The Group of Five: Independent Montreal Arts Organizations Vie for a Part in the Quartier des Spectaclesby Crystal Chan
/ April 1, 2010
Flash version here.
It’s been five years since the Quartier des spectacles (QdS) project was approved. The project is a $1-billion-plus investment being poured into cultural projects, events, and 80 venues in the downtown and Quartier Latin areas. Montreal has fallen in love with Richard Florida-ism, and with a lagging economy it’s hard not to be seduced by art as an economic solution. “The QdS used to be a huge parking lot,” joked Christian Poirier, a professor at the Institut national de recherche scientifique (INRS) who specializes in the study of culture and urbanization. It’s true that the neighbourhood the QdS now occupies had many lots, as well as deteriorating buildings and the city’s ‘red light district.’
Yet, although big names such as the International Jazz Festival had already secured space in the first phase of the project, it’s only now that more and more small groups are beginning to ride on the coattails of this gentrification project.
One such group is “The Group of Five” (TGOF), comprised of Imago Theatre, Dulcinea Langfelder & Co., Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal, Projet Porte-Parole, and Talisman Theatre. Although most of these companies specialize in English theatre, they also cover Francophone and bilingual productions, dance, artistic mentorship, and many other types of productions, ranging from youth theatre to avant-garde works. TGOF, which grew in part from OFF Interarts, has applied for a space in the Quartier. For TGOF, a QdS home will address the needs named in three reports concerning Montreal’s English theatre business: the 2001 ‘CAKE’ report done by the community itself, a 2002 INRS and Conseil québécois du théâtre report, and 2007’s “Making the Right Decisions” report, sponsored by the Forum des équipements culturels (FEC) of Montreal. The major need identified was space; it is difficult to build audience loyalty when you’re struggling to rent in sites scattered around town. So Imago Theatre Director Clare Schapiro approached Quebec Drama Federation Executive Director Élise Ménard and several theatres to see if there was interest in lobbying the government for an arts space. Ménard has since become Project Coordinator at Imago Theatre and Dulcinea Langfelder and is the driving force behind the application. Her applications to Canadian Heritage, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, and FEC have all been approved.
They’ve chosen an architect (coincidentally named ‘The Group of Seven’ or Groupe Des Sept Atelier D’Architecture), and if all goes through, Ménard imagines this future “space for the creation, production, and diffusion” of the arts will house places to rehearse and build sets and costumes, a max 300-seat, probably blackbox theatre, administrative space, storage, a café, and three extra spaces open to the community on a project basis. All companies could share overhead costs, resources, and even a subscription campaign. In their downtown location, “The one thing that we have going for us as English-language theatres is that we can appeal to tourists,” said Porte-Parole Artistic Director Annabel Soutar. “We’re thinking of putting on a summer season for tourists.” During the normal season, Montreal residents will enjoy the benefits of a mainly Anglophone theatre space right downtown. By July, their architect’s submission will receive the final yeah or nay.
TGOF’s embrace of the Quartier may come as a surprise to some, as its detractors have criticized it for seemingly diverting major arts funding and audiences away from more alternative groups and performances. Poirier, for example, has been critical of the fact that the President of the QdS Partnership, Charles Lapointe, is also the President of Tourism Montreal rather than the head of an arts-based organization. He also worries that since 13 out of 17 of the administrative members are big companies like Hydro-Québec, they might reduce art to dollars and cents entertainment, treating cultural spectators as consumers.
As more and more plans for alternative QdS arts venues like TGOF are approved, however—another such space in the works is the ‘222 Ste-Catherine’ project—a greater variety of arts should become accessible. Pierre Fortin, General Director of the QdS Partnership, hastens to assure Montrealers that “we’ll make sure anybody can have a space to create there—not just the big ones.” Giving groups like TGOF a chance could be a step towards addressing skepticism towards the QdS project and ensuring that diverse cultural organizations get a share of the QdS pie.