Outaouais: An Overlooked Cultural Frontier

Emerging from the Shadows

Lucile Godet

While Gatineau may be Quebec’s fourth-biggest city, it remains in the shadows when it comes to the province’s arts and culture. And not without reason. Tucked away in the Outaouais region and bounded by the river of the same name, Gatineau seems to keep a low profile, overshadowed by the capital facing it across the water. Meanwhile, people are flocking to anglophone Ottawa for its French-language scene. Even Quebecers visiting the region head to the capital when they’re hungry for some culture.

At first glance, it might seem that they’re not missing out on much. For many, Gatineau is an industrial city. People who work in Ottawa live there, but don’t necessarily spend their money there. What’s unusual about Gatineau is that it’s a reconstituted city. Originally, there were four different cities, but they were merged to form Gatineau in 2002 for administrative reasons. Only the names of those cities, now known as “sectors,” remain. While these sectors are still struggling to forge a shared identity, a strong sense of belonging may be found in each of them. The beating heart of gatinoise culture, however, is Hull.

In Hull, Quebec culture is thriving. After all, Gatineau is very much part of la belle province. The city offers an attractive mix of innovative cultural projects, green businesses, and even artistic collaborations with Ottawa. For an inside perspective on the artistic experience in Outaouais, we met with Hugo Gaudet-Dion and Geneviève L. Richard. Hugo is a visual artist who decided to settle in the region after studying his chosen field at the Université du Québec en Outaouais. Geneviève, meanwhile, is a jack-of-all-trades multidisciplinary artist who has been immersed in Gatineau’s vibrant cultural life since she was a child.

It’s impossible to talk about arts and culture in Outaouais without first mentioning the AXENÉO7 gallery. Founded in 1983 in a former wool mill, it’s one of the city’s creative hubs and a pillar of its arts scene. Along with exhibitions, it offers cultural events, artistic performances, and DJ sets at every vernissage. But there is much more to the Filature project besides the gallery: it also houses a residence space and the media arts production centre Daïmon. The independent organization’s mission is to bring contemporary art to as broad an audience as possible through critically engaged programming selected with care by professionals from the world of art. In 2018, AXENÉO7 received a Culturiades award for Organization of the Year from Culture Outaouais.

Another pillar of Gatineau’s culture is the Université du Québec en Outaouais, thanks to its master’s program in museology and arts practices, which is run by the École Multidisciplinaire de l’Image. Both Hugo and Geneviève studied here. The presence of an arts university in a city like Hull is a game-changer. It attracts young artists and helps them develop a network. “I had the chance to graduate alongside a great group of artists,” says Geneviève. “That enabled us to combine our talents to develop artistic initiatives in the region.” Hugo, likewise, says that his studies served as a springboard. “During my bachelor’s degree, I was already starting to get involved in different projects and organizations, then in organizing various events like shows or exhibitions with artist and musician friends. [...] A number of people that I studied with have stayed in Outaouais and are involved in the cultural scene here.” In 2015, the École Multidisciplinaire de l’Image opened a student gallery at the university, called Galerie UQO. Notably, this initiative made it possible to hold exhibitions in collaboration with AXENÉO7, with works displayed simultaneously just a few blocks apart. The two organizations also coordinate the timing of their vernissages to make them more accessible to the public.

Hugo and Geneviève both belonged to the same collective, Le Temporaire. Active from 2009 to 2017, it was a rented space that housed a group of young artists from the area. Along with providing a space for creation and production, Le Temporaire hosted concerts, artistic performances, and many evening events revolving around art and the desire to create, whether it be art or social connections. “I think culture here is constantly evolving and there is a lot of space for starting new projects,” remarks Hugo. “Plus, there’s a nice range of talented, driven artists who want to experiment, collaborate, and shake things up.” Geneviève also emphasizes the importance of the close relationships between artists as well as their desire to join forces—which makes places like Le Temporaire essential. She adds: “There was also 44 Wright, an anarchic silk-screening studio, and the Meat Parade collective, with whom we ran a fundraising campaign that allowed the entire collective to travel to Europe and create art as a group there. There were all kinds of initiatives, and I think that gave new life to Hull’s artistic community.”

More recently, other cultural projects have been launched in Hull during the past few years. These include a Culture Trail traversing the island of Hull from one end to the other. Each summer, works created by local artists are installed in Old Hull, forming a strategic route leading visitors along various pedestrian streets. The goal is both to promote local culture to as many people as possible and to encourage the public to explore the city’s urban heritage. The centre of Old Hull features a distinctive mix of government buildings and charming old red-brick structures. There are two ways to explore the route. One is simply to follow the red line marked on the ground, modelled after Boston’s Freedom Trail. And to ensure there’s something for everyone, the second, more complex approach is designed to please tech lovers. This involves using the GO Centre app introduced by the city of Gatineau to complement the Culture Trail. It provides a wealth of advice to guide visitors along the route.

Geneviève speaks with pride about the various initiatives in her region: “I always say that Montreal is a wonderful, creative place, but it’s saturated. Here in Outaouais, the approach might be a little less cutting-edge, but if you’re motivated and you have ideas, anything’s possible! [...] There’s art everywhere, ready to be consumed. [...] The Outaouais cultural community listens to what the public wants. [...] All ideas are welcome, at any time. There’s no shortage of ambition and creativity in our region, and it delights me to see our artists staying the course despite the many obstacles you inevitably encounter in our field.” Hugo, meanwhile, notes that Gatineau is more than just the place where he lives. The region is practically part of his creative process. “I enjoy interacting with other artists here. I get the sense that there’s a lot of mutual respect, that people are interested in other people’s work. Many artists in Hull and Gatineau like taking risks, experimenting, and going beyond their comfort zone, which is something I find very stimulating. [...] I like the rather chaotic energy that exists in Hull; it gives me a lot of inspiration for my work.”

An Innovative, Unifying Museum Project

In 2016, a regional museum project was launched in Outaouais. Following extensive consultations, it was placed under the auspices of the Réseau du Patrimoine de Gatineau et de l’Outaouais (the Gatineau and Outaouais Heritage Network, or RPGO). The idea is to establish a museum complex that brings together Regional County Municipalities and the city of Gatineau for the purpose of improving the conservation, classification, and promotion of the region’s artifacts.

On October 26, 2018, the MuséO Forum took place. This milestone occasion marked the end of negotiations surrounding the project and the start of concrete activities. It was the perfect moment to unveil the initiative’s name: MuséO – Projet muséal régional pour l’Outaouais (“the Outaouais Regional Museum Project”). MuséO is a play on words that combines the French for “museum” and “water,” which has played a crucial role in Gatineau’s history.

A few months after the event, we met with the RPGO’s director, Louis-Antoine Blanchette, to find out more.

What are the key issues surrounding the establishment of a museum in Outaouais?

Right now, there’s a need in the region for a hub that fosters a sense of belonging. There are few places in Outaouais that do that. The municipal merger that formed Gatineau has been a failure in terms of cultural belonging. People identify with different sectors of Gatineau but not with the city as a whole. One of the reasons for that is precisely that there are no venues in Gatineau which unite the different parts of the new administrative entity. I’m talking about a sense of belonging rather than identity. A sense of belonging is something you’re able to acquire, while identity is something that’s inherent to you.

A more tangible issue for the project is raising awareness of heritage. This is another area where Outaouais is lacking. There’s no venue for presenting the region’s heritage. There are a number of museums that present the history of individual sectors of Gatineau or the surrounding municipalities, but there’s nowhere that brings it all together. The issue is therefore to create a venue that will raise awareness of Outaouais’s heritage as a whole.
Conservation is also an issue. The region’s artifacts are scattered here and there and, for the most part, stored in poor conditions. At this point in time, we don’t even know how many there are. Some aspects of Outaouais’s history might end up being rewritten once a proper inventory of the different collections has been carried out, the artifacts are stored in controlled conditions, and there are spaces for researching them further. For now, this issue is our main priority.

What are the project’s guiding principles?

The project is aimed at anyone who’s interested in heritage. The primary target audience is residents of Outaouais, but it’s also intended for tourists and newcomers to the region.

At the moment, we’re still in the preliminary stages, so it’s hard to say anything for certain, but in order to create a regional infrastructure uniting a number of institutions, there will surely need to be some common standards in terms of the exhibitions, educational approach, and cultural mediation and promotion. Without making everything uniform, there will need to be some kind of standardization, if only to ensure and maintain a certain level of professionalism. To help orient the public and facilitate understanding, there needs to be some consistency in terms of the visual identity, the museographic approach, and the way information is presented. M

Lucile Godet
Holder of a master’s degree in arts and culture management from Pantheon-Sorbonne University (Paris 1), Lucile Godet currently works for the CMA. She specializes in contemporary art, cultural project management, and writing. She may be contacted at lu.godet3@gmail.com

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, March/April issue, 2019.