The Biennale de Montréal has cancelled its 2018 edition due to debt

The event, which closed its last edition $200,000 in the red, plans to make (another) comeback in 2020

by Victoria Stapley-Brown  |  25 August 2017
The Biennale de Montréal has cancelled its 2018 edition due to debt
Janice Kerbel and Isa Genzken, installation view at the Biennale de Montréal 2016 (Photo: Alison Slattery / BNLMTL)
There will be no 2018 edition of the Biennale de Montréal due to a deficit of C$200,000 after the close of the last edition, Le Grand Balcon (19 October 2016-15 January 2017). “Despite having had artistic successes, we had to cancel the biennale,” the chairman of the board, Cédric Bisson, tells The Art Newspaper. The event first announced the cancellation in July.

Bisson says the board was given “inaccurate figures by the management team” during the event, and so they did not know the full scope of the financial difficulties until January, after the biennale ended. He says that issues with the management team, led by the Biennale’s executive and artistic director Sylvie Fortin, contributed to the deficit. Fortin, who took up her post in 2013, when the event was re-organised as an independent entity, resigned at the end of January after the issues came to light.

“General management was not their forte,” Bisson says of Fortin, a curator and editor, and her team. Fortin, meanwhile, told the Canadian news outlet La Presse that there was responsibility on both the management and the board for the financial problems, and that it was normal for an event on the scale of the Biennale to have unforeseen issues. (She could not be reached for comment for this article.)

The deficit boils down to three main factors, according to Bisson: management issues; some expected fundraising revenues that “did not materialise”; and unforeseen costs, such as transportation (although Bisson declined to go into detail).

Both parties agree that the event was an artistic success. Bisson says the management team did “fantastic work in terms of the artistic component” and that the board was pleased with the artistic impact. He names as an example the German artist Anne Imhof, the winner of the Golden Lion for Best National Participation at the 2017 Venice Biennale, who staged the performance Angst III in Montreal on 18 October. The piece cost $70,000 alone for the falcons and performers, La Presse reports.

Another major problem is that some local artists and vendors had not been paid, as reported by Le Devoir in April, three months after the Biennale closed. “We’ve [since] paid a few [local artists and contractors],” Bisson says. “There’s still some local providers and some artists that haven’t been paid… We’re trying to do it as soon as possible, but I can’t give you a timeline unfortunately.”

Sponsors of the 2016 edition, including the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM)—which has partnered with the event since the 2014 edition and hosts many of the exhibitions—government agencies for Canada and the province of Québec and foreign governments, are “still helping”, Bisson says, but he declines to disclose whether they are covering the Biennale’s debts.

Responding to the question of whether the museum will take over organising for the 2020 edition, Bisson says MACM and the Biennale have “a good relationship that’s going well” but there is no such plan as yet. “I think it makes sense for us to work with the museum,” he says, naming resources such as its curatorial team, but the relationship is “still to be defined”.

The board plans to consult with stakeholders, such as Canadian artists, financing partners, MACM and other museums, in the autumn, and so far, it seems that the Biennale is merely taking a hiatus until the 2020 edition. Bisson emphasises that everyone involved thinks it is important to continue to put on an event that mixes work by international and Canadian artists around a common theme, but says that there is a possibility it could become a triennial. “It’s just a frequency thing,” he says.

After all, the Biennale has survived through several rough patches since it launched in 1998: it has split from its founding institution, the Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal; lost two directors in two years; postponed its autumn 2013 edition; and replaced the MACM’s Québec Triennial, an event dedicated to contemporary Québecois artists, when it teamed up with the museum in 2013. Or as Fortin described the event’s history at a press event in New York ahead of the 2014 edition: “sometimes glorious, sometimes less glorious”.

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