New collections at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts prompts some questions

Are museums and art collectors tokenizing or supporting artists? 

Bruce Bailey is a philanthropist, art collector and “major friend” of Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). Originally from Ontario, Bailey studied law in Halifax and became close with many artists attending Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), thus beginning his art collecting practice.

Today, his collection includes hundreds of works, from local Canadian artists like Michael Snow, Christopher Wahl and Kent Monkman, to old masters, like Francisco Goya, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt and Otto Dix. A mere handful of these are currently on display at the MMFA in “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Mary-Dailey Demarais and Bruce Bailey

The name attached to this collection is derived from a line in Song of Myself, a poem by Walt Whitman. The collection’s curator, Mary-Dailey Desmarais, chose this name to allude to Bailey’s love for humanity, the human experience and all the good and bad that goes with it.

The moon is a recurring image among the collection. I see it as something that grounds us, reminding viewers of their size and role in the universe: something the entire world can look to.  

The museum also recently opened a new collection wing, The Arts of One World, a tribute to Martinique poet and philosopher, Édouard Glissant, whose work questioned ethnocentric views of world history. The collection is divided into wings and rooms dedicated to different continents, Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean and the ocean (“The Blue Continent”), each containing contemporary art works and cultural objects.

The collection is a result of years of work and a team of cultural curators, critical museologists, and various historians and art specialists. The exhibition prompts further research and educational practices for children and adults, with tours, workshops, discussions and more. It isn’t a collection to be taken lightly, it requires reviewing and multiple visits – or just one very dedicated and attentive day.

Part of The Arts of One World collection, Recasting the Fabric of the Americas includes a gold emblazoned work by Mexican artist, Betsabeé Romero. Guerreros en cautiverio III (Captive Warriors III) is a piece acquired with funds that Bruce Bailey raised for the purchase of an artwork, but not from Bailey’s private collection. Guerreros en cautiverio III is an engraved tire decorated in gold leaf. The statement accompanying the work described Romero’s interest in human migration, borders and boundaries, and cultural traditions, “to activate the craft of history, to weave memory in new ways, particularly those of Indigenous peoples.”

“Weaving memory in new ways…” Collecting and displaying cultural artefacts, paintings included, isn’t easy. It has to be approachable. It has to make you want to look closer and do the work, encourage exploration, reading, and questioning. 

I find myself asking whether these works should be in a museum, would they be better off in their homes? Where are their homes? Who made them?

It’s easy to track contemporary works, and including them in rooms saturated with ancient objects is empowering. But they’re hard to follow when walking through. Everything needs to be read.

“We are now living in a golden age,” Bailey said. He has an engaged and audacious vision, radically supporting Indigenous and gay artists.

Viewing these two new collections, Bailey’s and The Arts of One World, put the practice of collection at the forefront. Each time an object is displayed, its context, at face value, will change too. Bailey’s artworks don’t mean the same thing in storage as they do up on the gallery’s walls. The way they are placed and the works they live beside will change the story they tell. Collections create a narrative, and viewers should ask themselves who the narrative is for, who put it together and who might be at a loss because of it.

“Art has been a refuge for me because it has allowed me to create an alternate world that allowed me to escape from the grim realities of my real world,” Bailey said, in a documentary about his work as a salonnier, currently on view at Cinéma du Musée

The term “salonnier” refers to “les salons de Paris,”  a cultural archetype of largely private and upper-class gatherings, most frequently involving the arts.

“By establishing an intellectually stimulating and egalitarian space for discourse, [salonniers] promote Enlightenment values of rationality, equality, and fraternity, realize a distinct social good and are at the forefront of important issues shaping society and politics,” according to The Public Sphere’s Salons.

While salons are traditionally elitist happenings, Bailey’s role as an openly gay salonnier, and thus a significant figure of Canadian culture (the National Post called him the Canadian Gatsby) dismantles some of these notions. Although it’s hard to find the line between the good that is being done and the tokenizing.

The tokenization of art (“offering fractional ownership of single tier-one artworks,” according to The Tokenizer), is a very capitalist thing in and of itself, but I’m using the term here to refer to “a member of a minority group included in an otherwise homogeneous set of people in order to give the appearance of diversity,” according to Lexico.

The western institutional art world and the people that run galleriesvare predominantly white. The works chosen to be part of this collection become cherry picked symbols of the culture and country from which they were made. Accepting that as a fact, and attempting to dismantle it so collections like The Arts of One World can exist, free of these notions, is impossible.



Photos by Cecilia Piga

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