Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal: A Crack in Everything

John Zeppetelli

Director and Chief Curator, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

185 Saint-Catherine St W, Montreal, Quebec H2X 3X5, Canada

Canadian Museums Association Award for Art Exhibition / budget of over $1M


A Crack In Everything: Commemoration of a Vast Artistic Achievement and Inspiring Life



As Canada’s premier museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary art, the MAC aims to be visionary while accessible: a vibrant place of dialogue and discovery, bringing together local and international artists with diverse and ever-increasing audiences. The MAC is devoted to the presentation, production, collection and promotion of contemporary art, while offering educational programs that inform, inspire and challenge its audiences. In this context, the museum has triumphed with a unique artistic project - Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, the first major exhibition on the great literary songwriter Leonard Cohen.

For decades, Cohen tenaciously supplied the world with melancholy but urgent observations on the state of the human heart. With equal parts gravitas and grace, he teased out a startlingly inventive and singular language, depicting both an exalted spirituality and an earthy sexuality. His interweaving of the sacred and the profane, of mystery and accessibility, was such a compelling combination that it became seared into memory. As a world-renowned novelist, poet and singer/songwriter, he influenced generations of writers, musicians and artists.

Well aware of his fiercely guarded privacy, we wrote to Leonard Cohen with some apprehension: would he object to the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal devoting a large exhibition to him? How would he respond to visual artists, filmmakers, performers and musicians revisiting his words, songs and biography with new inflections and perspectives, drawing from his themes of love and desire, loss and redemption—while breathing provocative new life into them? This singular exhibition explores and embodies how Cohen's vastly important achievement has affected and inspired artists, how it has entered the cultural conversation, how it has cut deep into the marrow of the body politic.

To our great relief, he agreed, with the amusing caveats that a) he would not attend the opening; b) he would not be an obstacle to our work as curators; and c) under no condition were we to ask for his time or direct participation in the project.

When I say we wrote to Leonard, I mean we wrote to his manager Robert Kory, who from our earliest conversations told us that Leonard Cohen was surprised and touched by the attention, but that he was fully immersed in his own creative endeavours. We cannot tell you how pleased, vindicated and confirmed in our unorthodox subject matter we were when, almost two years into our curatorial work on the exhibition, Cohen released, at age eighty-two, just days before his death, a magnificent studio album, his fourteenth, produced by his son Adam.

“A million candles burning for the love that never came/You want it darker/We kill the flame,” Cohen intones sombrely from the prophetic, moving and widely acclaimed You Want It Darker.
That title track in particular seemed to announce, with the force of poetic indignation and disgust, the sinister travesty taking over his adopted country—and indeed, it was just the day before the 2016 U.S. election that Cohen died in Los Angeles. He was secretly buried in Montréal in a simple pine casket a few days later. What began, therefore, as a delirious celebration and loving tribute evolved into something suffused in elegy.


The exhibition is now a commemoration of a vast artistic achievement and an inspiring life, as it opened exactly one year after Cohen’s passing. That evening – November 7, 2017 – was marked with quiet majesty by a large-scale public art intervention, For Leonard Cohen, by the relentlessly probing Jenny Holzer. Holzer imagined a poignant yet optimistic requiem on a massive, iconic, concrete grain silo in Montréal’s Old Port area, where three gigantic projections of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and poems scrolled slowly and silently, revealing and illuminating his words.

By providing a variety of conceptual responses and other reflections, all of the invited artists brought different perspectives to bear on Cohen’s art and life, transforming and interpreting his work while struggling with the weight of admiration and revision, not to mention Cohen’s reputation and enduring relevance. Although a few carefully chosen objects, photographs and, purportedly, Cohen’s own Olivetti Lettera 22 manual typewriter did appear in the exhibition, there was never an interest in showing Cohen’s memorabilia or other artifacts from his life, nor engaging in an uncritically sycophantic or hagiographic exercise. We wanted to see if we could assess and celebrate Cohen’s bold and singular legacy through the fearless responses of other living artists – a conversation we had always hoped Cohen would find moving.

As a truly multidisciplinary exhibition combining visual art, virtual reality, installations, music and performance, Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything offers an immersive, visually compelling and in-depth experience of Cohen’s magnificent oeuvre. The exhibition brings together a selection of over 15 commissioned artworks. When it finally opened after more than three years of development, A Crack In Everything drew upwards of 315,000 visitors from all over the world, a record for the MAC. Montréalers, Canadians and international visitors were unified in their response to this project due to the quality of the developed content and the exhibition’s innovative character.

The project’s creativity and innovation can be measured not only in the impressive number and diversity of the works commissioned by the MAC, the treatment and gallery space given to the exhibition, and the quality of the related programming, but also in the very nature of the project. The complexity of the artworks and the support the artists received from the MAC also reflect the over-riding spirit of initiative. The MAC was able to make exemplary use of its internal resources and staff expertise in a number of areas, including lighting design and video editing for two multimedia installations designed especially for the exhibition. The Museum also benefited from the expertise of co-curator Victor Shiffman, whose background in the music industry was an invaluable contribution to the exhibition.


The MAC’s strength in partnering – a sign of excellence – was also evident in the context of the exhibition through the relationships developed with more than 25 institutional partners, including CBC/Radio-Canada and the National Film Board of Canada, both of which made their archives available to the artists.

One of the great achievements of Leonard Cohen: A Crack In Everything has been strengthening the MAC’s ties with partners and with the Montréal community while increasing the awareness and cultural recognition of Cohen’s work. For a little over five months, the people of Montréal and visitors from around the world were clearly inspired by the project and happy to reconnect with this beloved artist. In this same spirit, a tour of the exhibition began in 2019 and is continuing throughout the world, ensuring the ongoing exposure of this great Canadian achievement.

In closing, I wouldn’t change a thing about how this wonderful project came together, because everything helped to feed it, to define its identity through i) the privileged access we had to the artist and his entourage and ii) the circumstances in which the exhibition developed. This project was definitely a huge challenge but, without a doubt, it is an outstanding accomplishment on the part of everyone involved in creating and mounting it. It has been so rewarding, both professionally and personally. The investment of time, energy and resources (financial and human) was huge, but so was the satisfaction when visitors entered the galleries for the first time and were overwhelmed with emotion upon experiencing the artworks we presented. This experiment allowed us to go off the beaten track and reveal this great artist from a different perspective. The recipe for success: persevere, believe in your inspirations, surround yourself with the right people, and trust in the ability and strength of your teams


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