State of the arts

State of the arts

Once upon a time Montreal was the economic powerhouse of Canada. Centred around the Ritz and Le Château apartments, there was more wealth concentrated in one square mile of Montreal than in all the rest of Canada combined. The banking and beer barons, the railway and sugar barons who inhabited this golden territory called themselves the Square Milers. Mostly they are gone now, preserved in the amber of coffee table books.

But is it possible that a new kind of anglo square mile has risen, not of money, but of artistic and intellectual power, of music and dance, and especially of the written word?

Peter Behrens bears witness to that. Somehow he has surpassed The Law of Dreams, his Giller Prize-winning novel about an Irish famine family who survive the Irish holocaust and make it to Montreal. Now in his new novel, The O’Briens, they have made it. A surge of wealth brings their boat to the top avenue in Westmount – they’re still not Square Milers, since they are Irish Catholics, but rich and powerful nonetheless. But they shall suffer. Capturing the empty glory and pain of war on the home front, The O’Briens may just be the great Canadian novel.

Peter Behrens, who will be at Westmount Public Library this Saturday at 3 p.m. to sign copies of his new book, is only part of this new artistic square mile. Guy Rodgers, the founder of ELAN, the English-Language Arts Network, observes that it’s a champagne year for Quebec’s anglo artists. There have been many flashpoints.

One was that wonderful moment when Arcade Fire won the Grammy and Win Butler trumpeted: "Merci to Montreal for giving us a home, a place to be in a band." Butler is an American who moved to Montreal and founded the band with his wife, Montrealer Régine Chassagne. Chassagne brought smiles to the faces of thousands of anglo and many franco Quebecers when she added, "Merci à Montréal! Merci à tout le monde au Québec!"

The National Assembly passed a unanimous motion recognizing the contribution of artists – francophone and anglophone – as cultural ambassadors. Then a spate of English-language mass appeal films were released: Funkytown, Good Neighbours, The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom and The High Cost of Living.

ELAN has put together a series of profiles of 154 anglo artists, along with 24 videos, and Ian Ferrier started a national web magazine for spoken word and poetry called And on Friday, ELAN will be launching a history of Quebec’s anglo arts scene published by Guernica Press.

The coming days are going to be good days for anglo artists as well. ELAN’s State of the Arts Summit starts tonight with a free open-air concert by Arcade Fire at the newly built Quartier des Spectacles. And Sunday night the Summit closes with Montrealer Josh Dolgin, a.k.a. Socalled, and his musical The Season at Théâtre Outremont, in conjunction with one of Montreal’s best music festivals, Pop Montreal. In between there will be panel discussions all day on Saturday looking at the broad perspectives for anglo artists as well as what is happening on the ground.

The renaissance of the English-speaking community has sparked complaints that anglos are too visible, or too audible, and may be a threat to the French language in Quebec. Meanwhile anglophones, and particularly artists, are more bilingual than ever and have established strong working relationships with francophone colleagues and collaborators. But there is resistance, and some uneasiness toward anglo artists. The new reality is that in some circles, "bilingual" is really code for "anglo."

Incredibly, Guy Rodgers tells me, "The percentage of people working in the arts in English in Quebec is 50 per cent higher than the national average. Quebec is a very arts-friendly jurisdiction. There is a very arts-friendly atmosphere here, and this is reflected by the attitudes of public and private donors. Anglos have accepted the French fact, but some francophones do not know what to think about anglo Quebecers. Now it is time for anglos to find a workable niche and overcome the stereotypes of anglos. Telefilm did a poll of anglo film artists last year and found that 97 percent of those working in film considered themselves bilingual to some extent, and two-thirds were functionally bilingual."

That is why the people who run the network have created the State of the Arts Summit. Most telling is the fact that all of the ELAN State of the Arts events will be in both English and French, with no translation.

"That," says Rodgers, "is the new reality of Quebec’s anglo artists, who are in the avant garde in matters of language and culture."

You could even say that the arts community is a kind of role model for what Quebec’s English community could and should be – French is their public language, but they are anglos.

Now that a new kind of artistic square mile has arisen, it would be great to see the artists covered with gold and not just glory.

State of the Arts Summit
September 22-25

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