Cultural Capital: Montreal has pumped money into its pulsating art scene. And it's been worth it, says Joanne Shurvell

The late, great chef Anthony Bourdain's assertion that "without Montreal, Canada would be hopeless" may seem harsh, but his delight with the world's largest French-speaking city after Paris is certainly justified. Founded by Roman Catholic missionaries from France in 1642, the city's Gallic roots give it a distinctly European feel. With almost as many restaurants as New York City, the city's impressive culinary scene undoubtedly appealed to Bourdain, but Montreal has also long been recognised as a creative and intellectual hub. Mount Royal, first climbed by Jacques Cartier in 1535, was the site of the most-visited world fair ever: Expo 67. The city was the birthplace of the renowned Cirque du Soleil and of great musicians including Leonard Cohen and Oscar Peterson, writers Mordecai Richler and Steven Pinker, and artists like Philip Guston and David Altmejd. In recent years, Montreal's abundance of artificial intelligence startups and the presence of MILA, an AI university founded in 2017 by algorithm guru Yoshua Bengio, has seen it dubbed a new Silicon Valley.

Montreal's laid-back vibe and artist-friendly government policies encourage creativity and a thriving arts scene. Visually more attractive than many other large North American cities, with an appealing combination of historic and modern architecture, Montreal has been designated a UNESCO City of Design since 2006. The city's strong belief in culture as a means of urban renewal is apparent in the generous funding for museums and festivals, not least the annual international jazz festival. Chick Corea and Ray Charles were at its launch more than 40 years ago: and it still attracts major musicians.

Above: A view inside the Claire and Marc Bourgie pavilion at the Musée des Beaux-Arts

The city's largest museum, the Musée des Beaux- Arts de Montréal, was founded in 1860. It is set over five interconnected pavilions, housing an impressive permanent collection of 43,000 Canadian and international works, alongside a variety of temporary exhibitions. The museum's autumn blockbuster is the popular British Museum show, Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives (14 September 2019-2 February 2020). More than 200 objects, 3D digital imagery and interactive visualisations help to paint a vivid picture of ancient Egyptian life. In the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, an exhibition of the works of Mexican-British artist Alinka Echeverría focuses on the representation of women in photography (until 1 December).

Above: A view inside the Claire and Marc Bourgie pavilion at the Musée des Beaux-Arts

For more than fifty years, the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal – known as 'le MAC' by locals – has been Canada's leading institution dedicated to contemporary art. The museum's permanent collection of more than 8,000 digital, sound and video works, paintings, sculptures and photographs, features prolific Quebecois artists such as Geneviève Cadieux and Jean-Paul Riopelle, in addition to international talent like Lorna Simpson and Wangechi Mutu. The museum is open until 2am several times a year for 'Nocturnes at the MAC' events, which feature talks, music and performances.

Phi Centre, a private art foundation with a regular programme of contemporary exhibitions, occupies two heritage buildings in Old Montreal. From October, Phi will focus on innovative technology, presenting virtual-reality work by Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson.

Also in Old Montreal, Pointe-à-Callière displays the 17th-century foundations of Fort Ville-Marie, the original settlement of the missionaries. Unearthed during ten years of archaeological digs, the remains – displayed beneath glass flooring – include traces of an indigenous firepit that pre-dates the city, a well dug in 1658, the cellar of what was a guardhouse, some of the fort's palisades, and the stone foundations of a metalworking shop. In an adjoining area, visitors can take in an engineering marvel with a walk through 110 metres of North America's first collector sewer, built between 1832 and 1838.

Alongside Montreal's superb galleries and museums, the public art on the walls and in the squares and parks, shows the essence of this creative city. The most famous of these artworks is Alexander Calder's 20m stainless steel sculpture L'Homme that looms large on Ile Sainte- Hélène, the original site of Expo 67. While there, visit one of only two Expo 67 buildings still standing, The Biosphere (now a museum devoted to the environment), designed as the US Pavilion by Buckminster Fuller. The other remaining building is Moshe Safdie's extraordinary Canadian Pavilion, Habitat 67, an apartment building made of concrete modules that was meant to improve high density apartment living by providing green space within the building. Today, Habitat 67 remains a residential complex with guided tours open to the public.

Above: Formerly the private home of a railway magnate, now the Centre Canadien d'Architecture

A walk in any of the city's 19 neighbourhoods will reveal colourful murals by contemporary street artists. For the greatest concentration of these, walk through the city centre along Boulevard Saint Laurent, nicknamed "The Main." In the Golden Square Mile, on Crescent street, is a remarkable 10,000 square-foot mural of the late Leonard Cohen by Montreal artist Gene Pendon and American street portrait artist El Mac. The portrait, covering 21 storeys of the side of a building near the fine arts museum, is based on a photo taken by the musician's daughter, Lorca. Viewing the immense Leonard Cohen surveying Montreal with his hand over his heart, will bring to mind optimistic words from one of his poems: "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Joanne Shurvell is writer-at-large for Forbes Magazine.
Bonhams in Canada: [email protected] +1 (416) 462 9004 [email protected]

When in Montreal...

Where to eat:

Above: Catch the Terrasse William Gray on a bright day

From the legendary St-Viateur bagels, chewy, sesame seed covered savoury delights, baked in a wood-fired oven, to delis serving pastrami sandwiches, to classic French bistros and high end restaurants, Montreal is an enviable foodie destination. Rivalling New York City's abundance of restaurants, Montreal's culinary scene is extremely competitive and thus exceptional. MARCUS in the Four Seasons, headed by Ethiopian-Swedish Chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster in Harlem and London, has a seafood focus, some of which is cooked on a Japanese robata grill and there's an extensive raw bar. Open since 1993, Toqué! appears annually in the top three of Canada's 100 Best restaurants guide. The superb Quebecois-tasting menu changes daily based on seasonal, local ingredients. For more casual dining, Barroco, in an atmospheric 18th-century stone building in Old Montreal, offers classic French bistro fare with a hint of Spanish flavour.

Above: The Four Seasons hotel, taking pride of place in Golden Square Mile, one of Canada's wealthiest districts

Where to stay:

For a luxurious stay, try the chic new Four Seasons hotel in the 'Golden Square Mile', named as such when it became home to Montreal's wealthiest families who purportedly owned 80 per cent of Canada's wealth by the turn of the 20th century. Artworks by local and international artists can be seen throughout the hotel, including an impressive floral inspired installation by Pascale Girardin cascading down the building's open-air atrium. Guest rooms and public areas are decorated with original artworks and vintage photographs of well-known Montrealers and international luminaries are on show in the restaurant and lounge. In downtown Montreal, Fairmont Queen Elizabeth was the first hotel in North America to have escalators and air-conditioning when it opened in 1958. This five- star hotel is also famous as the site of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's peace protest "Bed-In" where they recorded "Give Peace a Chance on 1 June 1969, in room 1742. The two 18th-century buildings that are now Hotel William Gray, in Old Montreal, were a merchant's house and a warehouse. While the historic architecture has been retained, inside, the modern design includes contemporary art from local artists and carefully chosen furnishings in the public areas and guest rooms. The hotel also has one of the best spas in the city, offering a warm quartz massage bed, a Himalayan salt room, and an outdoor pool, open during warmer months. J.S.

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