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25.11.2005 CONFERENCE – Montreal, Cultural Metropolis

From November 24 to 27, the city of Cardiff, Wales, hosted the colloquium “Cities and National Success” as part of the 2005 Canada UK Colloquia. Based on this far-reaching theme—which fits Culture Montréal to a T—the colloquium had a double objective: to analyze how cities can contribute to a country’s success, and to develop increased cooperation between Canada and the United Kingdom. The executive director of Culture Montréal, Anne-Marie Jean , was invited by the colloquium organizers to give a talk on the subject. In her speech, entitled “Montréal, Cultural Metropolis”, she described the measures needed to make Montréal a cultural metropolis—the type of city that many consider essential to the success of post-industrial countries. Issues related to culture and cultural diversity generated considerable interest among the 60 participants.

Mr. Chairman,
Lord Mayor,
Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good afternoon,

I am honoured to speak to you today about an important aspect of a city’s attractiveness: its culture. I hope you will not be too disappointed that most of my remarks won’t deal directly with design. As you may know, Montreal’s new design commissioner, Marie-Josée Lacroix, was originally going to speak to you today. Unfortunately she cannot be here, as she is recovering from an illness.

Instead, I will discuss what we are doing to make Montreal a cultural metropolis – a new kind of city that many of us consider essential to the success of post-industrial countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

This is an important theme for us at Culture Montréal, the independent lobby group that I manage, and which I am representing today. Our mission is to promote culture as an essential part of our city’s attractiveness and economic development. We have a ten-point cultural platform that we are successfully convincing our political leaders to adopt. And in our mission and platform, the cultural metropolis is a core idea.
So, what is a cultural metropolis? It’s not quite the same as a traditional metropolis. Before, a metropolis was a pole of political or economic power, and a cultural centre as a result. In the cultural metropolis, culture is central to economic success, not just a fringe benefit of economic strength. We believe that the cultural metropolis should be a place where the world comes for ideas, technology, AND ARTS and entertainment, and where people truly want to live.

Montreal is already well on its way to becoming just such a city. However, it will not reach its full potential without enlightened policies.

When we talk about a cultural metropolis, we are not only talking about a beautiful city with clean, safe streets, affordable housing, and more than its share of good museums, restaurants, theatres and parks.
Like anyone else, we want our city to be an attractive place where people truly enjoy life, not a place where they live only because they need to. In a world where nearly eight out of ten people live in urban areas, quality of life is very important. But it would be a mistake to think that it’s the only goal.

We want a city where most value is created with people’s minds. Where the key assets are not cheap labour, materials or transportation, but talented people and the ability to attract and retain them. A vibrant mix of people working in every creative field from aerospace to modern dance. These ideas will be familiar to anyone who has read Richard Florida’s recent work. We believe that Professor Florida is exploring worthwhile ideas, and we draw much inspiration from them in our daily work.
We are now realizing that artistic creativity is worth nurturing for economic reasons. We are no longer content to keep it on mere life support, because it is becoming clear that artists attract other creative people. And highly educated, creative people are the lifeblood of a modern economy.

Some might say that promoting the economic value of artistic creativity cheapens art. To this I answer that artists have always needed support. We’re now talking about a different kind of support, one that reflects the true value of creativity.

One that recognizes the links between a thriving artistic scene and a strong economy. To make it happen, we want to unify cultural, urban, and economic development policy. By doing that, we will help to realize the full value of creativity in all fields.
That is all very nice, you might say, but how will you do it? And how will Montreal stand apart from the many other places where similar ideas are circulating?

Advocates of the cultural metropolis are not like old-fashioned boosters, who wanted to build their cities at the expense of other cities. We believe that there is room for many cultural metropolises, each of them with unique attributes that make them positive contributors to the world. They will compete with each other, but they will also complement each other.

These are the kinds of cities that Fast Company magazine recently called “Fast Cities”: cities with, I quote, “the right mix of technology and tolerance to attract talent.” Montreal was on the list with Sydney, Dublin, Vancouver and Helsinki.

Some might be surprised to hear us associated with tolerance. There’s still a common perception that we don’t like people who don’t speak French. In fact, one of the keys to our current success and bright future is that language is mostly a settled issue for Montrealers: we are mainly French-speaking, but also bilingual and multilingual. Being a French-speaking North American city is now a major asset for us. Among other things, it has helped us build a unique, authentic culture that is very resistant to the sameness that afflicts so many cities. And, of course, most of us can speak English when we need to.

Our tolerant attitude wasn’t created overnight. We do have a diverse heritage: France, England, Scotland and Ireland are all deeply imprinted on our oldest streets, all represented on our city’s flag. But for a long time, that old diversity was as much a source of tension as harmony.

Our full emergence as a tolerant place is a relatively recent development. An aging population has caused Canada to welcome millions of immigrants. Montreal is a major destination for them even if it is behind Toronto and Vancouver. We now have a much more diverse city than we did a generation ago. Most Quebecers have embraced that diversity.

So far, we have had a good deal of success in building an open, tolerant society in which newcomers are welcomed for what they bring, and not asked to reject their identity, though we do ask them to become French-speakers. We can now say that Montreal is diversity.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, because there is still work to do. There is alienation. There is racism. We need to do more to accept foreign training. But despite our problems, I believe that we are on the right track. All things considered, we are more welcoming than not. And that is a trend worth supporting.

There is something else behind the cultural and economic shifts we have seen in recent years. Montreal is recovering from a long and deep economic decline. As recently as ten years ago, some said our city was in permanent decline. But the seeds of today’s city were already sprouting. People were forced to make their own opportunities. The cost of living was low, and so was the cost of doing business. These side effects of decline became assets for the emerging creative class. And they remain assets, but we cannot expect them to last without the right policies.

We have also been eager to adopt the new technologies that have emerged so quickly in recent years, and we love to use our talent to move technology forward. Having four high-quality universities has been a tremendous benefit. They contribute directly to innovation, and they also draw students from across Canada and around the world. Many of them decide to stay.

Because of all of these factors, our city is in the midst of a profound transformation. We are now a major source of cultural products and new technologies, and a magnet for creative people. These creative people are not making art in the shadow of wealth; they are using their creativity to generate wealth. We have become a world-class player in the fields of design, music, digital cinema, video games, food, fashion and other creative activities. You have no doubt heard of Cirque du Soleil, Denys Arcand, Softimage, and many others.

They are exactly the kinds of creative forces that Culture Montréal, and everyone who believes in the cultural metropolis, is trying to encourage.

How do these major shifts relate to the new cultural-urban-economic policy that we are promoting?

First, we believe that the municipal government should be more prominent in our lives. The city is the most immediate level of government for most citizens, so it is essential to creating a quality of life that is not just clean and efficient, but interesting and engaging. But the municipality is also the least powerful level of government in Canada, despite the fact that most people live in cities, and a mayor such as our Mr. Tremblay has 1.6 million constituents. So we believe that power needs to move closer to citizens, closer to artists and creators.

To that end, we have taken two steps forward and one step back. Several years ago, the province merged over twenty municipalities on the Island of Montreal into a single entity. The old cities became semi-autonomous boroughs, some of which have since voted to go their own way. Those that remain united are still struggling to understand a structure that remains too complex.
There is a real concern that suburban boroughs will be left behind as we do the fundamental work of building our cultural assets and infrastructure, our attractiveness. But the city is closer to having the power we think it needs.

The city is committed to making culture a priority, particularly in creating the conditions that attract artists and make them stay, exhibit and perform locally; but that same city also has a long way to go in figuring out exactly how it will fulfill that mission and ensure that the whole island benefits.

It does not have the financial resources to carry out this mission properly. Right now, it can barely keep up with basic needs such as transportation. We hope that the appointment of the former president of our Board of Trade to the city’s top cultural post signals that culture is finally becoming a top priority for the city.

Despite delays in elevating culture to its rightful stature, there have already been many positive developments, both as a result of public policy and private initiative. Our film industry, nurtured by long, patient government support and private investment, is now among the five largest in North America. And it is unique in Canada because most of our movies are in French, and they’re proudly Québécois – not copies of what’s coming out of France. Many of our filmmakers are able to appeal to a broad public without making artistic compromises.
Film is part of a wider field that includes television and theatre. Together, these three dramatic arts stand as wonderful examples of our uniqueness and authenticity. More than most Canadians, we see ourselves on the screen and stage instead of relying on imported works. We have not been on the touring circuits of Broadway musicals, and for this we are grateful.

By having to tell our own stories for ourselves, we have started telling stories with a universal appeal that we weren’t even looking for.

Likewise, for about fifty years, three arts councils from three levels of government, Canada, Quebec and Montreal, and other public bodies, have been helping the arts to strengthen our community. Without the groundwork of traditional cultural policy, limitations and all, our current mission would be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible.

(AD LIB on minister Frulla’s announcement: recognition of the important contribution of the artistic community to the national identity and even more so to the dynamism of our society…)

Our city’s vibrant culture is also married to a charming urban landscape. It is no accident that the country’s highest concentration of artists is found in the Montreal neighbourhood called the Plateau – a district of tightly packed houses on narrow streets, where the wealthy still live alongside the working class to a remarkable extent.
Like other neighbourhoods of its kind, it faces the challenge of avoiding the final chapter in the familiar story of gentrification: becoming unaffordable to the artists who are behind so much of its charm. That is why our platform’s third point includes a studio policy, which would help artists buy their spaces and put down roots for the long term.

The result will be more continuity for our creative milieu, and a better quality of life for our artists. And that means a better quality of life for all.

Physically, the city is not perfect. There are scars of past planning mistakes, run-down areas, lost architectural treasures. But on the whole, we have much more to work with than most North American cities. If we want a future as a cultural metropolis, we must heal the scars and preserve our remaining treasures.

The design commissioner and her team will help us add to our eclectic architectural heritage without surrendering to bland uniformity or anything-goes visual chaos. And, again, the fourth point of Culture Montréal’s platform emphasizes that all aspects of city planning need to consider culture – from cultural infrastructure to basic quality-of-life and sustainability issues.

The road ahead is not without potholes and broken water mains. In a very real sense, the cultural metropolis has a head start on the kind of policy we are talking about.

Although the city does have a cultural policy, culture is only starting to become part of the everyday political vocabulary. It needs to have equal standing with other major policy concerns. Right now, it is still lagging behind our potholes and water mains. We believe that this is unfortunate. It would be foolish to neglect infrastructure, but we think it’s better to focus on the things that will make our city a beacon.

If we shift our attention in that way, the core attractiveness that we are trying to build will be within reach. We are encouraged by the fact that Mayor Tremblay has not only embraced our platform, but is committed to holding the Cultural Metropolis Summit we proposed for 2007. We hope that by then, the concerns and issues we have been talking about will be high on the political agenda, and a common theme in public discourse.

Thank you.

Anne-Marie Jean, Executive Director
Culture Montréal

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Canada UK 2005 Colloquium on  “Cities and National Success”

Documents to download:
Speech CM – Anne-Marie Jean Colloquium Cities and ational Success (25-11-2005) (102 kb)

A bit more about us

Culture Montreal is an independent organization and place for reflexion and action that contributes to building Montreal’s future as a cultural metropolis through research, analysis and communication activities. Its mission is to assert the central role of the arts and culture in all areas of Montreal’s development: economy, buisness, politics, land-use planning, education, and social and community life while encouraging cultural diversity, emerging artists and practices and public art.

We wish to thank all our members as well as:

Je deviens membre.
Le français en scène. Projet de valorisation de la langue française.
Micro Culture, pour parler culture quartier par quartier
Agenda 21. Culture aujourd'hui demain.

Our organization is a member of:

  • Les Arts et la Ville
  • Bureau du Cinéma et de la Télévision du Québec
  • Chambre de commerce du Montréal métropolitain
  • Coalition canadienne des arts
  • Conseil des relations internationales de Montréal
  • Diversité Artistique Montréal
  • Héritage Montréal
  • Le Réseau des conseils régionaux de la culture