Thursday, June 26, 2008

Interview: MACM director Marc Mayer on the Quebec Triennial, Festivalism & more

There are a lot of great shows opening in Montreal next week (including Sophie Calle at the DHC!) but the biggest draw this summer is likely the Quebec Triennial which opened in May at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. For it, 4 curators spent one intensive year of studio visits to various Quebec artists, whittling an initial list of more than 300 artists down to 39.

Almost as good, though, are comments MACM director Marc Mayer (ex of the Brooklyn Museum, the Albright Knox, and the Power Plant) let fly through my recent interview with him on the Triennial and related matters of urban rivalries and Richard Florida-influenced festival funding. You can read on here for the condensed version published in today's National Post or check out the full transcript after the jump.

(If you want to see more images from the show, check out this post I helped put together for the show's opening at Canadian Art Online)

The following is a transcript of a phone conversation between Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art director Marc Mayer and art writer Leah Sandals on the topic of the Quebec Triennial. The conversation took place on Monday, June 23, 2008.

LS: You worked in other major art centres like New York and Toronto before moving to Montreal/Quebec. What is different or special about the scene there?

MM: It’s a very mature scene, I mean it’s been encouraged since the 1920s. I think encouragement is an important factor then and now. There’s a high density of talent here and there has been for a long time so it’s inevitable someone was going to do it [a show just on Montreal/QC]. And the Montreal biennial is an international biennial, and generally has not enough local art for my taste. Surprisingly, someone who did include a lot of Quebec artists in the biennial was Peggy Gale. And a lot of the Quebec artists that I know now are the ones Peggy Gale did. So I think Montreal has needed a show like this [triennial] for a long time and it’s huge success here, it has been very popular with the public at large.

LS: How is this sense of Quebec/Montreal reflected in the Triennial?

MM: Just I think it’s the density of talent, you know. It’s not a couple of brilliant artists; it’s a whole bunch of really brilliant artists. This is a strong generation; there’s not bandwagons, there’s lots of diversity, there’s no real similarity between the works of any two artists. When you think these are all people who know each other, that’s pretty amazing, especially when they went to the same 2 schools, largely. And it’s a lot like the international scene in general… people don’t need each other to prop up their projects and I think that’s a sign of a mature scene.

LS: Yes, the work does vary…. from performance and conceptual projects based in art history to traditional painting. What links do you see among these? Or themes that might come up in common?

MM: That’s an interesting point… there’s definitely an academic bent to this show, stuff, as we called it in the 80s, that’s “smart art”. These artists are advanced conceptually. And yet they’re eager to reach out to a larger audience than the tiny microscopic Canadian art world. And what’s fun is when you do a show like this in a major museum—we have 2 million visitors a year, which is great for any contemporary museum—they can address the larger audience, people who aren’t artists, in this context. Some of these installations are really quite extraordinary. There’s several wow moments in the exhibition.

One of the subthemes we found was the mirror, or the idea of the mirror, which surprised us and the curators who set the show up. They didn’t expect it because they were only choosing works, not artists. They made a list of 300 artists and went out and sought works by those artists and they had a solemn pact that they would only be interested in strong work and not include them [an artist] by virtue of what they did in the past… It’s not a show of themes or stars, although there are some stars.

So the mirror image you see from the very beginning because there’s these Siamese twin mascots from Doyon-Rivest. And if you turn to the right from that you see Gwenael Bélanger’s broken mirror photographs and video with a camera twirling the in a room with the mirror breaking. And then you see Altmejd’s mirror sculpture and then you see Hannah’s piece with Las Meninas and then the mirroring in Bettina Hoffman’s video. And then there’s an odd mirroring in a conceptual piece by Raphaelle de Groot where she asks someone to describe someone that they really love and she draws them but that she can’t see the drawing. Then there’s the giant mirror installation of Nicholas Baier, it just sort of goes on to the mirrored dance floor with a white liquid bubbling up in the David Armstrong Six piece. So that’s a light motif in the show that we weren’t expecting.

But one of the curators said she found there was an ironic darkness to these, how where a lot of works feel wow and light but the more you look at it there’s a subtle dread through the show—which isn’t unusual given there’s so many questions about our immediate future.

But yes, the mirrors… even the Cooke Sasseville piece involves walking through two mirrored apartments.

LS What do you think that’s about?

MM I have no idea what’s that about, and the curators weren’t looking for it. Everyone has mentioned is title we took “Nothing is lost, Nothing is created, Everything is transformed.” People said our title could fit any art show anywhere. But that in itself is interesting because the Quebec scene is very much of a piece with the larger international scene, with that artist independence. I find this encouraging…I’ve been looking at art for my entire life and what I find encouraging is this abandonment of the ism, of artists imitating scientists, of cohorts that discover the secret of abstraction and such. Now it’s each artist for itself in every personal project, and we see that in Montreal as well as the international art scene. And it’s very encouraging to me politically about individual rights… we live in very optimistic times for art and this show proves it.

LS: What was the biggest surprise for you in seeing the final exhibition?

MM: Well, it’s so good. But this I had a kind of intuition it would be. I’ve been here for 4 years and we’ve done a lot of solo shows of local artists because I felt the artists here deserved a lot more encouragement on part of the museum, more big shows and reviews, things they can use to further their careers. I think the museums can serve that purpose…

Two things that I wouldn’t say surprised me but pleased me to no end. One is there’s no peaks and valleys in the show. Despite what some reviewers say is I feel there’s a consistent quality to the show that’s really surprising, there’s something interesting about every work in the show. And another is the number of positive comments we got from Americans. There’s been such bad reviews of these kinds of shows in the States, people are getting fed up with “festivalism,” as [New York Times art critic] Roberta Smith called it, where people don’t know if it is possible to do a show every 2 or 3 years and do it properly. [But they came here and told us it showed this was still possible.]

We had a lot of Europeans here for their first convention outside of Europe the day after the opening—and that was done deliberately so we could promote our artists to them. And their response was similarly positive in that you could see it’s possible to do it well; they say “We’ve done these kinds of shows for years in Europe, but it’s not as exciting.” And for this I give full credit to Paulette Gagnon and her curatorial team. They know how to do it well.

So I was surprised at the success of the show in a way. I knew it would be good to do this and that I didn’t think that the show itself would be as successful as it has been and all that credit goes to the curators. I had nothing to do with the selection. I take credit for the idea of the triennial but I am just so thrilled that the curators took it very seriously.

LS: Some major Quebec artists who are quite popular did not make it in. What do you say to fans of their work who are upset about that?

Oh you know, rub salt on it! It’s not as if these artists are invisible. They’ve showed in Toronto, they’ve shown here and elsewere. This was a choice and it wasn’t an exclusion [of them] it was an inclusion [of others]. BGL we like and we’ve given them big shows in the past and they weren’t just right for this show. And some other artists we just showed or we are planning shows of. So it’s either “We’re ever only showing the same artists” or “We’re not showing all your favourite artists” And we were willing to live with “We didn’t show your favourite artists”

So I have zero remorse whatsoever. Think of someone like Jean-Pierre Gauthier. He’s a big star, we did a show for him last fall that is going to Akron, Ohio. But since we did something so recently we can’t include him again. Commercial galleries show the same people over and over again, but museums really shouldn’t.

Q Media like myself like to play up the idea of an ongoing rivalry in Canada for creative supremacy between Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Do you think you could do a rating, or do you think that’s stupid?

A I think it’s a stupid debate. Canada’s too big to have a centre of anything We have competing cities, but they’re so different. Montréal and Toronto do not have a lot in common. Montreal is bilingual, Toronto is polyglot but mostly anglo, and Vancouver is something else yet again, a very different culture, different attitudes. So it’s something that frankly bores me and Montreal is the worst offender in this. I’m passionate about Montreal but it does get on my nerves when they go on about Toronto as the centre of the universe when we used to be. No one use was the centre of the universe! We have to find our own fate, And Montréal’s’ fate is a cultural one in any case, I think.

I think Montreal is like Berlin and Toronto is a cross between New York and Chicago but a much smaller city. But the country is so vast that I’m not programming for Toronto. [AGO Director] Matthew Teitelbaum is programming for Toronto. So we can’t be rivals when we’re not talking to each other. There’s so few people coming up from other parts of Canada to see the Triennial; I think 100 to 200 people will come from Toronto to see the show, the diehards, and that will be a significant group will come.

I do get kind of tired of it. Montreal needs to assume its fate and stop looking over its shoulder and Toronto needs to start taking art seriously. Although they’ve contributed half a billion to museums, new art is the locomotive of this cultural train and there’s not a high enough profile for new art in Toronto. And there’s always been one in Montreal, a very sophisticated network of artist-run centres and two major sophisticated university galleries and another museum that does lots of art, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and a commercial gallery scene that is getting bigger and growth in private museum scene. There is the DHC and there are other local people thinking of contributing to that.

And so even if the city [Montreal] is not consciously invested in the visual arts, it can’t help to grow now, it’s got so much talent. So if we stop looking over our shoulders and stop thinking just about festivals—this festival mentality really gets on my nerves, I’m not someone who would encourage that kind of thinking. We’re not in Germany where the cities are an hour away from, each other so other cities are not really places that I think about when I’m programming here. Of course, I’m completely mercenary and if it serves my purposes I will bring I up. But frankly I think it’s beside the point… I think it’s too boring to mention.

LS: There is much to-do right now with how investing in creative industries can improve the overall economy. What do you think of this approach particularly with recession looming?

MM: Well, I’m against festivals, I think they’re the crack cocaine of culture. I think we put way to much emphasis on them and they’re short-lived and they don’t have a long-term effect on a city and its people that constant programming can have. For example being able to go the opera several times a year is a beginning; to see great live theatre and see great films and have access to culture is not the same thing as having a festival that celebrates a particular niche of culture two weeks a year.

And we need to be cultivating our own scene and our own thing; we have lots to offer the world, we have a lot to offer ourselves. I’m not a Canada-firster; I just think we naturally need to encourage our own cultural activities because they’re about people thinking about who we are. And art is something that Canadians need to do more to encourage. In Canada importation of it is a problem; we have very complicated art law in which it is treated as a commercial product, like Lexuses. And we have an anti-intellectual frame of mind in many aspects of our public life.

So no, I’m not a fan of investing in festivals. If they bring in a bit of tourism and people from the suburbs--and the gas prices are going to bring them in for good soon—that’s fine, but I think that my opinion is widely held, of creating renewable resources in culture as opposed to tent cities.

LS: What are you working on next?

MM: The next show will be Sympathy for the Devil: Art in rock n’ roll. It’s not Elvis’s slippers and pipe; it’s art that refers to the culture of rock and roll. So it’s not an homage, but it’s an expression of rock and roll culture. And it’s a highly regarded exhibition that the Museum of Art in Chicago did. We think it will draw crowds, in particularly in Montreal, which is a savvy scene. That will be an interesting exhibition that will be useful in terms of expanding what contemporary art is about; it’s a lot broader than what a lot of contemporary art buffs think it is.

After that we’re doing a survey of Claude Tousignant, a monochorme painter, the best. And we’re excited about that. Here’s a Canadian artist who’s hot and gets much less attention than he deserves. He was a favorite of mine since I was in school.

LS: This is plenty of great information you’ve given me. Is there anyting else you’d like potential Triennial visitors to know about?

MM: Just that it’s a wonderful exhibition. I have yet to hear a single negative remark about the show in general since the show opened. We had 10,000 people in our first week.

I’ve been promoting Canadian art for the larger part of my career and I’ve often said that for the promotion of Canadian art the biggest job is to promote it at home. And that is one of the basic reasons for having done the exhibition… the more enthused we are about our own art the more interested others will be. We can’t hope to export Canadian ingenuity unless people are consuming it locally. So I encourage everyone to see as much contemporary Canadian art as they can. It will be very useful in their travels abroad.

The Quebec Triennial continues at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art ( to September 7, 2008.

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