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The Mayor Who Wouldn't Let Art Ruin His Olympics

In a stunning act of censorship, Corridart was dismantled on orders from Jean Drapeau just before the ‘76 Summer Games.

Former mayor Jean Drapeau points to a rendering of Montreal's Olympic Stadium before the '76 Games. (AP Photo)

For about a week in July 1976, Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street converted into a corridor of monumental installation art, aptly named Corridart. It was intended to both showcase the avant-garde of the Quebec arts scene—then as now largely focused in Montreal—and to act as the cultural component of the 21st Olympiad. It was destroyed on mayor’s orders.

Corridart was the creation of the architect Melvin Charney and the collective work of 35 local artists, with hundreds of performers signed on to provide entertainment along its route for the duration of the Games. Running nearly five miles from the far-out futurist collection of Olympic sporting venues in the city’s East End to the hotels, office towers, universities and major cultural institutions of the city center, Corridart was an outdoor art gallery and a conceptual bridge linking two vastly different sections of the city.

On the night of July 13th 1976, it was taken down at the request of then-mayor, Jean Drapeau. This act, though illegal, was carried out by city workers escorted by Montreal police. Artists—witnessing the destruction of their works first hand—were not permitted to dismantle their creations so as to save them. All throughout the night and into the following day, city workers wrecked the installations and carted off the debris to a municipal dump. By the morning of the 14th, Corridart was history.

The documentary, À propos de l'Affaire Corridart  (audio in French) looks back at what happened to the controversial art project.

The official line from City Hall was that the art was obscene and constituted a threat to public safety and security. The issue of obscenity was roundly rejected by the local arts community and local arts critics, Corridart’s organizing committee and jury that had chosen the installations from among hundreds of proposals. Concerning public safety and security, Corridart’s organizers had fully collaborated with municipal authorities, including the roads and parks departments, to insure that all the installations were of sound design and posed no threat to the public. Adding to this was the direct appeal of provincial minister Jean-Paul L’Allier on behalf of the ‘Corridartists’ who instructed Mayor Drapeau to put everything back in its place right away.

Instead, Drapeau dug in his heels. Corridart was ‘ugly’ in his opinion, and such was apparently enough to ignore the orders of the provincial government. It didn’t matter that Quebec had provided a nearly $400,000 grant and that the artists had a right to their works.

Among the artworks deemed unacceptable by Drapeau, a gigantic stone maze, large format photographs, trees wrapped in colored fabric, kites, phone booths that played recorded messages of the ‘Corridartists’ musing about life, their work, the era they lived in. Other artworks included a cross—a replica of the one atop Mount Royal—laid on its side, as if in repose. Other works included painted curbs, a ceremonial archway, an assembly of suspended found objects meant to give the impression of weightlessness. At one point along the route, two homes with Juliet balconies were rented so a local theater troupe could present their interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Elsewhere, stages were set up for musical acts.

It may not have been the art that offended Jean Drapeau as much as the political situation in Quebec at the time. He had been publicly humiliated after the province wrestled control of the Summer Games out of his hands by November of 1975. The budget had ballooned to 10 times the initial estimate and allegations of corruption and collusion were widespread. The province’s decision to intervene in what was initially Montreal’s Olympics may have been motivated more by simple politics than by any particular interest in combating fraud and graft. After all, two years before the Olympics the same provincial government—headed by Robert Bourassa—had convened a parliamentary commission to investigate corruption in the construction industry.

This same government was facing an election scheduled for November of 1976, and support for a separatist opposition party had been growing steadily. Whether motivated by a desire to ‘save the Games’ in order to reap a political reward or because of a legitimate belief the province could better manage the construction site is a matter still up for debate. The major venues were completed on time, but in an odd twist of fate Bourassa would lose the 1976 provincial election partly as a consequence of the massive Olympics-related debt. Stunningly, Drapeau would largely dodge the debt problem despite famously arguing an Olympics “can no more lose money than a man can have a baby.” He would serve as mayor for another decade, bringing his total at the helm of Canada’s then-largest city to thirty years.

Though the Games were no longer his baby, Drapeau was nonetheless aware this was still his city’s time to shine, and he simply wasn’t going to let anything get in his way. For years he had taken credit for Montreal’s accelerated economic growth and newfound prominence on the international stage, and the Olympics—much like Expo 67 a decade prior—was testament to his grand vision. Though he deserves credit for Montreal’s Metro and pushing for Expo 67, Drapeau also presided over excessive ‘slum clearance’ initiatives that pushed out the poor to make way for new skyscrapers and shopping malls. He advocated for highways and boulevards to push straight through the dense urban fabric, dividing neighborhoods and in some cases rezoning residential sections for light industry simply because he disliked the local district representative. He ordered the partial clear-cutting of Mount Royal (a massive, central, nature park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) because he had heard stories of homosexual encounters in the woods.

Corridart was, at least in part, a reaction and response to the policies of Jean Drapeau, not to mention the myriad problems associated with hosting the Olympics. Then, as now, there were considerable complaints with regards to costs and access. All too often the sites chosen for ‘urban renewal’ and an assortment of highly-specialized sports venues tend to be located in poorer neighborhoods, at times requiring expropriations. In Montreal’s case, the Olympic Park was something of a compromise. Though it didn’t require widespread expropriations or ‘slum clearance’, the sporting venues were essentially parachuted into the middle of a largely working class neighborhood, halving the size of the largest park in the East End of the city. This led to an enduring complaint that Olympic Park was ‘too far’ from the city’s central business district for the throngs of tourists. That, in turn, led to concerns that the Olympics would gridlock the city’s recently expended Metro system.

For Melvin Charney, the idea that the Olympic Park was ‘too far’ away was ludicrous. Most of the city’s population lived closer to it than the city’s downtown core. Owing to the city’s rich history, unique geography and eclectic architecture, Charney was also an early advocate of promoting Montreal’s walkability. What took form, if briefly, in the summer of 1976 was a method by which Olympic tourists could be encouraged to walk the distance between the Olympic venues concentrated in the East End and the hotels, restaurants and general nightlife of Downtown Montreal. Art would be used to move people, and help bring the avant-garde of the Quebec arts scene to new prominence. The route would also trace the history of the city from the latest construction to some of the earliest structures in all of Canada.

Tying this historical narrative together was the largest individual project: a collection of seventy-one scaffolding installations, a proletarian archway crossing sidewalks and hoisting giant orange hands pointing at various buildings, historical sites and cultural institutions. Affixed to the scaffoldings were large-format photographs, mostly from William Notman, who dedicated much of his life to photographing Montreal in the late 19th century. This component of Corridart would serve as the principle continuity of the exhibit—keeping pedestrians on course, pointing out the major points of interest and showing newcomers and locals how much the city had changed.

In Drapeau’s Montreal, there would be no appeals to the judgments and decisions from up on high. The works were mostly obliterated or left exposed to the elements to disintegrate. The artists rallied around Charney and got themselves a lawyer, though the case wouldn’t be heard until the early 1980s. At trial, a new precedent was set when the presiding judge questioned the aesthetic qualities of the exhibit, stating that too many of the installations cast Montreal in an unfavorable light. The decision was appealed though it wouldn’t be heard until 1988, at which point Montreal’s new mayor, Jean Doré, decided to settle out of court. In the end, the artists received token settlements of about $3,000. Many claimed their careers had suffered as a consequence of Drapeau’s actions. Corridart is quite likely the single largest example of arts censorship in Canadian history.

Though the Games would ultimately lead to $1.5 billion debt requiring 30 years to pay off, Montreal is somewhat unique among Olympic host cities in that the facilities and venues are all still standing and have mostly served the public good. The Olympic Stadium hosted a Major League Baseball franchise for 27 years and is still used for large-scale sporting events. The Olympic Pool has become the central part of a massive public gym. The former Velodrome was converted into the Biodome, an innovative zoo in which all the animals exist in near-perfect recreations of their habitats. Though there wasn’t much of the promised economic spinoff for the area immediately surrounding the Olympic Park, the Games didn’t leave it any worse shape despite the loss of half a public park. As for Drapeau, he remained unapologetic until his death in 1999. Charney, meanwhile, eventually designed two large public spaces in the city, including the interpretive garden across from the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Corridart represents a turning point in how Montrealers view their urban environment. In the decades that followed, major efforts were made to protect the city’s architectural heritage and make the city more livable for far more residents. Traces of Corridart appear here and there at various times of the year; they manifest in the artworks created for the annual Art Souterrain exhibit, which turns Montreal’s expansive Underground City into a massive subterranean art gallery. During recent roadwork along Saint Denis street, a giant red terrace was constructed as a means to encourage pedestrian traffic and support local small businesses. It featured banners and scaffolding arrangements similar to those found at Corridart. In time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017, the McCord Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, along with Concordia and McGill universities, have entered into a collaborative agreement with the intention to erect artworks along a one-kilometer stretch of Sherbrooke Street.

But even after 40 years, Corridart remains controversial. Last October, one of the original Corridart installations—Pierre Ayot’s La Croix du Mont Royal— was recreated and installed in Jeanne Mance Park as part of a retrospective on Ayot’s work. Current mayor Denis Coderre found it objectionable—particularly as the replica cross is located next to a religious order—and ordered a $10,000 grant to be cancelled. After meeting with the religious order and the artists involved, Coderre decided to rescind the order, so the cross still stands. For now.

About the Author

  • Taylor C. Noakes is a journalist and broadcaster living and working in Montreal. He has previously written for Monocle, Vice Quebec and The Walrus. His interests lie in the intersection of architecture, urban planning and history, and how heritage considerations shape contemporary discussions of city-building.