Monsieur Montreal Culture: The Passion of Simon Brault
Déjeuner-causerie in French, luncheon in English. Not an exact translation, by any means, but it was then a luncheon at which Simon Brault spoke in the Grand salon of Montreal’s Hôtel Fairmont Le Reine Elizabeth on May 25th. I was Invited by the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec as a member of its advisory commission on literature.
I have known Brault slightly, to acknowledge and chat with –
scarcely more than that – for about 15 years, ever since I sat on the founding
board of Journées de la
culture, which rapidly became a
successful vehicle for Brault’s abiding interest in the democratization of
culture (and which has gone national and morphed into Culture Days). Head
of the National Theatre School (NTS) for the past
20 years, he is President of Culture
– in fact, Brault really is Monsieur Culture Montréal – and of the Steering
Committee of Montréal, métropole
as well as Vice-Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts and, to top that off, author
of the recent No Culture, No Future (translation by Jonathan Kaplansky;
Cormorant 2010) and the original French
text Le Facteur C (Voix parallèles, 2009).
It happens that I have not recently heard him speak at any length and from the heart. When he is representing the Canada Council, say, on special occasions, he speaks briefly and likely from notes prepared for him. Today was an opportunity to hear more, and Brault did not disappoint.
He has no bone to pick with the rest of Quebec or, for that matter, the rest of Canada – both the NTS and the Canada Council have national mandates, after all – but his focus today was squarely on Montreal, for which he is a passionate advocate. Where many cultural hubs are wrestling with problems of social integration, the dismantling of cultural infrastructure, and a surplus of cultural imports, Montreal is doing well on all these counts and others besides. We are, in short, enjoying a comparative advantage, and Brault’s main argument is that we should make the most of this mystère montréalais.
Brault is not himself an artist, though he grew up in a milieu that lived and breathed the arts. The eldest of eight children, son of a teacher and sculptor, and nephew of the revered Quebec poet Jacques Brault, he himself trained as a Chartered Accountant before becoming a tireless supporter of the arts. In return he wants artists to acknowledge where they come from: from Montreal, from this school or that one, with the support of this or that agency, under the guidance of these other artists and these organizations. He got a rueful laugh from other cultural entrepreneurs, administrators, funders and promoters in the room Wednesday when he noted that artists have a tendency to attribute their success to their own talent and their own efforts. And it’s true, he added; there is no culture without individual talent and effort. But Brault is a man who understands the importance of cultural infrastructure more than most.
Calling for the resources needed for Montreal to make the most of its comparative advantages, he underscored the need to train the leaders of who will replace the Simon Braults on their (eventual) retirement. He did not refer to himself; I'm the one doing that.
He talked about some of the mega festivals (Jazz, Just for Laughs ) and productions (Cirque du Soleil, Céline Dion, etc.), certainly, and he talked quality first and foremost, valuing artistic quality above economic considerations.
Stressing the mix that is Montreal – its métissage – he went out of his way to mention writer Rawi Hage, artist David Usher, and indie band Arcade Fire’s Win Butler among other artists from elsewhere who have made Montreal their home. Not just Monsieur Culture Montréal, in other words, but Monsieur Montreal Culture. He wasn’t playing to a particularly mixed crowd. There might have been 300 of us in the audience, and I saw only a couple of other Anglos and one Spaniard; there were undoubtedly other non-Francophones I did not recognize, but there were no Anglophone media other than myself, if I can be counted a journalist. La Presse covered the event, but The Gazette did not. There are times, even today, when Montreal seems to live on one planet in English and on another one in French.
Brault ended his talk by describing Montreal as one of those cities that is always in danger, a city in which nothing can be taken for granted. And then he got a standing ovation. I was on my feet, impressed by Simon Brault – and cheering for everyone else who was cheering him.