Traveling Collector: Border Crossing

A strong U.S. dollar is reason enough to visit Montreal.

Montreal is French at heart, but street level it’s a modern-day Babylon– decadent, hedonistic and multi-lingual. About 60 percent of Montrealers are Francophones, but they find themselves awash in a deepening pool of other languages, immigrant cultures and expats, whether from English-speaking Canada or abroad. This eclectic mix makes for a burgeoning arts scene. Rent-controlled Montreal remains one of the cheapest cities of its size in North America. And its low-cost of living and cosmopolitan attitudes attract artistic types from all over, regardless of language, political convictions of medium. 

Despite Montreal’s shifting demographics, it remains the second-largest, French-speaking city in the world after Paris. This qualifies Canada’s province of Québec as the second superpower in la Francophonie, the French equivalent of the British Commonwealth. It also gives Montreal a scope on the world stage that goes far beyond its reputation within English-speaking North America. (By all accounts, Expo ’67 was the city’s debut.)

For full text, click “View full-size” at bottom-right in slide show. Or, continue below.

Until 2000, Max Stern’s Dominion Gallery on Sherbrooke Street was the epicenter of Montréal’s arts scene. A patron, collector and dealer, Stern played a key role in promoting Canadian artists such as the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, to the rest of the world. Educated as an art historian, Stern took over the family’s gallery until he fled Germany before World War II. He was the first to sell works by Vasily Kandinsky to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and held exclusive rights to sell the sculpture of Auguste Rodin in Canada.

Upon Stern’s death in 1987, Montreal’s museums received one-third of his private collection– 160 paintings in all. The estate also provided for the sculpture garden in front of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA),  an annual international symposium at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal and a curatorial post at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery of Concordia University.

“I have visitors coming from Europe every week– and I’m not exaggerating” says Guy Cogeval, the director of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in testament to the city’s popularity among his friends and colleagues.  Fine and decorative arts collectors visiting Montréal and September will be delighted by the citizenry’s joie de vivre, the architecture’s European flair, the foliage’s changing colours and the vast array of cultural outings, shopping excursions, dining options, swank accommodations and nightlife possibilities. And all this is sweetened by a favourable exchange rate.  Everything is reasonably priced by American standards. In 2005, the loonie is at an all-time high against the greenback: however, Montréal is still a deal. For those spending American dollars, every price tag has a built-in discount of 23 percent. (There are sales taxes totaling 15 percent on most items, but visitors can recoup the federal portion of 7 percent upon leaving Canada.)

“There are fantastic displays in certain galleries and shops along rue Amherst, of decorative art of the 50s, 60s and 70s that are absolutely interesting– more so than Paris or London at the moment,” says Cogeval, “Forget about finding good silverware in Montréal. Ca n’existe pas! But armchairs, furniture and kitchen ware of the 50s and 60s are fantastic and rather cheap.”

Originally from Paris and an art historian specializing in the 19th century, Cogeval curated “Right Under the Sun,” an exhibition on painting in Provence between 1750 1920, at the MMFA (Sept 22 – Jan 8). The exhibition is a broad survey of the works before and after the pivotal School of Marseilles, a prefatory  movement to Impressionism.  It also will feature works by Monet, Renoir, van Gogh and Cézanne, among others.

Wrapping up at the MMFA on October 2 is a major retrospective on Edwin Holegate (1892 – 1977) who is admired for his portraits and nudes. “He is one of Canada’s most important painters from Montréal and one of the most representative of the Canadian genius of the 20s and 30s,” says Cogeval. The museum’s permanent collection also has an impressive decorative arts wing featuring furnishings and other finery from the Renaissance to today.  Located along rue Sherbrooke Ouest, the MMFA is in the heart of Montreal’s Golden Square Mile, The rows upon rows of  Victorian townhouses now largely integrated into the downtown core, formerly house the wealthiest among this port city’s merchant class. Many of the best galleries sit on the stretch. The Canadian Center architecture is a hidden gem on the western fringe of the Golden Square Mile and another highlight  in terms of Montreal’s museums and galleries. The current exhibits: “The 60s: Montreal Thinks Big” and “Expo: Not Just a Souvenir wrap up in mid-September and are worthwhile look back at Montreal’s belle époque before the growing separatist unrest and militancy of the 70s and 80s.

Artifacts of Canadiana, photos paintings, prints costumes and  decorative arts are featured at the McCord Museum of Canadian History, facing McGill University’s leafy, gated campus.

Of course, Vieux Montreal is not to be missed  for its architectural splendor and Old World charm. However, most of the galleries and shops along rue St. Paul contain largely tourist grade items. Visit instead the Hôtel Le St. James which is loaded which is loaded with period antiques and makes for an interesting afternoon. (It’s where the Rolling Stones stay when the visiting.)

Near the Atwater Market, along rue Notre Dame, is Montreal’s “Antiques Alley,” where many of the most reputable antiques dealers have set have set up shop .

“In Europe, the idea of a city where cultures booming is attached to Montreal,” says Cogeval, “You see you’re not just in any North American city.”

Art and Antiques, Traveling Collector, September 2005

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