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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 7 April 2008

Simon Brault: The Art of Cultural Action

by Wah Keung Chan / April 13, 2008

Version française...

At the close of last November’s Montreal Cultural Summit, organizer Simon Brault’s voice broke with emotion, showing a passion rarely displayed in public. After two days of intense discussions before 1200 of Montreal’s cultural stakeholders including Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay and ministers from the provincial and federal governments, all witnessed by 106 journalists, the action plan for keeping Montreal a cultural capital was being adopted. For Brault, years of planning was bearing fruit. “When you finally see it happen, it provokes an emotion,” said Brault.

The November Rendez-Vous came at an opportune time. Over the last year, thanks to Ontario’s Super Build program, Toronto’s arts scene has surged ahead of Montreal’s through a succession of new cultural centres, including the Four Season Centre for the Arts and the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum. Last year, Senator Serge Joyal sounded the alarm that Montreal was losing its status as a cultural capital. With all the attention focused on Quebec City’s 400th anniversary in 2008 and the uncertainty of minority governments in both Quebec and Ottawa, Montreal was falling off the radar. Brault calls these conditions a misalignment of the planets. “Without investing in the Rendez-Vous, we would have significantly less than what we got,” he said. “We realigned the stars and forced higher commitments.”

The meeting made for great photo-ops. Funding for the Quartier des spectacles was announced on the first day and by the conference’s end, Mayor Tremblay offered indexing for the Conseil des arts de Montreal’s budget, although this fell short of the doubling of the budget that Brault had stated was needed.

As president of Culture Montreal, Brault was the mastermind behind the Rendez-Vous 07. “In the 2005 municipal election, there was nothing about culture, just debate about potholes. Culture Montreal organized a public rally. We proposed Montreal as a cultural capital including a call for a summit on culture, and we asked the candidates for their reaction. Once the election concluded, I went to Mayor Tremblay to organize the conference. We succeed in being a strategic catalyst by contacting the federal, provincial and city governments and Isabelle Hudon from the board of trade. We needed to start the process to develop a common plan to develop Montreal. At the start, nobody wanted to commit anything. Culture Montreal has been active in building the consensus for a cultural policy of the city. The problem was that there was no action plan, and that’s what we wanted to accomplish.”

As chair of the pilot committee, Brault succeeded in creating a trusting space where people started to talk to each other and show their cards. “It took 18 months for the steering committee with many meetings and discussions to create momentum for this idea. When people entered and saw 1200 participants, and that all the ministers would sit through the entire meeting, to have around the table young cultural leaders, cultural entrepreneurs and business leaders, they realized that it was all possible. This was possible because it was all proposed by non-partisan civic organizations. Since then, we have received calls from Toronto and Calgary wanting to create their own summit.”

Perhaps nobody encompasses the love and passion for the arts in Montreal more than Simon Brault. Today, as General Director of the National Theatre School and the Vice-President of the Canada Council, he is one of Canada’s top movers and shakers in culture. Brault’s activism for Montreal’s arts and cultural identity has been 26 years in the making, when, by happenstance, Brault took a short term job at the NTS. “I initially needed to work 12 weeks to be eligible for Unemployment Insurance.” Stimulated by the rich artistic environment, Brault decided to stay on at the NTS and has been there ever since.

Simon Brault was born the eldest of eight children into a family of artists. Although Brault’s father taught microbiology, he was also a painter and sculptor, as well as an activist in the artistic community. His uncle, Jacques Brault, was a Governor General award-winner in poetry. Brault initially didn’t want to work in the cultural sector. He studied law for two and a half years but dropped out before arriving at the National Theatre School, where his first job was in the accounting department. The accountant became sick and Brault eventually took over for him while studying for a diploma four nights a week over five years.

From the start, Brault hung out with the students who were his age and he found a lack of connection between the artists and management at the school. There was also a disconnect between the French and English students, and the school was severely under-funded. “The politics of getting more funding fascinated me,” said Brault. In 1992, Brault became administrative director working as de facto co-director with Monique Mercure for the next 10 years. In 1997, he was promoted to General Director. “With a lot of support from my colleagues, the school has been profoundly and positively transformed,” said Brault. “If I was to leave, people would say I succeeded in consolidating and reinforce this place from a financial, budgetary and political point of view, and also from the point of view of language relations. I also proposed a reorganization of the school, with two artistic directors: Sherry Bie is the director of the English section and Denise Guibault is the director of the French section. It’s the triangle at the top of the school, and we discuss everything in a collegial way. Strategic arbitration is my full-time job, which applies to the summit. We realized that there was always tension. This model is actually the original model. History is always a source of inspiration.”

Brault saw that Montreal was not keeping up with major cultural centres around the world where links between the arts schools and the cities themselves were strong, resulting in a rich artistic backdrop for the community: “I realized that the National Theatre School was not so deeply rooted in its own city. By observing Juilliard, the Paris Conservatoire and the Central School of the University of London, I realized that great theatre schools were not only serving their respective countries, but were also linked with their own specific cities. Almost 20 years ago, I became really interested in the future of Montreal. I said that we should have an impact on the city.”

As Brault tells it, the defining moment in his career was the $18-million renovation of the Monument National, which he managed. This massive undertaking was, to say the least, a challenge: “I had to deal with Phyllis Lambert and preservationists, small theatre groups and neighbours…a lot of dealing with people who make a city. I wanted to tackle something more challenging than just managing the budget of the school: the renovation of the Monument National was a huge motivation. We were able to get the best architects, such as Eric Gauthier, who did Espace GO. All of a sudden, I was in charge of a huge team with a huge budget, so I spent two and a half years there, in the mud; that challenge kept me at the school. Back then, in the early 1990s, it was a difficult time for Montreal: the economy was very slow, the political voice was in decline, and there were cuts to culture and health.”

Brault recounts a large-scale meeting where the under-representation of the artistic community was painfully apparent: “At the end of 1993, a big management conference was organized in Montreal. Everyone was going to be there: HP, the Bill Gates types of the world. My board decided I should attend. 1500 representatives were there, but only three people from the cultural sector: one civil servant from the Ministry of Culture, Gaëtan Morency of Cirque du Soleil, and myself.” Then and there, Brault laid out his analysis of the state of affairs: “We met, and I said to them, ‘I hear speeches on why organizing needs to have a convincing mission and a meaningful sense of business. Here in the culture sector, we have all of that, but no resources.’ We wanted to change the relationships between the cultural sector, businesses and the city. We started to meet with people running cultural institutions to find out how we could better contribute to the future of the city. We developed a new approach: it’s more about the vision of the city and less about our rights. It became the Forum d’action culturel.” By 2002, Brault’s collaborative approach culminated in the creation of Culture Montreal, a non-profit organization “bringing together people from all backgrounds interested in promoting culture in all its forms as an essential element of Montreal’s development.” Brault was the natural choice as its first president.

Along the way, Brault’s efforts also help create the annual Journée de la culture, as a way to improve arts education and access to the general public. “Education is part of the action plan. The Minister of Education, Michelle Couchesne made a big commitment at the Rendez-vous to improve arts education. We need to insist and ask the government to do something but we need to take our own initiatives. There is no magic fix. We need to see the development of culture really as an ecology which needs arts education in schools and at home, with access to live performance in neighbourhoods, where tickets prices are not high, and where the cultural ecosystem is sustainable. It’s a multifaceted battle.”

How can we sustain the arts when the consumers of the future are not well educated in the schools? “Traditionally, the driver of the cultural development was the supply side. We now need to invest a lot on the demand side: cultural mediation, arts education, democratization of culture, providing access. We support international touring because the Montreal market cannot absorb everything we produce. The Cirque du Soleil is a great example; the creative production is in Montreal, but they make their money outside Montreal. Quebec is the only province that supports cultural exports.

THE Montreal Style

“Montreal is very strong in both the performing and visual arts,” Brault says with pride. “We’ve developed a visual look for our shows that is very unique. There is a Montreal style; that look started in theatre, and really became the signature of the Cirque du Soleil. Their first designers came from theatre. The sets, lighting and sound are characters in the plays. In other cities, the sets are quite illustrative. Here, the sets are more abstract, and most of the time, it gives the show another meaning too. We have a blend of North American and French esthetics. The Montreal style is that there are no limitations, even if we don’t have the necessary resources. It’s doing great things despite limited budgets.

“Toronto also has a lot of cultural activity, but culture is still seen as a backdrop for business and development; it’s not as central as it is here. The audience for theatre in Montreal is very strong, and amazingly [self-renewing]. We see in Montreal many small and medium size companies doing a lot of creative work, and they are each supported by an audience. There is an audience for everything in Montreal.

Since Brault directs a bilingual school, it’s interesting to hear his take on the city’s two solitudes. “When I see the discussion about French and English in Quebec, what I hate is when the discussion is between Montreal and the rest of Quebec. As Montrealers, we have a much more sophisticated approach to these questions. The way we live and create together, this sophistication is a very rich asset for the future of Montreal. I really love and value the fact that I have the privilege of working in an institution where we are in the middle of all that and in a city where we deal with these questions on a daily basis.

“Montreal is and will be more and more diversified in terms of ethnic background because of immigration, and immigration is key to the future of Montreal. But I think that Montreal should stay a French city, that French should stay the common language without denying the other languages including English. Montreal is still the second largest French city in the world, it’s part of our identity. It should not prevent anyone to create, publish or speak English. All Montrealers should realize that the French reality of Montreal is a fantastic and unique asset that we should value, protect and cherish because that is clearly something that differentiates Montreal from the rest of the continent. If we can keep this very unique feature, we will remain attractive to artists, students, researchers and sophisticated people who want to live a different cultural experience.

“It’s a huge challenge to maintain francophone culture and life in North America. We do have a responsibility to protect and affirm it. If the artists working in French succeed to be relevant, to astonish, to say something interesting that will connect with people’s souls, there will be a future. There is an intrinsic connection between the very existence of French culture in North America and artistic creation. It is really important that we don’t try to exist in a closed system. We need to build bridges to all cultures. We are a vibrant and interesting city because we constantly have challenges of language to meet and to struggle with.”

When I asked Brault about his emotional closing speech at the Rendez-vous, he replied, “I was perhaps too emotional at the end of the summit. I’m usual quite rational, but I’m deeply moved by artistic content. If I had no emotion, I would not find what I do so fulfilling. The Rendez-vous put a lot of pressure on politicians, business people and the cultural sector to achieve results; we need it as a city to take control over our own destiny. It’s a sense of empowerment.” n

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