Montreal shines light on the museum experience with MAC renovation

The Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) chose a windowless theatre on Monday as the scene for its big reveal of a $44.7-million renovation design that will flood its fortress-like building with natural light. The plan outlined by Gilles Saucier of Saucier+Perrotte Architectes will replace much of the existing structure’s exterior concrete with glass and nearly double the museum’s exhibition space.

MAC director and chief curator John Zeppetelli said at Place des Arts’s Cinquième salle that MAC is more than ready for a larger, more visible platform after hitting an attendance record this year of more than 600,000 visitors. “Montreal will finally have a jewel that lives up to its ambitions, its reputation and its artistic importance,” he said.

Saucier’s assignment was not a simple one. The museum’s urgent need for more space and better curb appeal had to be satisfied without bursting beyond the skinny footprint MAC has occupied on the southwest corner of Place des Arts since 1992.

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What the public will see from outside the new MAC will mostly be itself.


The solution, after 16 years of considering other options, turned out to be hiding in the basement. Three large rooms downstairs that currently store the museum’s collection of nearly 8,000 objects will be converted into exhibition spaces.

The provincially owned MAC is Canada’s largest dedicated contemporary art museum. It was launched in 1964, with no permanent home and spent the next three decades moving from one temporary location to another. Its berth at Place des Arts was a compromise solution, the shortcomings of which became apparent within the building’s first decade. The renovation is also a compromise; a grander plan that would have cost twice as much was considered and shelved.

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Grants from three levels of government make up $37.7-million of the $44.7-million budget, with the remaining $7-million to come from a private fundraising campaign.


Saucier’s design concept follows the current vogue for arts buildings that make as many functions visible to the street as possible. What the public will see from outside the new MAC will mostly be itself: taking classes in educational studios, congregating in a three-storey glass foyer, or dining in a new garden restaurant that will float over the entrance plaza.

That floating corner, and a diagonal glass wall beneath it, bid fair to inject some drama into the current building’s boxy perimeter. A system of twisting vertical louvers running along the second storey gives the concept drawings an element of horizontal flow and references the vertical ornament of nearby Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. The louvers will also allow street-level glimpses of the garden restaurant and of the bronze facing on the louvers’ interior side. The effect, Saucier said, will be like catching the flash of a sport coat’s more colourful lining.

The reno will get rid of the current structure’s peaked roofs and the dark copper cladding on the top-most level. We’ll also see the last of the shallow concrete colonnade that seemed ominous when the building was new and which became pointless once Place des Festivals opened right next to it.

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The museum’s urgent need for more space and better curb appeal had to be satisfied without bursting beyond its skinny footprint.


The main areas that will not be sunlit in the renovated building will be the exhibition spaces, including the rededicated areas in the basement. Zeppetelli said that the museum has never relied on natural light and even covered up its existing skylights to protect artworks from sun damage.

The museum will close for renovation in January, 2019, with a planned reopening in the fall of 2021. The MAC plans to establish a temporary headquarters elsewhere in the spring of 2019, and to present exhibitions in several alternative spaces. A new off-site space to replace the museum’s basement storage areas has yet to be confirmed.