven years ago, how was the market? Were there specific Montreal and Quebec reasons for doing a fair of this nature?

Julie Lacroix: At the very beginning, AGAC wanted to create a new project that would be more relevant for their members. Past attempts weren’t strong enough to have staying power. So Papier came up: an idea to do something affordable was the very first concern, and then to bring in new clients. It was not a response to current market trends; it was more to bring people to the market.

Quebec has a very strong scene of artist-run and not-for-profit galleries and centres. Everything that was commercial was a bit of a taboo. And the market was not that great in Montreal at the time [2007], so the idea was to attract those people who were interested in all the experimentation they were seeing in these places to finally commit to buy. Works on paper were just perfect, given they’re less expensive than a canvas or sculpture.

We also wanted something that would be very different from the other fairs. There’s no entrance fee, for instance. For the first two years it was actually in a mall [Westmount Square]; it was very small. I was not there at the time, but I went. Then, the fair moved to the Manège militaire du Black Watch, where it had a very different vibe—it had personality and cachet, with the first gallery outside of Quebec joining. Then, we went to the Quartier des Spectacles under the big tent. And now, every year, we’re able to bring galleries from outside Quebec.

DB: It seems that AGAC has really developed and grown as an organization alongside Papier. One of the things that, I think, has been a surprise to members of the visual-arts media is that you have consistently issued invitations to national press to come and cover the show. In general there seems to be a lot of dedication, financially as well as conceptually, to expanding the organization. And obviously you continue to grow as we look toward your new Toronto fair in the fall. So I’m wondering if you can enlighten us as to why this is happening—why does AGAC seem to have such resources to develop and prosper in this way?

JL: What’s important to know first is that we never did any campaigning to bring members to AGAC. For some reason, that was not in my mandate. How we do it usually is that people come to Papier—by that I mean the galleries we’re not working with on a daily basis in Montreal—and I tell them more about AGAC and what we do. When there’s a connection, then I ask; I ask when the time is right.

We now offer the same relationship to everyone who’s doing our fair; they know they have this invitation to join, or not. Because we’re an association, we’re working for [the galleries]. They know everything we do for the fair to grow. And of course we want to have galleries from across Canada because we now have all the good galleries from Quebec! We can’t grow anymore here.

I guess everything started with Papier because it’s a very different fair and it’s not expensive to do it; it’s affordable for everyone, client and gallery alike. AGAC is now 26 years old; it’s not a young organization. At first it was AGAC with an “M” at the end, and it was galleries from Montreal. I think soon we will get our first members from Vancouver.

DB: What would be some of the benefits of being a member of AGAC, especially for a non-Quebec gallery?

JL: The first is visibility. We’re quite present on social media, so we make posts for every opening and share all the info we think is important to the gallery. We’re launching, in less than a month, our new website and a new identity for AGAC, with a new logo. The new website will be more focused, to give each gallery its own space on the homepage and then their own section. It’s not elaborate, but still just enough so the clients know who the galleries are and where they are. The website will be launched at the same time as [the website for] Feature.

To my mind, we have a different approach from ADAC [the Art Dealers Association of Canada]. Some of our members are members of both. But ADAC, to me, seems more interested in the professionalization of things, of the life of being a dealer—appraisals, defending the reality of dealers in response to new laws, etc.

We’re strong at events. There’s the art fairs; in Montreal, we have a gala, and this year we’re doing it with partners; we have gallery tours. For the galleries who are not in Quebec, Feature was something that was overdue. What I have heard for a long time is that galleries wanted a fair that would just be good contemporary art. So for us, when the galleries came up with this idea that maybe we should do it, it was a dream come true. It will be very different from Papier.

DB: Historically there’s been this assumption that there’s not a strong market for non-Quebecois artists in Quebec. Is that not the case with Papier? Specifically, I’m wondering if you know if the collecting audience that goes to Papier is primarily from Montreal, or if, like the dealers, there is increasing presence from outside the province? Are people travelling now to go to this fair?

JL: It’s definitely a concern for me, the idea that there’s not a strong market for non-Quebecois artists in Quebec. I’ve heard this many times from galleries doing Papier, but if they’re coming back every year, it must not be that bad.

Still, we have partnerships with corporate collections in Quebec, and of course they have to buy artists from Quebec. They are the biggest clients, with big money. But there are also great private collectors, and these people are not buying only Quebec artists.

In general this was one of my challenges for Papier this year. What we did first was offer VIP tickets to non-Quebecois galleries to give to clients. Each gallery has a page on the website to show what artwork they’ll bring to Papier. We made a few social-media posts, with famous people in Montreal choosing their non-Quebecois picks. We also have one roundtable with the topic of artists outside Quebec. These are small things that we want to do to help, but it’s crucial.

We’re very proud to have all these galleries coming to Montreal. Even though Montreal is fun and it’s not expensive, they still need to sell, or else they won’t come back.

We also got a grant from the Canada Council to bring in international experts. We got it for the first time. We’ll invite three collecting institutions from the US who will come with an acquisitions project. We do the same thing for corporate collections that are not in Quebec: we look for a corporate collection that has a real budget, where it will be worth it for us to pay for their travel, etc., to bring them to Papier. Last year we brought an oil company from Calgary, and they came with a big budget. They had a time frame of two years to buy contemporary artworks to fill, I’d say, a 30-floor building. That’s one of the best moves we’ve made.

So, we work on this. We hope Montrealers will come to the roundtables and the guided tours, and that they will be able to discover great artists who are not in Quebec galleries. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Because if you’re a successful artist in a Quebec gallery, the next step is to learn what’s going on outside Quebec. Maybe they’re not there yet, but it’s coming.

With Feature it will be easier, because we’ll get the list of people from Toronto and we’ll be able to invite them to Papier, and vice versa, invite Montrealers to Toronto.

DB: Maybe we could wrap up by talking about Feature, which a lot of people are curious about. You said earlier that Feature will be very different in tone from Papier. Can you elaborate on that? It is a juried fair; do you know yet who will be included?

JL: We know the selection of galleries, but it won’t be released until the second week of May. There are only 23 spaces. We wanted a space that was far away from the usual setting of an art fair, with some cachet. The exhibition space where the galleries will be is not that big: it’s 10,000 square feet; Papier has 16,000, although it has 44 galleries and the booths are very small. For Feature, we decided to make every booth the size of the “Next” section booths in Art Toronto, so 200 square feet minimum.

We decided if we did a fair at exactly the same time as Art Toronto, it had to be completely different with its own identity. What we want is something that showcases top contemporary art. So we decided to work with an advisory committee who makes the gallery selection, but can also make a recommendation as to what each gallery will show. We decided to ask each gallery to show only three artists. We will work to make connections between the booths, so you get more of an exhibition or biennale feel. Independent is a good model; sometimes it’s a bit on the extreme in the sense that you might not know which gallery you’re looking at. We won’t be that open, but it is curated.

DB: By “curated” do you mean there are professional curators on your advisory committee?

JL: Yes. It’s all museum and corporate curators from across Canada.

DB: I hear you’ve received a lot of applications for Feature. Is that true?

JL: Yes, but we don’t have a lot of space! With 23 galleries, it’ll be a small fair. Of course we’d like to grow next year. But this year will be a beautiful one. The good thing about doing a small fair is that you can focus on it looking really good. I think the size of the booths won’t necessarily work going forward; it’s a bit small and I think we’ll have to grow.

Maybe it’s because of Feature, where the challenges are so big, but this year I feel like I can take a step back and look at what we’ve done for Papier and know it’s good. We’re lucky because we got a grant from the City of Montreal, which I feel was almost created for us; it’s called Fonds de soutien à marchés et vitrines culturels et créatifs, and there aren’t many festivals or events that fit into this category. So we’re able to do more publicity and put more energy into the programming—the roundtables for instance, which we now have a dedicated space for.

This year, we also have our own stage and it will look very professional. There are three shows outside the tent. It’s crazy for staff to even see a banner in the street, which we’ve never had a budget for. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s work, but we have a lot, and we’ve made so many steps forward. I hope people will feel the way I do: that this year, Papier is very different.

To find out about Canadian Art‘s two roundtables at Papier14, and to read our daily posts about the fair, visit from April 24 to 27.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.