Visual Arts Gala: insider art

The second annual Visual Arts Gala recently feted the very best of Quebec’s art scene. Here’s what went down.

“Groupe,” a still by Pierre-Ayot prize-winning photographer Jacynthe Carrier. Her work is currently on display at Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran to Jan. 26.

The second annual Visual Arts Gala was held last Wednesday night at the Outremont Theatre, recognizing Quebec artists, art practitioners and the exhibitions they make possible. The event was organized a few years ago by the AGAC (Contemporary Art Galleries Association) as a way to bring visibility Quebec’s art world, since their Pierre-Ayot and Louis-Comptois artist prizes had garnered next to no attention for 16 and 21 years, respectively.

“There are a lot of prizes in the arts,” AGAC director Julie Lacroix explained over the phone last week, “and sometimes they come with huge grants, a huge amount of money for the artists, and we don’t actually know who’s winning those prizes because there’s still no hype about the excellence in the arts. If you compare [to] outside Quebec, the Sobey Art Awards or the RBC Painting Awards, they’re huge.”

Alongside the artist prizes, AGAC created a slew of categories for various types of work in order to make Quebec art visible, like best curator, best gallerist, best critique, best art publication and best exhibition. Candidates nominate themselves, and favourites are voted for by Montreal’s art professionals. Other than the cash received by the artists, the prizes consist of peer recognition, and a scarf.

The Gala has become a sort of makeshift year-end celebration for everyone who works in the commercial art world. Sipping on champagne flutes of cider, a well-dressed crowd of collectors, gallery directors, critics and artists stood shoulder to shoulder in the reception area. Among them were winners and honourees like Phoebe Greenberg, Jacynthe Carrier, John Zeppetelli, Jana Sterbak, Catherine Bolduc, Marie-Ève Charron and Anne-Marie Ninacs.

The ceremony itself was what you might expect. Emcee Patrick Masbourian made all the requisite jokes during his introductory monologue. (A smirk-worthy highlight was his suggestion that minimalist colour artist Claude Tousignant sue the Maple Spring protesters for their use of red squares). Charismatic crooner Pierre Lapointe sang a few songs, and artist duo Genevieve and Mathieu presented a strange performance/song that featured a dramatically voice-deepening vocoder and a massive rock macquette.

Among the performances interspersed throughout the Gala, the most interesting by far was master of disguise Thierry Marceau’s “J’aime Montreal et Montreal m’aime,” based on Joseph Beuys’ “I Like America and America Likes Me,” which ended with him wrapped in a felt blanket on a gurney, being carted off stage by a pair of paramedics.

Everyone in the room was invariably connected by collaboration, disagreement, loyalty, respect and disdain, yet remarkably there was still an overall impression in the acceptance speeches that the recipients appreciated their peers, shared a belief in showcasing Quebec art, and took pride in being a part of this community.

Sculptor Valerie Blass exhaustively thanked all of the people that made her winning exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art possible. “For artists,” she said later, “it’s true that when people talk about an exhibit, they are talking about the artist. And you know, the people who gravitate around the arts, the curators, the museums, the gallerists, the artist centres, the critics, all these people who work, I think this kind of event is more for them than for the artists.”

Artist David Lafrance, whose show at the Rimouski Regional Museum won for best curation and best regional exhibition, highlighted the importance of criticism. “Despite the solitary work in the studio, we have people who go see the show and who call and tell you what they think,” he explained. “And, moreover, there are specialists and writers, people who work at understanding and reading exhibitions. When they publish a commentary, a critique, and it’s positive, well, then that adds a lot to the life and visibility of the exhibition.”

Parisian Laundry director Jeannie Riddle’s English acceptance speech (the only one of the night), for the award of best gallery exhibition for Alexandre David’s Split, made light of the awkward absence of English at the Gala. “Honestly, I can’t help but feel isolated a little bit,” she said afterwards, “and I had to remark somehow that there was a bit of a discrepancy [in] not including a lot of artists that I know and work with and a lot of exhibitions that I have seen over the past year, mainly at a gallery like FOFA at Concordia University. I just think that there can’t be a complete erasure and that we need to be more inclusive of one another.”

Despite its sluggish length, the Gala was entertaining from start to finish. It was definitely an insiders’ event, though, a who’s-who of figures who might have been unrecognizable to a more general art audience. This, however, is something Lacroix wants to change. “Hopefully, with the years, we get more and more people from outside the art world,” she says. “I hope the prizes will be more known. It’s all about visibility… It’s also to guide people to see. Again, there are still too many people who go to Old Montreal to see contemporary art. They think it’s there, but, you know, that’s our role: to get them to read the good books, and see the good shows, and watch the good curators.” ■

A list of winners is available, in French, on the Gala’s website.

Leave a Reply