History Lesson: Corrid’Art

Over the course of the 20th century, Montreal made two significant contributions to world art. The first, Expo 67, was immediately recognized internationally, and wholeheartedly approved. It was clean, correct, hyper modern, cosmopolitan, and an optimistic celebration of human achievement. The other came nine years later and was destroyed before its debut, declared an obscenity by the mayor who had it commissioned. It was called Corrid’Art.

Corrid’Art was a six kilometre long open-air gallery of monumental installation artwork, intended to be the cultural component of the 1976 Summer Olympics. It was a corridor of art on Sherbrooke Street, stretching from Pie-IX to Atwater, and remains to this day perhaps the single largest cooperative artistic endeavour ever undertaken by this city’s arts community. In total, 60 installations were created by hundreds of local artists, and several hundred performers of various types were scheduled to entertain the crowds at stages placed along the route. In the middle of the night, two days before the opening ceremonies, city workers under police escort dismantled it and carted it off to a municipal impound lot under the direct orders of Mayor Jean Drapeau. Nearly everything was lost. The artists sued the city and were eventually awarded a token settlement. Corrid’Art’s final cost was estimated at $1.5 million (adjusted to today’s dollars). The final cost of the entirety of the Games of the XXI Olympiad are estimated at $1.61 billion and took thirty years to pay off.

Courtesy of La Presse
Courtesy of La Presse

One of the installations, perhaps the one that most irked Mayor Drapeau, consisted of a loudspeaker broadcasting a recorded voice listing off a detailed budget of Olympic expenses paid for by the city.

Montreal’s a city laden with irony. Corrid’Art was an expression of frustration and criticism of globalization, modern urban planning, societal and geo-political dysfunctions big and small, politics, religion, inequity etc. etc. One of the installations, perhaps the one that most irked Mayor Drapeau, consisted of a loudspeaker broadcasting a recorded voice listing off a detailed budget of Olympic expenses paid for by the city. A major theme of the exposition was the changing face of one of the city’s most iconic thoroughfares, so large format photographs of since demolished mansions and various institutional buildings were attached to scaffolding at various points along the route, offering a ‘before and after’ comparison of the cityscape. Perhaps this irked the mayor as well, as it would have been fairly clear to visitors that Montreal had lost a considerable architectural heritage in its effort to become a modern, international city, something that Mayor Drapeau was arguably most directly responsible for.

It wasn’t all critical though; some installations were rather whimsical, others intriguing. A replica of the Mount Royal Cross was laid on its side, a house with Juliette windows turned into a makeshift theatre for a Shakespeare troupe, poplars and elms were decorated with brightly coloured fabric to give the impression of distance runners. Art is many things to many people, but Corrid’Art was also a rather ingenious method to encourage Olympic spectators to interact directly with our urban environment. It would be both a gallery of monumental artwork created by the city’s finest artists, and a means by which these same people could express their concerns to a captive international audience. It would showcase our architectural and cultural heritage, as well as serve to balance the hyper modernism of the Olympic Park and Internationalist uniformity of the downtown core. Best of all, Corrid’Art would act as a conceptual bridge between the hotels of the city centre and the East End, simultaneously exposing tourists to our cultural identity as manifested through all manner of art set amidst the dynamism of an evolving urban environment. And it would help alleviate congestion on the Métro too, encouraging spectators to walk with promises of entertainment and a chance to interface directly with the heart and soul of Montreal.

Everyone would be happy – everyone except the mayor, that is.

Photo courtesy of Claire Beaugrand-Champagne
Photo courtesy of Claire Beaugrand-Champagne

One can imagine the kind of panic that would have set in upon him, when he realized that the cultural component of the city’s Olympics – the component which was intended to mollify urban preservation activists and showcase our arts community – was in fact a criticism of the Olympics in general, and of the mayor responsible for the games in particular.

For all the good Corrid’Art hoped to accomplish, it was undermined by its critical nature. Mayor Drapeau was already coming under fire for the immense cost of the Games, not to mention the as-yet-incomplete Olympic Tower. The provincial takeover of the construction project in 1975, along with the rumours of graft, collusion, and outright fraud that would ultimately taint the 1976 Summer Games as a nearly catastrophic failure. It should be noted the organizing committee of the 1984 Los Angeles Games studied Montreal’s example and effectively chose to do the complete opposite of just about everything we had done. To this day, LA84 stands as one of the most financially successful Olympiads of all time.  Mayor Drapeau, as you might imagine, was already operating in a charged and hypercritical political climate. Though his decision to scrap Corrid’Art may be reprehensible, one can imagine the kind of panic that would have set in upon him, when he realized that the cultural component of the city’s Olympics – the component which was intended to mollify urban preservation activists and showcase our arts community – was in fact a criticism of the Olympics in general, and of the mayor responsible for the games in particular.

Photo courtesy of La Presse
Photo courtesy of La Presse

Corrid’Art, minus all the scheduled performers, was up for about 48 hours before the demolition teams arrived to tear it all down. At best, perhaps a few hundred local artists, journalists, and extended members of the city’s arts community actually had an opportunity to see the final product. It is perhaps for that reason that Corrid’Art endures – we may not realize it fully, but the notion of using art to move people in our city is very much alive and well. Consider Nuit Blanche, when vast sections of the underground city are transformed into a veritable free-for-all of artistic performance. There are parts of the underground city I simply never would have come into contact with if it weren’t for the fact that once a year the whole thing is turned into a multi-faceted gallery.

Each year, the McCord Museum erects billboards along McGill College with photographs of late-19th century Montreal urban scenes, contrasting with the sleek postmodernism of our financial core. Best of all, urban preservation and architectural conservation have made their way into our political bloodstream. Today, Montreal is arguably a far more architecturally aware and conscientious city than it was back then; not much gets built in this city without exhaustive research and consultation, and the people here are so leery of unrestrained development that we tend to debate the merits of new, generally private construction projects as if we had some say in the matter. Crucially, poor public response to new development has on several occasions killed projects outright. Other examples would be the city’s strategic urban repopulation scheme and various provisions limiting the development of new condos and office towers to unused lots as indicative of a broad public desire to undo some of the damage caused in the heady days of the Drapeau administration.

A pessimist would say we live in the shadow of the Olympic Tower. An optimist can look forward to encountering the ghosts of Corrid’Art. Perhaps it wasn’t a total loss.