Monday, July 6, 2009

Museum-Head Misanthropy in Montreal

As I indicated on Twitter over the weekend, there has been a spate of museum-head misanthropy in Montreal of late.

On Friday, July 3, I received a copy of a protest email signed by 80+ Quebec artists, curators and academics expressing shock and indignation over recent events at the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal, one of Canada's most prominent contemporary art museums.

The letter was addressed to musee board head Omer Marc DeSerres, and was signed by a variety of well known (and often award winning) Quebec artists, including David Altmejd, Francoise Sullivan, BGL, Raphaelle de Groot, Massimo Guerrera, Jocelyne Alloucherie and Isabelle Hayeur. Gallerist Simon Blais, art historian/curator Martha Langford, and former Musee National des Beaux Arts de Quebec curator Anne-Marie Ninacs also signed the petition.

On Saturday, Montreal newspaper Le Devoir ran the letter text in its Ideas section, and ran a related article on the debacle. In the article, reporter Stephane Baillargeon noted several curious things about the letter:

1) Though it complained mightily about the director-choosing process at the musem, the letter didn't name new director Paulette Gagnon even once. (On June 16, Gagnon was named successor to Marc Mayer, who ran the gallery for four years and is now head of the National Gallery of Canada.) Ninacs is quoted as saying that the protest really is about the selection process, and not about Gagnon per se.

2) The letter in general accuses the museum of not functioning to its potential and being almost invisible on the international scene. It also accuses the board of not seeking out qualified international applicants for the directorship.

3) According to previous Le Devoir research, the community favourite for the director's position was Louise Déry, curator of the college-based galerie de l'UQAM and commissioner of the much-noted 2007 Canada Pavilion in Venice featuring--guess who?--David Altmejd. So it's possible that the letter was sparked over Déry not getting the director job.

4) Board head Omer Marc DeSerres has written a letter back refuting the claims made in the protest missive.

5) Also noted by Le Devoir is the fact that many of the criticisms of the museum in general could be veiled attacks on Marc Mayer, the previous director who just left in January.

6) Despite the large number of recognizable names signing the letter, there are still many curators, critics, dealers and artists who did not sign.

In any case, it's interesting to see such open outcry in Montreal over this issue. For one thing, Montreal is regarded as potentially the best art spot in Canada right now--both for making and for viewing. For another thing, the MACM is regarded in English Canada as a rather forward-thinking institution, what with the love-in over last summer's Quebec Triennial and all. Perhaps on the flipside this is an instance of the community demanding better performance?

I also wonder, would this type of letter ever come out in Toronto? Or Vancouver? Could just be my short history on the scene, but it's hard for me to imagine this type of thing happening here. Thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Omer DeSerres (1881-1949)

Marc DeSerres is the current President of the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal.

Leah Sandals said...

Anonymous, you rock! And I'm a dumbass. Thanks for the correction. Will make now.

Anne-Marie Ninacs said...

We reacted when we found out that none of the qualified candidates interested in the job even got an interview! The board seems not to have wanted to hear what the best available Canadian directors-curators had to say… So the letter is not written against or on behalf of any individual: it is stemming from an ethical questioning about the very notion of excellence in the art management field and the responsibility of the MACM as a State Society to seriously engage in that quest. This pitiful contest is nevertheless the straw that broke the camel’s back since the grudge against the MACM has been rampant for decades now in Quebec. I guess it looks better from afar: from up close – and despite a recent dusting – it is not at all a forward-looking and open institution but a quite conventional and protected one that is almost invisible outside of Canada. Our first and foremost intention with this letter is therefore to prompt the leaders of the MACM to define a stronger, clearer and highly creative vision of the institution, one that would translate in all aspects of its action and take place within a project for a society.

p.s. The letter wasn’t sent to dealers (who we thought had too much to loose), could obviously not be signed by professionals from other institutions, circulated for only a few days, and found a lot of people to be already on vacation...

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Anne Marie --

Thanks for clarifying... that's super helpful to understand.

Like I said, in my short experience it's an unusual move to write a letter like this, but it obviously got you guys some attention.

What do you think of the outcome?

Anne-Marie Ninacs said...

It's an unusual practice in Montreal too!

MACM's answer: purely technical and deeply disappointing. Consistent with the very attitude we are asking them to change.

Minister's answer: satisfying. She acknowledged our action as a significant one and called for more openness from the MACM.

Media coverage: beyond our expectations. Interviews, articles and many papers still to come.

À suivre...

Unknown said...

Hi Leah, Good to see you're monitoring the MACM situation. What's missing from most of the reports I've seen is a lack of awareness that artists from other parts of Canada are also concerned and have signed the letter. Certainly, the majority of signers are Montreal curators, historians, artists and critics and that makes sense, but since one of the main issues is the role of the MACM as a national treasure with a mandate that's far from parochial, it also makes sense to acknowledge the Musée’s wider influence and significance. Today's update from Anne-Marie Ninacs provides an excellent overview of the several media locations where the debate is taking place, your blog among them. Thanks and best wishes.