In the boardroom of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC), I sit with a group of well-dressed people in comfortable swivel chairs who nibble chocolate, macaroons, and sip wine. The group is diverse — in age, in gender, in profession: artists, retirees, a programmer, business men and women, teachers, and me, a journalist. Some know a great deal about art, some very little. We are there for the MAC’s SéminArts, a six week long series designed to teach participants how to appreciate and collect contemporary art. Run in association with the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Family Foundation, the program allows participants not only a chance to find out about the MAC’s collection, but also to engage with art by meeting with gallery owners, private art collectors, artists, and corporate collectors.
The night starts with a few words from Nancy Rosenfeld, director of the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Family Foundation, who explains why SéminArts was created seven years ago. The program reflects a desire to promote contemporary art in Quebec. While artists, especially emerging ones, were and still are helped with grants, the foundation also wanted to boost the market side as well. Focus groups showed that when it came to contemporary art, people felt too nervous to buy. They were worried that they might be ripped off or that their own taste in art was lacking.
Contemporary art can be challenging, difficult, and demanding. Our second speaker John Zeppetelli, director and chief curator at the MAC, admits as much. “It demands more work, but it’s very powerful when it works. It’s an enigma even for professionals. It’s the art of our time and not tested on audiences.”
His enthusiasm for the 8000-piece collection and his explanation of the MAC’s history, mission, and current direction are an energizing whirlwind of useful information. I feel privy to all kinds of secret information about the art and museum world just being here. Zeppetelli covers many topics, such as how museum collections different from private ones. He also talks about the challenge of choosing and obtaining pieces with the museum’s limited budget while still making sure to meet the mandate of the museum. “We promote, exhibit, and collect art of our time from Quebec, Canada, and the World. We don’t have huge funds for acquisitions and prices can be high, so we work with collectors and donors. We also get pieces at the start of an artist’s career.” Space and costs of storage and conservation are a concern, so not every work offered is taken. Occasionally references are made to the MFA, and despite the insistence that the two museums are not in competition, I can’t help but think there must be the occasional time when the MFA manages to scoop something the MAC salivates over.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of knowledge Zeppetelli drops is on the difficulty of negotiating the museum’s goals, the cost and value of a piece, and the reputation of the artist when it comes to acquisitions. In particular, he speaks about the performance piece This situation by British artist Tino Seghal. “It was a courageous decision made by the previous curator that I fully support,” Zeppetelli says. “We are one of three to own an edition of this piece, but there’s nothing in our vault to show for it. There’s no object, nothing to show for it. There are no photos allowed, no contract.” The museum paid $100,000 for it.
After answering a few questions — and I had a million I would have loved to ask as someone interested in buying art — we tour the museum’s current exhibition focused on the museum’s collection with SéminArts co-coordinator Véronique Lefebvre. This experience lets us see the variety of contemporary works as well as the multiple layers of meaning that each piece contains. We pause on specific works, most of which are playful and charming. We start with a video installation with two simultaneous videos of Isabelle Huppert shot from different angles as she makes different expressions.
We also look at a piece by Jon Rafman, a shot taken from Google Earth, but blown up to the size of a wall poster. While I initially find myself irritated that this piece finds its way into the museum, pausing before it allows me to appreciate why it is here. Prodded by comments of my fellow viewers and my own understanding of art history, I start to ask questions in my head: Are Google’s car cameras less valid than a human-taken photograph? Can an artist simply be the eye that chooses an image? Has technology removed us from creation? How does this image resemble landscapes? What narrative is created? In the end, I appreciate not only this piece, but I also understand the museum’s decision to acquire it.
We are led through a few more rooms and it’s a delight to go through and have someone not only talk about the meanings of the pieces, but also get answers as to how the museum might store/assemble certain pieces as well as the thought processes behind their acquisition. We are shown an oil painting acquired from a local gallery that hangs near a Cindy Sherman.
Throughout the night, I learn a few things. First, you don’t need to be a trustfundarian or a member of the business elite to purchase art. Art is available at all price points. Collectors are enthusiasts and build collections over time. They don’t all live in mansions in Outremont. Second, I adore contemporary art and should go to the MAC more often. Okay, I already knew I loved contemporary art before SéminArts, but I want to share the gospel of going to museums and galleries to everyone. This MAC is right smack downtown at Place des Arts, inexpensive to visit and cheap to get a membership at (just $35/$25 for one year!), and constantly changing. I go in their gift shop too often and their galleries not enough. This changes now.
I leave my night at SéminArts with a feeling that I have done something good for myself and my heart uplifted. Being around art, just like being in nature or taking care of oneself, feels good. I think art’s benefits are enhanced when one doesn’t do the gallery sprint, but instead sits before a single piece and allows its story and messages to unfold. Contemporary art is challenging, and everyone who works with it knows it. Nonetheless, it’s fun to use my brain and explore possible meanings. The perspective that anyone can purchase one of these pieces (okay, probably not a museum-quality one, but perhaps a smaller work by these very artists) adds to the excitement of seeing the works. Art is not out of reach and SéminArts is an ideal way to learn about the conjunction of collecting and appreciating.
I’m looking forward to part II, when we visit an artist’s studio.
SéminArts is given over five alternate weeks through the MAC (185 St Catherine W) and offered in both English and French. $225 (15% off for MACarte holders). There is an autumn and winter session offered. To make a reservation contact email@example.com and learn more about it HERE.