Delicate transition: the Place des Arts at 50 yearsby Hassan Laghcha
/ November 1, 2013
Flash version here.
Since its foundation in 1963, the Place des Arts has welcomed over 45 million spectators and has put on approximately 40,000 performances including those of great artists such as Maria Callas, Bob Dylan, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ginette Reno. Today, the Société de la Place des Arts enters a new phase of its mission to showcase the arts rather than merely renting space.
The directors of the PdA are not deluding themselves. They recognize the vital importance of attracting a new clientele such as fans of musicals, youth, members of cultural communities, etc. This is the challenge of the times for the temple of arts and culture which has, over the years, been able to expand its range of festivals. It now hosts The Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Just for Laughs Festival, the FrancoFolies de Montréal, the World Film Festival, the Montréal en lumières Festival, the Festival TransAmériques, and the Arab World Festival of Montréal. Even the circus, Montreal entertainment par excellence, has been called upon. And for good reason!
Illustrious Figures and Notable Events
On Saturday, September 21st, 1963, the Grande Salle was inaugurated in the presence of Premier Jean Lesage and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau. During this ceremony, maestro Wilfrid Pelletier conducted the OSM who played, amongst others, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Six months later, Claude Léveillée became the first solo Quebec singer to perform in this hall, which, in 1966, came to bear the name of the OSM’s first director, Wilfrid Pelletier.
On the eve of Expo 67’s opening, the Théâtre Maisonneuve was born. This greatly pleased producers who now had a suitably sized hall (1450 seats) to perform their shows over several nights throughout the year.
In 1982, the Société de la Place des arts replaced the Régie, which managed the complex since 1964. The Board of directors of this state-owned corporation was appointed by the government, which, for its part, took on some of the operation costs. Ten years later, in 1992, the “Cinquième salle” opened and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal moved to the western part of the Esplanade. In 2011, the Maison symphonique was created to serve as residence for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). In October 2013, the 50th anniversary celebrations included a tribute to Claude Léveillée: the Studio-Théâtre was renamed in his honour.
A $50 Million Facelift
“The world has changed and is moving forward. Of course, it’s important that we recognize that the Place des Arts is an artistic space, but there’s also business going on here. The Place des Arts is a cultural lever but it is also an economic lever,” said Jean Laurin, President of the board of directors of the PdA, during a press conference which announced $50 million in financial aid from the Government to renovate the Place des Arts’ facilities. This took place on the eve of the official 50th anniversary celebrations, at a time when the PdA is going through a “strategic repositioning” and a major redeployment of its activities; as it has been since 2011-2012. This repositioning was necessary after 120 classical music concerts were moved to the Maison symphonique, including the performances of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM). “From its first transition year, the Place des Arts was able to attract large new audiences equal to half of what was previously attracted by the OSM,” explains Mr. Laurin in the 2011-2012 Activities Report. He also states that “a slight operations deficit has been recorded during this first transition year, but without harming the financial health of the Place des Arts.” “The transition is well under way but it is still a challenge,” he stresses, optimistic for the future of the PdA which, contrary to the general tendency in Quebec, continues to attract crowds. Its attendance has risen over the last season and has reached 1,300,000 spectators!
It’s time to take risks!
“We will no longer simply rent our halls to producers. We must showcase and even coproduce shows. We must take the financial risk like any private producer,” declared Michel Gagnon, the PdA’s Director of Programming, in an interview with La Presse. He felt the time had come for “each project to work independently and pay for itself, because we do not receive any subsidies for these shows.” In fact, the biggest challenge is to fill the attendance deficit (more than 100 unoccupied days) that is currently occurring at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (3000 seats). Laying the foundation for solid and sustainable financial equilibrium is clearly a major task that encourages the PdA staff to demonstrate a lot of imagination. The slogan “Place à l’inspiration… !” (Make way for inspiration…!), chosen for the 50th anniversary celebrations is perfectly apt in this crucial period in the history of the Place des Arts.
Translation: David-Marc Newman