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New space Arsenal is poised to take the contemporary art world by storm

You need plenty of space to build a ship. This goes without saying. A ship’s hull alone could displace a small neighbourhood, never mind a couple of cul-de-sacs. Lucky for most neighbourhoods, ships are often (if not always) built in yards.

“They used to build boats here in the 1890s. The shipyard was called the Chantier Cantin. It was the largest shipyard on the East Coast,” says Jean-François Bélisle, director of Griffintown’s ginormous new contemporary art space, Arsenal. Backed by prominent businessman Pierre Trahan, Arsenal is preparing to take the local and national art scene onto the world’s stage. 

“In the first large section, which is around 2,000 square feet, we’re going to show different private collections of well-known and established Canadian collectors. The idea is to show our visitors what a collection can look like once someone is past the stage of looking for a few paintings to go above their blue couch. Each grouping is quite eclectic. Every three months or so, we’ll rotate through them.”

Great for collectors, and naturally for Arsenal’s visitors, but what about the artists? “When you go through that first large section, you get to the bottom of the second floor. There you’ll find two very different, private, commercial galleries,” says Bélisle. “You have Division Gallery, which used to be on Green Ave., and the René Blouin Gallery, that used to be in the Belgo building, on St. Catherine Street.”

Division is a boundary-breaking, five-year-old gallery run by two very young and spirited directors—Dominique Toutant and Hugues Charbonneau. The 25-year-old René Blouin gallery (the namesake himself a godfather of the Montreal contemporary art scene) is one of the most established art galleries in Canada. “They both represent artists and sell art,” remarks Bélisle. “They’re just like any other gallery in town, save for the fact that they’re now housed, side by side, in Arsenal.”


No more insular art world
Upon recently visiting Arsenal for the opening of Montreal’s Mois de la Photo, I was absolutely blown away by the amount of space available to mount shows. “Ah yes. The opening was housed in the fourth section. It amounts to a 23,000 square foot main room without obstruction or pillars, with 45 feet ceilings. We plan to organize large-scale exhibitions in there. Probably four of them a year. Each one will hopefully have an impact on the international art world. We want these exhibitions to have a life beyond our building. The idea is to create a diving board for local talent. We’re really hoping to do these projects in partnership with other people. We don’t care that much about hosting exclusively in-house projects. The plan is, for every project we build, for every exhibition we host, there’ll be one main partner from abroad—an art institution or a private foundation— so it’ll always be two of us building the project, and pushing for it to go beyond the three month show in our space.”

Arsenal plans to take the next few months to completely renovate the main section’s interior, working on electrical, plumbing and the like. “We’re shooting for late January for our official opening of the whole space,” says Bélisle. “While the construction is happening, there will be a few things going on in here. In mid-November for example, we’re having the preview for Sotheby’s fall auction of Canadian art. The auction will happen in Toronto, but they’re doing their national preview here in Montreal, at the Arsenal.”

Asked why Arsenal is so fired up to take on the contemporary art market, Bélisle volleys back, “We think that’s where things can really change and shift. The next aesthetic shake-up will take place smack dab in the world of contemporary art.”


2020 William | Metro Georges-Vanier