The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts: Balancing International Reach and Strong Local Roots (Abridged)

by Serge Poisson-de Haro, François Normandin and Emmanuel Coblence

While the most renowned art mega-museums located in global cities are characterized by their attendance figures and the wealth of their collections, museums that are of medium size and located in culturally influential cities have also succeeded in making a name for themselves. The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has implemented a model that enables it to realize its ambitions by mounting temporary exhibitions that strengthen its local roots and enhance its international reach while maintaining the highest standards. Under the leadership of Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator since 2007, this museum has become a widely recognized cultural institution. Following conversations with members of MMFA senior management, the authors identify the main factors behind the simultaneous strengthening of local roots and global impact.

Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Bernard Fougères et Jean-François Lejeune.

Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion, Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Bernard Fougères and Jean-François Lejeune.

As with many museums, the evolution of the MMFA during the past two decades saw a radical shift from “museum as temple” centred on an original mission of conservation to the expanded concept of “museum as forum”, taking into account educational, cultural and economic issues. This evolution was fuelled by a growth in museum attendance in Quebec and by the vibrant cultural scene in Montréal. In 2010-11, the museum had revenues of $28M, of which 59% was provided by public support, 25% by earned revenues and 16% by donations and sponsorships. The museum attracted 563 000 visitors, 87% of them from the Greater Montréal area, and this factor influenced significantly the MMFA strategic objectives:

  1. Enhance the institution’s reputation locally, ensuring that it is firmly rooted in the Montréal community, including reaching out to neglected groups (disadvantaged youth, cultural communities, etc.).
  2. Promote and strengthen Montrealers’ loyalty to the museum, through a significant increase in membership, in order to foster donations of art works to enrich the permanent collection.
  3. Ensure the Museum’s financial viability, by increasing self-generated resources and donations and, to a lesser extent, revenues from publications, boutiques and restaurants.
Otto Dix - Portrait of Hugo Simons

Otto Dix (1891-1969), Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925, tempera and oil on plywood. The portrait – that has an incredible story – was acquired by the MMFA thanks to a collective effort rarely exerted for a single work of art. MMFA, purchase, grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, gifts of the Succession J.A. DeSève, Mr. and Mrs. Charles and Andrea Bronfman, Mr. Nahum Gelber and Dr. Sheila Gelber, Mrs. Phyllis Lambert, the Volunteer Association and the Junior Associates of the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, Mrs. Louise L. Lamarre, Mr. Pierre Théberge, the Museum’s acquisition fund, and the Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest. Photo MMFA, Brian Merrett.

Based on an analysis of the production of three exhibitions, the authors identified a three-step decision process: (1) validate the relevance of the artistic and academic approach of an exhibition in light of the organization’s strategic vision, ensuring both export potential and local relevance; (2) mobilize key stakeholders to secure the content needed to constitute a significant body of work; and (3) ensure viability by mobilizing partners for joint funding. In this perspective, internationalization is as much a condition as a consequence of an institution’s ability to finance culturally ambitious exhibitions.

The article demonstrates that it is possible for medium-sized arts organizations, which operate in a community rich in cultural resources and committed to supporting the arts, to carve out a place for themselves. Although their tangible artistic resources may be more limited than those located in global cities, organizations like the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts can use their creative skills to develop innovative projects that reflect a sense of belonging to the community. Success depends on the extent to which an organization can rally stakeholders and mobilize the competencies and tangible/ intangible resources needed to secure both cultural content and financial resources. Through a series of innovative projects, these organizations can make a name for themselves and gain both local and international support and recognition.

Read the full article in the International Journal of Arts Management, Volume 16, Number 1, Fall 2013.

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