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Toronto's city builders: Democratizing Contemporary Art with Chantal Pontbriand, MOCA CEO

In this special series of interviews, YongeStreet sits down for a chat to get to know some of the most prominent city builders whose work, vision and passion for the city help shape Toronto’s present and future.

Chantal Pontbriand talks about her plans for the Museum of Contemporary Art_Toronto_Canada, Demo-Graphics and Toronto’s growing reputation in the art world

Torontonians get excited about this city’s sports teams, our waterfront and our diverse population, but not so much about our place in the contemporary art world. Chantal Pontbriand is betting that’s about to change. We may not be talking about it now, but “you will be in 10 years,” she predicts.

“You’re already one of the three economic hubs of North America, with New York and Los Angeles. I think Toronto might be more advanced than you think,” she says.

Pontbriand is an internationally known art curator, critic and arts administrator who’s recently arrived in town to helm the transformation of the Museum of Contemporary Art_Toronto_Canada (formerly known as MOCCA, for Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art). As the museum’s first CEO and director, she’ll be responsible for leading it through a period of dramatic change.

Born in in Montreal, Pontbriand created the influential Parachute art magazine in 1975, and the FIND (Festival International de Nouvelle Danse) in 1982. She then spent 10 years to Europe, living in London and Paris and accepting the position of Head of Exhibition Research and Development at the Tate Modern—among the world’s top contemporary art venues—in 2010. “But most recently I was at the Sorbonne teaching curatorial studies,” she says, referring to the renowned French educational institution.

“I was still in Paris and about to leave my apartment and I got two emails inviting me to do things in Toronto,” she recalls. “The first one was asking me if I wanted to curate for Nuit Blanche. (I said okay, but I’m not doing it, obviously.) The week after, I got a proposal to do a biennale in the Greater Toronto Area. My answer was ‘No biennale,’ because that’s not the way we’re going to put Canada on the map, and Canada is badly in need of being put on the map from a contemporary art sense.”

Pontbriand had not spent much time in Toronto over the past 20 years. “I knew Toronto more in the ‘80s, before it became what I call a global metropolis. It was quite monolithic then, and the city wasn’t particularly beautiful,” she says. “Since then, I started researching what was happening in the GTA, and I found all these fascinating facts: that Canada, more than half its population is from immigrants, from more than 200 different countries, speaking all these different languages. The GTA holds the largest proportion of these immigrants. I said ‘This is extraordinarily rich as a territory’.”

Ideas about globalization and artistic heterogeneity fascinate Pontbriand. “All over the world now, countries are faced with massive immigration. We talk a lot about the refugee crisis; there are 64 million refugees floating around in the world,” she says. “This has a lot of impact on what we call globalization today; people moving around means there’s an enormous amount of cultural crossbreeding going on, and we have to try to understand this.”

In response (and instead of the proposed biennale), Pontbriand agreed to take on the challenge of becoming the founding curator of Demo-Graphics, a new arts event that will take place across the entire GTA, featuring artists of many different cultural backgrounds. It’s “an equivalent to Documenta, which happens all over Europe,” she says. The first edition will be held in the spring of 2017, to coincide with celebrations around the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

Demo-Graphics is described as “a first exercise in writing the world through the eyes of today’s artists and peoples”. The name embraces concepts of population and diversity, but it also includes the roots of the Greek word demos—the public or common space, where democracy happens—and graphics, in the sense of writing. Above all, Pontbriand is focusing on the word “interface” as a unifying theme for Demo-Graphics I.

“These questions of world issues are addressed in multiple fashions by contemporary artists,” she says. That’s what I’m interested in: the contemporary, how do we deal with it, relate to it. I’ve been working for decades now on the idea of the common, the space of the common, opening our minds and our conscience to multiple ways of talking about this.”

It was only after helping to define Demo-Graphics that Pontbriand was invited to become the CEO of the institution now known as Museum of Contemporary Art_Toronto_Canada. Founded in 1999, MOCCA once occupied a rather modest Queen West storefront space. Now, it is blossoming into a full-scale museum that will occupy five floors of the revitalized Tower Automotive Building at 159 Sterling Road near Dundas and Roncesvalles, set to open in May 2017, thanks to a partnership with real estate firm Castlepoint Numa.

“Contemporary art has to be concerned with the world today. Forms are always evolving, and they echo the world immediately around us. This is what this museum will be dealing with. There will be a lot of live events. There are a lot of performers in artworks today, but there’s also a lot of space for what we used to consider ‘visitors’ to become activators,” says Pontbriand.

“We’ll have a whole floor dedicated to working with the physical world today; it will look like a library space with computers… but also a lot of couches: it’s meant to look like everyone’s living room,” she says. “So on the fourth floor, you’ll even be able to be guided to become your own curator, to develop projects that can become a series of seminars or a performance or even an exhibition subject. It’s a whole other way of dealing with the idea of being a museum visitor. Eventually, we’ll be open from noon to midnight.”

All of which may indeed change Toronto’s relationship with the international contemporary art scene. “We have a lot of plusses on our side, and I think we will soon be attracting the attention not only of Torontonians, but international attention as well,” Pontbriand says. “Having been associated since the ‘70s with the international art scene, I know where they’re at, and I know that they’re waiting for such a museum to develop in Canada. People feel there’s a certain vibrancy that you can’t ignore anymore.”
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