Montreal is home to a famous summer jazz festival, excellent comedy, chewy bagels, and the late-night, high-cal snack food called poutine (french-fries, gravy and cheese curd). But what you may not know, is that it’s also home to a very vibrant underground art scene.
While Montreal has plenty of commercial galleries and respectable museums, its artist-run-centers were established in the 70s and 80s as a way for artists to explore art for art’s sake, and they have been showcasing new ideas ever since.
What’s more, Montreal’s scene is the only place in North America where francophone artists can show in their own language, making it a hub for emerging Quebeckers. Artist-run-centers exist in the Griffintown district south of the city center, as well as downtown, in the cafe-filled Mile-End district, and beyond.
Spend a couple of days exploring the following destinations to get a sense of la belle citée’s lesser known and very lively art scene.
Griffintown District: Darling Foundry/Quartier Ephemere
$5 Tues-Sun 12-5pm; free Thursdays
Situated in an old iron foundry on a quiet street south of downtown, the Darling Foundry/Quartier Ephemere is a gorgeous old brick building comprised on the street level of two main galleries and a restaurant. Upstairs, local and international artists have studio spaces and workshops, open periodically for public viewing. To conserve operating costs, the Foundry hosts only four major shows a year, so research ahead for times and openings.
Insider’s Tip: Go for the art, stay for lunch since the on-site restaurant is excellent. Afterwards, walk down to the river to view Old Montreal stone buildings and churches.
Tues-Sat, 12-5pm. Free.
In the heart of downtown, the 19th century Belgo building on St. Catherine’s street houses many small artistic and alternative businesses (and in itself is worth a visit), of which the Optica gallery is one. With its wide creaky floors and long pale hallways, the building is an evocative home for the gallery, which was established in 1972 to showcase national and international art, curatorial programs, and critical writing. Allow yourself some time to wander the halls, as the building houses commercial galleries as well.
Tues-Sat, 12-5pm. Free.
In business since 1984, Skol focuses on artists at the beginning of their careers, and like Optica, is dedicated to exploratory or experimental work. The gallery, located on the third floor of the Belgo building, offers master classes and participates in international biennials. Visit their interactive learning resources for visitors on their website at Skol.ca/en/apprendre.
Insider’s Tip: Take a short walk down St Catherine’s Street from the Belgo Buidling to Place des Arts and catch live high-end theater and music.
Mile End District: Articule
Tues-Thurs 12-6pm, Fri 12-9pm, Sat-Sun 12-5pm. Free.
The only Montreal artist-run-center with a bilingual board, Articule is located in the artist-saturated neighborhood of Mile End (look for the bright green facade at street level). This gallery focuses on interdisciplinary art that has a social aspect to it. For example, a 2012 installation repurposed people’s defunct electronics in new and strange contexts, and included maps of where the objects came from, where they ended up as well as images of how they were transformed.
Insider’s Tip: Pick up a free map of Mile End art (“circuit d’art) while you’re at Articule and make a day touring the cultural spaces in the neighborhood.
Insider’s Tip #2: Walk east from Articule to Le Centre Clark along Fairmount Avenue and have a bagel at the famous Fairmount bagel factory-—it’s a true Montreal experience.
Mile End District: Le Centre Clark
Tues-Sat 12-5pm. Free.
Tucked in a side-street at the eastern border of Mile End, Le Centre Clarkemphasizes exhibitions, performances and publications, as well as event exchanges with art organizations internationally. Founded in 1988, the center operates mostly in French, although its artists come from all over.
Insider’s Tip: Walk west along St. Viateur Street to find a host of cafes popular with Mile End residents.
Jean-Talon Market District (Little Italy): Eastern Bloc
7240 Clark, 2nd floor, Tues-Sun, 12-5pm. Free.
The newest artist-run-center, and only one in Montreal run exclusively in English, Eastern Bloc was established in 2007 in a former party space for young creative types. Housed on the 2nd floor of a gigantic warehouse building, Eastern Bloc focuses especially on new media and interdisciplinary art, and makes a point of welcoming artists just out of graduate school or at the very beginning of their careers. Digital and electronic arts, audio, and video installations and multimedia performances comprise much of their programming.