Having grown up in Montreal, I guess I’ve taken for granted the access to all of the art and culture that permeates throughout the city. Museums have always had a deep-seated place in my heart, both as an Art History student now and a curious child not so long ago. The Museum of Fine Arts, especially in my more recent years pursuing an education in the arts, has become a sort of home for me. I’ve gone there to work, to de-stress, to get inspired, and admittedly also to show off here and there. I’ve gone to guest lectures, and stayed late at exhibitions on Wednesday nights, and thanks to Snapchat, shown friends some parts of the museum they may not have seen before. When the museum announced the opening of a new pavilion in the fall of 2016, I was so excited to re-discover what my so-called home had to offer. Armed with my VIP card, my handy dandy iPhone, and a renewed sense of wonder, I went off and made a day of getting know the museum with which I had become so familiar.
The first thing I had noticed with the new pavilion was its proximity to the main entrance and its overall cohesion as a collection – a major improvement from the previously disjointed setup. The entrance for the pavilion finds itself where the entrance to the collection of Modern Art used to be, but gone is the wood panelling and the overall 70’s aesthetic, instead replaced with galleries tailored to the style they are housing. This area nonetheless still houses early 20th century modernist art, both avant-garde and traditional, with a display of sculptures splitting right down the middle. I had decided to go visit on what turned out to be a very busy day (holy coat check line, Batman!) and so the entry space felt pretty cramped, though I’m sure on a calmer day there is enough space to revel in some Brancusi and Dali. On the left and right sides of the main area are rooms dedicated to the advent of Impressionism, to Romanticism, and to the paintings of the Salon of the Belle Époque. Overall, this wing serves up all the necessary contextual build-up as an aperitif to the contemporary art following it.
The high ceilings of the contemporary art section make it feel like a breath of fresh air when compared to the tight spaces of its modern art predecessor (and perhaps this is my own personal bias seeping through, but I’d like to think contemporary art does that stylistically too. A nice metaphor in the architecture, if you will.) On display were some new faces and names that anyone could recognize – Rothko, Richter, Warhol, Stella, Frankenthaler, and Basquiat, to name a few. A tall black box is sat in the centre of the room, with some more eerie installation works inside. Given that the new pavilion is linked directly to the expanded Centre for Education and Art Therapy Michel de la Cheneliere, it’s a wise move on the museum’s part to keep these more closed off to wandering kids (and also maybe some adults like myself who are more easily creeped out.) The space is quite simple in and of itself, and fairly typical for contemporary art galleries, but it fits well with the theme of individualized sections for each era of art. While the walls may be tall and whitewashed, the art displayed on and around them more than compensates for the lack of colour.
The floors continue upwards through the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassicism in the age of Napoleon, the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic and Flanders, and up at the top sits the Renaissance and Middle Ages collection. Like those below, the other floors make great use of the space and have refreshing new displays. From a conservational point of view, the lattice wall on the Dutch art floor and the intricate brushed glass window on the Baroque floor create a beautiful effect by filtering the incoming light from the full-length windows that make up the building’s structure, but also protect the precious objects behind them. On the Renaissance floor, the model versions of famous European churches (hello mini Duomo!) are best suited for the abundant natural lighting, imitating the effect of what they look like in real life, and leaving the rest of the space for the delicate paintings and sculptures of early Modernity.
All four floors are easily accessible and the elevators are incredibly spacious. I saw many a stroller and wheelchair during my visit on all four floors of the new pavilion, which speaks strongly to the improved accessibility of the museum’s permanent collection. There are also many open spaces just outside the galleries with a beautiful view out onto the city, with ample seating in the form of couches but also really fancy bean bags, the latter of which I wholeheartedly enjoyed. The entire space illustrates a serious effort on the museum’s part to make their permanent collection a space to spend hours in, no matter your age and no matter your level of mobility.
And so, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, it’s nice to see you again. You’re lookin’ good.