As I write this, Festival International d’Art Public MURAL—better known as the Montreal Mural Festival—is in the final stages of planning. The festival runs for eleven days in early June each year. Mural and graffiti artists from all over the world are invited to design original and site-specific murals along St-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal’s city center.
At one time in my life I worked on the production staff for a two-day art festival in a small municipal plaza. It was in many ways a run-of-the-mill art fair: painters, ceramicist, and more, selling work to small-town folks and weekenders. But I cared about this festival and the artists that participated, and each year those two days were long, physically demanding, and so stressful that the experience nearly ruined my desire to work in the arts. I was thinking about that fair when I spoke with Pierre-Alain Benoît, General Manager of the Montreal Mural Festival. We spoke on the phone last February when it was very cold here in Chicago, and snow was on the ground in Montreal. I think about his positive energy and enthusiasm for the project and I hope that it is sustaining him now, in what is likely a time of nearly sleepless nights.
Mr. Benoît and I began our conversation as mostly about the programmatic details of the festival. How it came to be, and that it has from the beginning been associated with a larger public event during the annual street closure.
I gather from our conversation that Montreal has a similar summer street festival tradition to Chicago. As soon as the season is warm enough, folks gather in the street to relish the days of sun and warmth. The part of Montreal in which the festival is held, along St-Laurent Boulevard, sees the Mural Festival as one prong in larger economic development aspirations.
Mr. Benoît’s involvement with the festival began when used to work as part of the St-Laurent Boulevard merchants’ association. He facilitated on behalf of the association, when the founder of the mural festival began on a much smaller scale, creating only a few commissions the first year. After the popularity and visibility of the first Mural Festival, the merchants’ association helped to grow the festival in scale and scope. Mr. Benoît offered to do grant writing and other administrative tasks, and this year he joined the staff full-time as the General Manager.
The Montreal Mural Festival is free for the public to attend, as a requirement of the street closure and cultural expectation of events in the public domain in Montreal. Mr. Benoît was very forthcoming with me about the festival’s budget. Perhaps this is because we are two arts administrators talking shop, but it seems also to come from a place of confidence and pride in the varied public and private sources of funding. The Festival relies every year on primary sponsorship support from the merchants’ association, whose budget is based on dues from members, and also some public dollars from sources such as parking meters. There is a small amount of funding from the local Arts Council. Additional revenue is generated by beer, food, and merchandise sales. But it seems the fiscal viability of the Festival at the current scale hinges on a symbiotic relationship with sponsors interested in the visibility the event offers.
The Mural Festival’s website design is one of the best I’ve seen for an arts event of this sort, and the video on the homepage feels more like a promotion for Lollapalooza. There are young, stylish people dancing, and aerial shots of artists on giant lifts in front of brightly colored wall murals. The streets are crowded with people and the sun is shining. (Who wouldn’t want to go to this event? I find myself wondering about the cost of a last-minute flight to Montreal.) Perhaps of equal importance to Mr. Benoît is the number of companies and organizations that offer support to the Festival for a chance to be associated with its energy. The website offers a seemingly endless scroll of sponsors and partners including the Montreal Tourism Council, Barefoot Wine & Bubbly, Le Journal de Montreal, and many others.
Mr. Benoît does not address this, but underneath it all, there seems to be a sense of local pride woven into the festival. He tells me the festival aspires to be “THE North-American destination for all things urban art.” For 2016 the large majority of artists are from France or Canada. When I ask him why a Festival of this sort at this scale happens in Montreal, he tells me that a mix of factors have built Montreal into a place with “the right conditions to create.” At the top of his list is that “Montreal is recognized as a very creative city that values the arts.” He adds that starting a new and ambitious project in Montreal is met with positive energy. “It’s easy here to tell people, ‘hey we have a project’ and people will be enthusiastic about it.” A neighborhood with ample blank walls and the desire to build a destination event is also a necessary condition.
Mr. Benoît tells me that the festival’s mission is to democratize urban art. I ask him to help me understand how that is not already the case. Graffiti artists, he explains, have historically worked under the cover of night. “The creation process is traditionally private, because of the fact that it was illegal. The work became public after it was done. When the morning comes, people are going to see it. Because the festival is integrated into the street closure, it allows the artist to do work in front of a lot of people.”
It’s very easy for me to bring my academic lens to this conversation and argue that the festival doesn’t have a rooted understanding in the history of hip-hop and the role graffiti plays in it. Or that the only way the process can be accessible to a public is when it’s co-opted or instrumentalized by corporate interests. Or that to make the art-making process visible, is only one aspect of the democratizing of any form. But perhaps that is not the point. And Mr. Benoît is polite and kind and I don’t want to be that sort of person to him. Furthermore, it’s clear that the lens through which the festival is looking is global and at a more recent history of the form.
This mission of making artists’ process visible in real-time seems to fall in line with a growing trend in arts programming. I ask Mr. Benoît if the artistic process is part of the festival’s mission, how do they support the artists on which they rely? First, “we pay them,” he tells me. Anyone who’s worked as an artist anywhere ever will recognize how important it is that this value is where he starts. The rest of his answer offers me a glimpse into the respect he holds for the commissioned artists and his interest in building a structure that supports the form.
“It’s more like an intuition than a rational choice, and important for me, and us and here, to always think in a way that we care about the artist and the artwork itself.” As an organization they believe that introducing the form to the largest possible audience allows for a greater understanding the people behind the work. And in turn that builds a space for respect of the artists, the artwork, and a culture that with which they may not immediately identify. This can be tricky work and even trickier when the canvas is a three-story wall in public. We talked for a long time about the diplomatic dance organizational staff like his must learn to support the artists’ goals and desired content, and the local policymakers who have a very different set of concerns and responsibilities. This is the part of talking shop that I usually end up venting on even when I don’t mean to. But Mr. Benoît is gracious and laughs at how it’s the most important part of the job. I find myself envious of his grace.
My last question, I think will be a zinger. I ask him how he feels that in art events of this sort the social has become the forerunner in the experience. “Does this harm or help the artist or the field in general?” I ask. This is on the front of his mind each year he says.
“It’s a real issue to consider but I don’t view it as a problem. It always reminds you of the real reason why you do it. Yes, the center of what we do is the mural works, but the goal is to promote an openness about the different aspects of the urban arts and street culture. And I always thought we would do more than produce murals.” He tells me his aspirations for the festival to grow, but will keep the artmaking and the artists at the core. He continues, “there is a financial question around it.” The event is free for eleven days and to fund that, “with exception of the few public grants that are not a lot of money, we have to find money to make a public event.” He continues that there is interest and a bigger potential to build sponsorship but they will not consider sponsorship for the murals because they don’t want the sponsors to feel they can influence the artist’s content. “We don’t want to become a commercial street art mural thing. We have to find activities that can be sponsored that do not interfere with the artistic value of the murals themselves and we don’t want the artist to feel that the festival is about something else. It’s not easy.”
My favorite part of speaking with Mr. Benoît is that he doesn’t once make a reduced or stereotypical comment about the artists, business leaders, or policy-makers he negotiates with in producing the festival. It appears to me that he has empathy and respect for the unique pressure each face in making their way in the world. His role, and one I aspire to as administrator, is to build win-win relationships that support the shared goals of each. He seems intuitively aware of the contradictions and tensions the festival produces, but that the good far outweighs the bad. And I trust him on that.