There are reasons why a growing number of art and décor lovers are praising Montreal for having similar vibes to indie enclaves such as Berlin and Brooklyn. With its ever-growing gallery, music and cuisine scenes, Quebec’s largest city is hitting its stride as it mashes up classic and modern sensibilities.
Part of this has to do with the fact that Montreal has been going through major infrastructural growing pains. Since as early as 2019, reports on the tension between heritage advocates and commercial developers has created a sharp divide that keeps the city in a state of constant flux.
Fortunately, the tension has not fully compromised the charm of its Old Port. Montreal’s architectural grande dames – the Notre-Dame Basilica, the former city hall/market known as Marché Bonsecours and the 351-year-old Maison Le Ber – remain intact. As do the city’s 21 parks.
Beyond the must-see grounds of Mont Royal sits the often unnoticed green spaces of Rene-Lévesque Park. This meticulously gardened site boasts a cement and glass sculpture depicting nine flaming cylinders by Quebec’s own Robert Roussil. The former army vet-turned-artist made his mark internationally when he left Montreal in 1956, befriended Diego Riviera and went on to conceive a majestic sculpture garden in a medieval village in France called Tourrettes-sur-Loup.
Local galleries and hip eateries
Away from Montreal’s serene parks and busy streets, you’ll find an unmissable buzz. A good chunk of The Mile End district incubates up and coming creatives outside of the traditional gallery system located in the downtown core. Those seeking eclectic, affordable work and artisanal bites can spend a whole weekend exploring areas close to Rosemont and Outremont.
To tackle this side of the city properly, fuel up with an espresso at Café Olimpico (124 Rue Saint Viateur West) or a latte at Café Felice (5563 Park Ave.) – two venues where artists congregate and caffeinate. If you’re off the java, grab a smoothie and a snack at La Panthère Verte, a lunch and dinner spot on 160 St Viateur St. East. This hot spot’s jungle-like environment offers visitors a step inside a terrarium-like dining space with its concentration of plants holding court around tables. Or relax in Café Falce (5605 Gaspé Ave.), a solid lunch spot with reasonably priced Japanese Pork Roti, Shitake and Tofu burgers.
Next-door to La Panthère Verte is LVNEA, an artisanal perfumery stocked with bell jars containing scents created with Quebecois herbs, flowers, weeds and grasses. A tour through this boutique offers an old school olfactory interaction that cannot be replicated online. Test out and choose from hundreds of all-natural, locally sourced oils, balms or sprays, methodically exhibited throughout the space or speak to a fragrance expert on the seasonal featured notes curated by owner April Lea. An expat from Philadelphia who studied with the Providence Perfume Company for years before striking out on her own, Lea’s in high demand for one-on-one consultations and as a fragrance-making instructor (she occasionally runs small, sold-out botanical workshops).
After picking up a sip and a spritz, walk over to the nearby Avenue De Gaspé where more than a dozen galleries and eclectic shops are housed in two buildings. In one of those buildings is the arts diffusion centre (5455 Gaspé’s Ave.), a structure that houses seven exhibit spaces that are managed by both creators and curators.
One of the building’s best art spaces is the Clark Center, an artist-run gallery which exhibits back-to-back work from local artists and writers. Here you can view work from emerging talents such as Filipino-Canadian Kuh Del Rosario, whose exhibit, Summoning Black Beach, runs until Nov. 25. Rosario previously led an artist residency out of her ancestral home in the Panay and chooses what she describes as earth’s “leftovers,” sustainable materials such as compost, recycled consumer plastics, and dried plants to create her works.
At the neighbouring daphne gallery from Nov. 4 to Jan. 13, the multimedia work of Algonquin artist Dominic Lafontaine and Indigenous-Quebecois filmmaker Nicolas Renaud will be taking over the space. While the former artist’s digital prints have graced the spaces of Quebecois hospitals, universities and airports, the latter artist directed a Hot Docs award-winning documentary, Brave New River, which explores the power struggles associated with settler-based ecological changes of Quebec’s Rupert River. Their duo’s joint exhibition, Rivers of Light | Virtual Wampum, displays the mix of many mediums, and explores themes of power and resilience.
In the same building, at the Dazibao art centre, Tehran-born, Montreal-based artist Leila Zelli presents her multi-disciplinary show called They make skies turn from Nov. 16 to Jan. 20. Installations, video footage and sourced texts from social media are mixed together by this emerging talent in order to challenge Iranian stereotypes and traditions through romantic, dreamy, humorous and politically potent imagery.
Across the hall at the Occurence art space, a cross-generational, multi-artist exhibit called Salissures (loosely translated as “smearing”) centres on the work of Quebecois veteran Pierre Bourgault (Nov. 10 to Dec. 16). The established abstract sculptor – who won a Governor General arts award last year – is presenting his latest sculptures alongside a mix of photography, silkscreen and installation works.
If you’re lucky enough to catch Occurrence’s owner/curator Lili Michaud on the premises, she’ll regale you of the space’s 33 year history and speak to the benefits of moving her gallery from its previous venues closer to downtown into the Mile End, or as she calls it, “Montreal’s oldest new world.”
While you’re there, make your way to Atelier Circulaire, a space dedicated to highly affordable printed art, laser engraving and lithography (prices begin at $100). The 11 walls in this artist centre also offers workshops for up-and-coming artists. And down the 12-flight stairwell of the Gaspé avenue building, you’ll find the permanent Musée Romeo, a floor-by-floor showcase of local street artists.
Steps away, at 5555 Gaspé Ave., is Galerie Northfield, a by-appointment only furniture and art showroom that sells mid-century modern furniture by influential furniture designers of our time such as Eames, Frank Gehry, Pierre Paulin and Gaetano Pesce. The building is also home to Ramonalisa, a small batch clothing boutique committed to prioritizing sustainable, Montreal-made clothing.
Music and sound bites
About the music scene in the Mile End area, it’s booming by way of Ursa, located on 5589 Park Ave. It’s a small-but-mighty bar-cabaret-concert hybrid owned by Canadian American folk-rock royal, Martha Wainwright. The list of big names (Patrick Watson, Rufus Wainwright, The Barr Brothers) and rising stars (most recently Boyhood and KT Laine) who have performed is due to the proprietor’s lure and pull.
Ursa serves as a laid-back alternative to the Phi Center, which towers over the Old Port. Housed within four converted heritage buildings, Phi’s performance calendar requires advance planning as tickets sell fast. Notable names have held court here (Bjork and Iggy Pop) and the acoustically superior space envelopes audiences through its aurally fixated design scheme designed by three architectural firms: Berlin’s Kuehn Malvezzi, and Montreal’s Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte.
The centre’s presentation spaces optimize bass, treble and sound reverberation so that audiences are able hear performances in a precise and intimate way. Phi Center’s main forte, however, is creating opportunities for singer-songwriters coming from the Mile End. For example, on Nov. 11, local singer Hanorah, who cut her teeth in the cabaret circuit on the northeast side of town is launching and performing her debut disc, Perennial, at Phi.
If you go…
The Four Seasons Hotel will situate you a few blocks from Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, La Guilde (which focuses on Canadian, Inuit and First Nations artists) and Galerie Robertson Arès.
Inside the hotel, local clay artist Pascale Girardin is featured in the inner courtyard of the property. On the 10th, 11th and 12th floors, you can also view a collaboration between Niagara Falls-born, Evergon, a celebrated photo collage artist, and Jean-Jacques Ringuette, an acclaimed photographer who hails from Trois-Rivières. The hotel’s restaurant Marcus (piloted by Ethiopian-born Swedish-American celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson) exhibits a number of photographs from Margaret Trudeau’s art collection.
Deluxe rooms start at $850 a night.
Elio Iannacci was a guest of The Four Seasons, which did not review or approve the story before publication.