Arsenal officially opened its vast new exhibition space last weekend in Montréal’s Griffintown district, celebrating with three evenings of festivities. The brainchild of collector and entrepreneur Pierre Trahan, Arsenal was launched via the exhibition Travers – The Art of Collecting which includes more than a dozen collections from Québécois patrons, such as François Odermatt, Alain Tremblay and Paryse Taillefer. The show continues until 25 May to mix and match a wide variety of works on the walls, including those from Anselm Kiefer, Jannis Kounelis, Irene F. Whittome and Marc Séguin, to also offer a nod towards Collecting, another Montreal exhibition themed around the passion for collecting, presented by Access Culture. A few hours before Saturday’s third and final evening of celebration, director Jean-François Bélisle shares a few thoughts with M_KOS about his ambitions for Arsenal.
M-KOS [MKOS]: Could you tell us your relationship with Pierre Trahan and the initiators of Arsenal? Were you involved with this project from the very beginning?
Jean-François Bélisle [JFB]: I was there very early in the process, Pierre Trahan had this vision several years ago already, and I was working at the time as director for the Association of Contemporary Art Galleries (AGAC), for the past three years. I joined the Arsenal team in an informal way, to help the project move forward about a year and a half ago. Then I became full-time director of the Arsenal in May last year, right at the beginning of the construction works.
MKOS: Mr. Trahan said the following, in another interview: “We decided to create a venue that would place Canadian contemporary art on the map, to show what sells and make a distinction between true art and decoration.” Is this also how you view the role of this new venue?
JFB: Yes. I think our mission at Arsenal does have an educational component, to assert our preferences in contemporary arts and put forward the best artists coming from Montreal, Québec and the rest of Canada, but we also aim to develop the market more generally, to demonstrate that we can bring the [Canadian] contemporary art market at the next level, which I think is a necessity, a higher visibility on the national and international stage.
View from VIP Opening. Photo by M-KOS
MKOS: Can you tell us more about the series of opening ceremonies happening during this weekend at the Arsenal?
JFB: These opening events are truly intended as a first step to develop the market by building bridges and creating links between all the different cultural, economic and political segments of the population, to present contemporary art more accurately. To make this idea resonate, we decided to produce an opening event that would span across three days, so to realize our ambitions we began on Thursday evening with a concert by the whole of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which featured contemporary music as well as an invited conductor. This concert was held in the main exhibition space. On Friday night we kept the works on show, and even added a few more pieces, but it was a completely different formula. We had Sixtrom, a contemporary percussion group and a performance by Marie Chouinard Dance Company. All this was done within a very festive context, to strengthen our intentions to open new doors of communication between the different cultural domains.
MKOS: And Saturday’s event will also be somewhat different?
JFB: Yes, this was our grand opening for the general audience, and as in all public openings, you never know just how many people will attend, really, or how it all will take place, so we went a bit more conservative on the set up, and simply opened the exhibition with a bar service and a festive ambiance.
MKOS: For this series of opening events, there was much emphasis on collectors. Is this indicative of the patrons you are aiming for, or are you also looking for a broader audience at the same time?
JFB: It is really about getting the most diverse audience possible. The current exhibition puts an emphasis on collectors because it includes 13 large collections from this area. Collectors are for us a very important link in the cultural sector, which has supported directly and sometimes indirectly Montreal’s contemporary arts scene for many years. It’s a way of working with our closest and most familiar allies in a first instance, but the exhibition projects that will follow are putting less emphasis on private collections.
MKOS: What about networking objectives, does Arsenal plan to liaise with other art centers or groups in the rest of Canada or the world?
JFB: Yes. A good example of this is our next major exhibition beginning in September of this year, which is organized in collaboration with Galerie de l’UQAM. We are putting together a project that will assemble 60 Canadian painters across the country. This is a project that Galerie de l’UQAM has been working on for several years already, we called upon many curators throughout Canada to suggest artists and select works to include in this exhibition.
Exhibition view. Photo by M-KOS
MKOS: It is also noticeable with the current opening show, that there is a healthy mix between Quebec and international artists, is this also part of your mandate to put local and global art scenes on an equal footing?
JFB: Absolutely. I think this is one of the highlights of the current exhibition. If you want local and national contemporary art scenes to figure in the international arena, I think one of the best ways to do this is to physically do it with the art works, to mix regional artists with very renowned ones on the international scene and to create dialogues between works that are normally never seen on the same wall.
MKOS: And considering the very large dimensions of the Arsenal (about 41.000 sq feet), it is approximately the same floor size as the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Of course the Arsenal does not function as a museum, but you have any plans, as the Turbine Hall, for example to commission major site-specific artist projects?
JFB: I think the comparison is interesting, we have also made that comparison [in the past]. I think the Turbine Hall is even larger than us, and also of a broader international scope. It’s a huge structure for wonderful projects that I respect enormously. The idea of doing stuff like that interests me enormously, I think we have the potential to dream of having the same means as Tate Modern, but currently this is not the case.
MKOS: All in all the Arsenal could become one of the most important contemporary art venues in Canada, what would be your biggest challenges to come for you, as director?
JFB: Because this is a private initiative, with a structure that simply grows in proportion to the scale of its market, I think structural issues will be an interesting challenge. As opposed to a national institution, with a team of several dozen employees, annual budgets and operational spending, here we are inventing a new model, a new way of doing things. So, how to grow our structure according to our means and our ambitions, I think, will be an interesting challenge. The other major challenge I expect is really about penetrating the national and the international markets with Canadian artists. This is something everyone has been dreaming about for a long time and we all want to achieve this, and I think this is doable given the scale of Arsenal. How we follow this through and make sure it works is still to be determined. We have lots of projects and have lots of great ideas and we will work at it very hard. But before we achieve this dream, we’ll have to find out the hard way which ideas work well and which others, not so well. ■
Interviewed by Oli Sorenson (originally in French)
General view of the Arsenal space. Courtesy Arsenal, Montreal