By: Deborah Rankin – mtltimes.ca
Photos: Andre Bathalon
If you should have occasion to meander along Boulevard Saint Laurent and its adjacent streets this summer – and why wouldn’t you? – this is a favorite pastime of Montrealers and tourists alike – you’ll be hard-pressed not to see the huge murals adorning the exterior walls of dozens of buildings in the trendy Plateau neighborhood. What you might not know though is that these vibrant pictures, reflecting a variety of themes and styles, are fast-becoming the signature for Montreal’s elan abroad.
And this is good for business, as well as mural artists. So says Emily Robertson, owner of the Station 16 art gallery on Boulevard St. Laurent, near Prince Arthur. “They create a huge buzz”, the 30-ish art historian says, drawing people from all walks of life to see the larger-than-life panoply of paintings. “When you are walking around, of course you’ll want to sit down and have a coffee. It’s great for merchants and Montrealers as a whole.”
The Société de développement du boulevard Saint Laurent, an organization representing local businesses, began commissioning the creation of these fantastic murals a number of years ago as a way of promoting interest in the culturally rich location once known as The Main, renowned for Montreal’s smoked meat, and still very much a destination of choice for foodies because of its diversity of culinary offerings.
The marketing agency LNDMRK curates the art works and selects the mural artists, while overseeing the multiple installations of the permanent exhibition year-round. The company also puts on the annual Mural Festival in June, an 11-day showcase and industry schmoozer kickstarted by the Grand Prix weekend and book-ended by the close of the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival.
The Mural Fest, with music concerts by île soniq and special offers from local restaurateurs for dining-out, gives artists the opportunity to mix it up with professionals in the art world and the public too, giving a much-needed boost to the many restaurants, cafés, bistros, and bars on the commercial strip. A study done by Ecole Polytechnique last year, which tracked unique cell phone use on the SDBSL’s territory, showed that there were 1.5 million visitors to the area during that short period.
“We see art as a vehicle of communication,” says André Bartholon, the Communications Director for LNDMRK, whose mandate is to integrate art in a private or public space. “We select the muralists, find the walls, then create the wall art.” There are lots of logistics involved, as well as fund-raising to pay the artists for their work and accommodations. The agency also provides legal certification to the muralists for the commissioned pieces. Lots to do for sure, but it’s worth it: finding the artists is the “most fun part,” he says, laughing.
It’s about a 50/50 split of international vs. local artists in terms of who’s selected. They all have different backgrounds and their approaches vary widely. “There’s a large spectrum of styles and techniques,” Bartholon says, noting that the artists apply their skills variously in graphic design, illustration, portraiture, and tatoo art to muralism. “They work in different media too.”
There are now 65 permanent murals, mostly in the Plateau, with more recent aquisitions taking up space in the Quartier des Spectacles and other tourist hubs around town. When we are traveling our name is out there,” Robertson says. “The international artists become ambassadors for the city. We are seeing more bloggers who are coming to Montreal to see the festival.”
Robertson, who is on the Board of Directors of the SDBSL, feels that the murals give good visibility to both international artists and local talent. “The Boulevard represents the city,” she says. Her own urban art gallery features the works of young artists whose inspiration often comes more from the streets than from any art school. Station 16 Gallery targets young collectors who can ultimately grow with it. At $150-$10,000 a pop, that might just be possible.
“I want to wake up people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s,” she says. “So many people are coming back to the Boulevard for culture. It’s high energy and extremely positive!”