Arts school project will require creativity

Barbara Black

The Grey Nuns Motherhouse represents an important piece of Quebec culture. The interior will need major work to become a Cité des Arts.

Courtesy of Facilities Management

Christopher Jackson has a dream: to transform a majestic heritage building into the first totally integrated arts school in North America. After 10 years as dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and a year concentrating on his musical career, Jackson has returned to Concordia to take charge of fundraising for the renewal of the Grey Nuns convent.

He’s excited by the project, but it will be expensive. Jackson doesn’t want to set a figure, but he’s glad the work will be spread out over at least a decade. Under the agreement to purchase the property in 2004, the university will assume control of the 340,000-square-foot structure in stages, starting in 2007.

“The wonderful thing is that it will all be on one site,” Jackson said from his tiny office at the back of the Visual Arts Building. “It has incredible implications for the future. In all my travels, I haven’t seen anything like this — a historic site ends up being a forward-looking arts school.”

Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts has always tried to be interdisciplinary, but it wasn’t easy. Music, theatre and contemporary dance are on the west-end campus. The visual arts are downtown, but they’re still spread out over several locations even after the relocation of some departments and the dean’s office to the new EV Building.

Part of the appeal of the Grey Nuns project for Jackson is that a precious piece of Quebec history will be preserved and re-imagined. As an organist and director of the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, he knows religious buildings well because they are so frequently performance venues.

These stately now-abandoned buildings, once the heart of French-Canadian culture, are “in the middle of a huge crisis,” he said. “They can’t all be condos and concert halls.” However, the fact that the building is a valuable piece of le patrimoine will likely open doors that Concordia’s fundraisers have never previously broached.

Jackson would like to call the new facility La Cité des Arts de Concordia, a name that suggests a self-sufficient microenvironment of artists. “It’s very québécois, very Concordia.”

About 200 nuns still live in the majestic limestone structure, which includes a hospital, chapel and cemetery. The purchase price is about $18 million, but its transformation into a modern arts school will cost much more. While the outside of the building and the chapel can’t be altered because they are classified as historic, the inside will have to be redesigned.

The building was built for the Sisters of Charity, popularly known as the Grey Nuns because of their dress, over the period 1870 to 1901. Its property included fields and orchards now occupied by the Faubourg shopping plaza and office tower that runs along Ste. Catherine St. between St. Mathieu and Guy Sts. When fully acquired in 2022, it will double the size of Concordia’s downtown campus.

“Personally, I hope we do a minimum of conversion,” Jackson said. As a convent, the building was not open to the general public, but this will change as it is acquired and transformed. “In a sense, Concordia will be giving it back to the people.”