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Montreal’s art biennale, unable to pay its debts, takes a hard fall

Is it time to stir the ashes of the Biennale de Montréal, or will the phoenix rise again?

The city's big contemporary-art jamboree was born in 2013 from a merger of two smaller events, and staged increasingly ambitious editions in 2014 and 2016. It is now all but dormant, with a skeletal staff and not enough cash to pay its bills.

The biennale owes about $200,000 to people who helped the 2016 event attract 92,000 visitors over three months. Most of the money is owed to artists, installers and other small suppliers who can ill afford to wait indefinitely for payment. Board chair Cédric Bisson said in a phone interview this week that everyone will be paid, but couldn't say when. The 2016 biennale closed on Jan. 15, seven long months ago.

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Not surprisingly, the public bodies that funded the biennale have left the table for now. To accept a grant and not pay the artists is a cardinal sin in the eyes of every arts council that ever was. The 2018 biennale has been cancelled, and a 2020 version is no sure thing.

The fall of the biennale is frankly astonishing when you consider what was said, and who said it, when the organization took its current form in 2013. Alexandre Taillefer, the software and media entrepreneur who masterminded the merger with Bisson, said that within 10 years, Montreal would have an international visual-arts fest that would be "one of the 20 or 25 biennales that you absolutely have to see worldwide."

That was heady talk in Montreal, a city of festivals that is very receptive to those who think globally while acting locally.

Taillefer is known to many Quebeckers as a former panelist on the Radio-Canada version of Dragons' Den, and he isn't afraid to swim upstream. In 2015, when many were predicting that Uber would kill the taxi business, he started an all-electric cab company. He is also a dedicated art lover who chairs the board of the Musée d'art contemporain, the main partner and venue for the biennale in 2014 and 2016.

Bisson is a partner at the venture-capital firm Teralys Capital, where he steers money to new enterprises that may not see a profit for years. He said this week that he's "very proud of what the biennale achieved artistically," and is convinced of its public appeal and value as an international event for Montreal, Quebec and Canada.

From a venture-cap point of view, a $200,000 loss on an initial four-year capitalization of $3.6-million might be a hit worth taking without complaint, if you believe in the biennale as much as Bisson and Taillefer say they do. In some art-loving cities, the problem would never have come to light. Twenty people would quietly write cheques for $10,000, or guarantee a bank loan, and the show would go on.

That wasn't done, and crucial public funds slipped away. The biennale recently put out a statement saying it faces "a precarious future financial situation." It's hard to see how those words would encourage anyone to cover past debts or invest in the event's future.

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Bisson blames the deficit on the former management team led by Sylvie Fortin, who left as director in January. Some costs ran over, a couple of sponsorships didn't come through, and fundraising targets were missed, Bisson said.

None of that is rare in the arts world. Cost-control is certainly an administrative job, but fundraising and bagging sponsorships are also a board responsibility – its main ongoing obligation, some would say.

In any case, Fortin and her team own none of the blame for letting a clutch of piddling debts fester for seven months, or longer in some cases. It's hard to overestimate the damage done to the biennale's credibility, among artists, funding bodies, private supporters and the public. An event that was supposed to vault Montreal into the upper echelon for international art events looks as shaky as the Montreal World Film Festival, notorious for its problems with settling accounts.

Bisson and his board are now angling for a reset. They're going to hold public consultations in the fall, to hear everyone's feedback about the last biennale, and their suggestions about how the next one should be configured.

The apparent humility of this plan is striking, when you compare it to the swagger with which the biennale's future course was declared in 2013. My guess is that the consultations are intended mainly to convince public funders that the biennale is responsive to the community, and therefore a good bet for reinvestment.

I wouldn't put money on that outcome, especially if the small creditors are kept waiting much longer. It's simple, really: If you don't pay your bills, people's trust in you is eroded and can be hard to restore.

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True, a contemporary visual-art festival is not as easy to sell as one where people play music or make you laugh. It's also true that Quebec is a hard place to raise money for any charitable endeavour – about half as generous, per capita, as the Canadian average. Bisson says the biennale was aiming for a higher-than-usual response.

There's no shame in missing that goal, but there should have been a plan B, one which did not amount to watching the house burn while asking the neighbours what to do about it.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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