Remarks for Simon Brault, Vice-Chair, Canada Council for the Arts, Creative Places + Spaces Conference, MaRS, 101 College Street, Toronto
Friday, October 30, 2009 at 8:30 a.m.
Thank you, Joe. Creative Places + Spaces is an event with a growing reputation and great relevance to the issues of today, and I am pleased to have a part in it.
I considered at some length what I could contribute to today’s discussions, and decided that I should talk about the role culture is playing in the place I know best: the City of Montreal.
And if pressed to give these remarks a title, I would suggest “Culture: A City’s Best Bet”.
In the early nineties, the city of Montreal was faltering: a weak economy, huge public debt, rising taxes, growing unemployment (at a rate estimated as high as 23%) all weighed on its citizens.
Many studies of the city had been undertaken, and the patterns of decline they revealed dated back to the late sixties. Over this period, Toronto had been replacing Montreal as the leading Canadian city. Economic initiatives in Montreal had produced a series of white elephants. (Mirabel airport and the Olympic Stadium are concrete examples). In the face of political uncertainties, the population (especially the prosperous anglo population) was decreasing and slums were expanding.
Seven hospitals had closed. Retail sales were declining and bankruptcies rising. The city was increasingly isolated from the rest of Canada.
Looking back, however, one can see that by accidents of geography, history, language and trade, Montreal had the five key qualities noted by Max Wyman in his book, The Defiant Imagination, as essential preconditions for the development of a cultural metropolis: It had large reserves of private wealth. There was a high degree of civic pride, stimulated in 1967, notably, by the success of Expo, the world fair that put Montreal on the international stage.
The city was in the midst of a major economic and social transformation. It had a large and diverse population and, as a port city, a mobile foreign presence. A vibrant artistic underground, operating at the margins, was incubating new trends that would not become part of the cultural mainstream for another 10 or 20 years.
But despite the propitious underlying conditions, something was still lacking: a committed, long-term buy-in on the part of civic, business and political leaders to strengthening the urban fabric.
Montreal’s best bet, at this point in its history, lay with the energies of the cultural sector. In the heart of the red-light district, in a hundred-year-old building, there lay a seed of hope.
The Monument-National, built in 1893, is the oldest theatre in Montreal. The home of the National Theatre School since the mid-sixties, it had in earlier times served as a popular theatre, a cultural and administrative centre, a people’s university and a political assembly hall. For many decades it was a venue for French, English and Yiddish vaudevillians, as well as such stars as Edith Piaf and Emma Albani. It housed one of the first cinemas in North America.
As early as 1989 the federal government had announced its intention of renovating the building to mark the theatre’s centennial year. The project had been delayed, and in 1992, as the newly appointed Administrative Director of the National Theatre School, I was in a race to the wire to complete the project in time for the anniversary celebrations.
This was an education on the fly for me, not just in architectural and heritage renovation, but in municipal history and, perhaps most importantly, in civic politics. I consulted with neighbours, community groups, local businesses and people on the street.
Gradually, I came to see how the Monument could become more than a school facility. As a cultural initiative, it had the power to completely revitalize this neglected area of Montreal, becoming a beacon to a better future.
Initially, some of Montreal’s small theatre groups resented the expenditure of $16 million on a school facility. We won their support by inviting them in: incorporating their needs into the project, equipping the performance spaces, for example, with ticket wickets and cloakrooms. In this way we made what was to have been purely a school into a much more intensively used facility including a community cultural centre.
In the course of the project, I also met the people from Héritage Montréal (notably the architects Phyllis Lambert and Dinu Bumbaru), key defenders of the city’s built heritage, who had been responsible for getting the Monument its heritage designation in 1976.
I was struck by the open management of this organization, which draws effectively on the talents, energy, knowledge, influence and sheer determination of academics, urbanists, architectural specialists, media representatives, landlords, elected officials and ordinary citizens.
To sum up, the renovation of the Monument National was, for all of us involved, an intense, hands-on learning experience about the power of culture to find allies in re-imagining the nature of the city.
The key lesson of the project was that collaboration is more effective than protest as a political tool; and that belief would inform an important new cultural and civic movement, Culture Montréal.
The aim of the new organization was simple: to ensure that the cultural sector contributed to society and to the economy, and by this means to cultivate a broader cultural involvement on the part of the community.
Despite all the challenges the city was facing, the cultural sector remained amazingly dynamic. The festival scene was thriving. Cirque du Soleil was on the brink of becoming a world-wide success. How could we capitalize on this strength?
For two years we looked at studies of other cities. We mapped Montreal’s cultural resources street by street, and we looked for allies. We developed a vocabulary we could share with other sectors. Gradually, we gained recognition, but we were at risk of remaining a discussion group. It was time to establish a formal, active presence on the urban stage.
Between 1996 and 1999, we organized large themed meetings on cultural and social issues, and asked participants to make concrete commitments. We participated in a provincial summit on job creation, and we instituted Journées de la Culture (Culture Days). Gradually, we became a recognized presence in the major urban economic and social debates.
Our aim was to create a non-partisan, idea-based citizen’s organization that would be flexible and inclusive, taking a broad view of Montreal’s cultural development and becoming involved in all the major urban issues. Although the concept was fine-tuned as we went along, there was a strong buy-in from the beginning.
Meetings, however, could be stormy. Some people in the arts sector mistrusted the idea of an organization not based on protest, or confined to professionals, or structured on a representative model. But the majority in the end voted for an open, broad-based approach.
A one-day cultural summit on the theme “Culture is everybody’s business” drew a crowd of 400. Besides many figures from the arts sector, it included teachers, bar owners, retirees, officials from local municipalities (this was the period leading up to municipal amalgamation) and people of all ages and ethnic origins. We had succeeded in broadening urban participation in cultural issues.
In the Summit’s plenary session, we presented our three main objectives:
- Access to culture for all Montrealers;
- A voice for culture in every aspect of urban development; and
- Identification of Montreal as an international cultural metropolis.
The Summit voted overwhelmingly to establish Culture Montréal formally, and its legal status as a not-for-profit organization was confirmed in February 2002.
Without harnessing itself to special interests, Culture Montréal promotes the idea of a city with a stake in culture as an informing presence in the urban experience and as an important dimension of citizenship and development.
This position gives it strength as a catalyst for action. More than a forum for debate, Culture Montréal offers a flexible structural support for collective civic undertakings, and an umbrella presence as a vehicle for cultural branding.
Whatever the struggle to survive – and the challenges to individuals and societies in our contemporary world are many and significant – culture has a role to play.
Art and culture are vectors of civilization, pathways for expressing and communicating, not just our feelings and dreams, but the underlying reality of our way of life.
Art has a transformational power, for individuals and for societies. Today, the cultural sector plays an important role, economically and socially, notably at the urban and regional levels. In the interest of all citizens, governments and regulatory and funding bodies must recognize and reinforce this role.
Cultural participation holds our cities together in the face of economic, social, linguistic and cultural disparity. By investing in public art, recreational cultural activities and arts education, we strengthen the inventive capacity, freedom of thought, and mental health of our citizens.
I hope that the experience of Culture Montréal, its successes and its setbacks, will stimulate public engagement in the arts in other communities across the country. There is no single right answer, but there is in every community, large or small, a need for open debate and concerted action.
The proceedings of this conference are a valuable part of that ongoing process. Thank you.