Melvin Charney’s history of Sherbrooke St.

1976 saw Sherbrooke St. becoming an arts venue, but only until the city’s mayor decided otherwise

The city of Montreal welcomed the Olympic Games in 1976. Along with the sporting events, art pieces were showcased and organized throughout the city. Corridart was one of them: an urban exhibition displayed on a long portion of Sherbrooke St. going from Atwater Ave. to Pie-IX Blvd. Curator Melvin Charney led the organization of the event, which presented various installations, exhibitions, and performances. He was interested in the history of the street, and the historical value of its buildings.

The event saw a variety of artistic creations. Pierre Ayot presented the sculpture La croix du mont Royal, a large illuminated replica of the mythical Mount Royal cross. Another piece entitled Mémoires de la rue was composed of scaffolding structures on which images and art pieces would be placed. Large red plastic hands pointing at different elements of the urban landscape, such as buildings or streets, were also a notable element of the exhibit.

Politics quickly took a large place in the evolution of the event as the exhibition was dismantled less than a week after it was launched, ordered by Mayor Jean Drapeau. This occurred during the night of July 13, four days before the start of the Olympics. Drapeau believed the artworks did not fit the aesthetic standards that would properly represent the city for this international event.

Charney had not aimed at presenting a clean and perfect Montreal. On the contrary, according to art history professor and researcher Johanne Sloan’s analysis of the event in the book The Other Architect: Another Way of Building Architecture, the curator’s approach was to “insist on the cultural value of domestic and vernacular architecture, and of streets themselves.”

Charney had done extensive preliminary research for this project. He analyzed the history of the buildings, the sidewalks, and their placement in the public space. Therefore, the location where the artworks would be placed was meticulously chosen so that the architectural heritage of the city would be integrated in the exhibit. The goal was to make art accessible to pedestrians and encourage them to engage with it.

For Charney, the street was itself a representation of the city’s cultural background. “The physical traces of the streets define a bond between people and the city as a collective, public artifact that subsumes individual buildings,” he wrote in 1977 as published in the book On Architecture: Melvin Charney, A Critical Anthology.

The presented artworks tackled themes related to the history of Montreal, its urban development, and activism in the community. Artist Françoise Sullivan presented a creation titled Legend of Artists. This piece featured archives of meaningful art movements in Montreal. They were displayed in large boxes placed on top of steel legs, and each contained objects, texts, and photos recalling a specific artistic practice. Those mini-exhibitions were placed in arts venues as well as in front of the homes of artists who inspired Sullivan, such as Paul-Émile Borduas and Émile Nelligan.

Legend of Artists reached passersby and accompanied their walk on Sherbrooke St. while providing a historical background on cultural events related to the site. Charney’s creation for the exhibition also touched on historical features, but through one monumental work. Entitled Les maisons de la rue Sherbrooke, the piece was a life-size imitation of an apartment building’s facade. The empty lot where it was presented was previously occupied by Victorian style buildings that had been destroyed by the city.

Charney’s installation replicated the aesthetic of the new modern buildings that were built in the neighbourhood. The piece engaged with reflections on the treatment of the city’s architectural heritage.

Despite its short existence, Corridart is still recognized today for its ideas regarding the reappropriation of everyday urban spaces by pedestrians. According to Sloan, Charney was “proposing a theory of the street itself as the site of urban knowledge.”

Following the destruction of the exhibition, a group of artists who had participated in it sued the city of Montreal for $350,000. The controversy around this project became famous and the plaintiffs eventually received a total of $85,000 12 years later through a settlement agreement with the city.

 

Visuals by Taylor Reddam

 

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