Culture & Conversation

BYOW and be happy

Marianne Ackerman about to come to Montreal.

Marianne Ackerman about to come to Montreal.

As every artist I know will agree, Montreal is largely a Bring-Your-Own-Work kind of town, at least for anglophone creative types.

When I moved here from Ontario as a young single mother in 1980, I set up my card table in a dilapidated Plateau apartment and was able to pay the bills by freelancing. After a couple of years, the effort landed me a plumb job as Gazette theatre critic, with access to the panorama of anglo and francophone theatre. A wonderful time, but I hankered to write. Somehow convinced theatre would be easier than the long slog of novels, I abandoned the regular paycheque for the hectic world of producing and directing, founding Theatre 1774 with Clare Schapiro in 1989.

Those were optimistic times.

DIY theatre was insanely hard work and low paying, but an immensely rewarding and focused apprenticeship. Clare left in 1993. I continued until 1997, by which time 1774 had $100,000 in annual arts grants. Guy Sprung took over and built Infinitheatre.

I left mainly because I craved solitude and felt ready to write a novel. But also because the company’s “business model” felt somehow wrong, or at least, going nowhere. We’d been unable to secure a permanent playing space. Working all year on one production that played to 1,000 to 1,500 people? I just didn’t see the numbers increasing. Nor would the work get easier with time.

My first novel was written mostly in France, which no doubt contributed to its highly affectionate portrait of the Plateau Mont-Royal artistic crowd, circa the referendum and its aftermath. Published in 2000, Jump somehow sold 10,000 copies, and I wasn’t even around to talk it up.

In fact I had no plans to return to Montreal until fate (my new husband joined McGill’s history department) brought me back in 2004. By that time, my love of the city had come back in full force. Barely recalling Leonard Cohen’s line about “renewing neurotic affiliations,” I was excited by the move. Montreal had changed. It seemed more prosperous, certainly more expensive.

My friends in the arts assured me that selling theatre was even harder than it had been in the nineties. Those who’d hung in had bigger budgets, but audiences were often smaller and runs, shorter. The problems of a conflicted minority culture were fast being submerged in a tsunami of technological innovation, along with local culture everywhere. Sharing and stealing had replaced borrowing and pay-what-you-can. Old institutions were crumbling. New ventures scrambled for a toehold.

Although I’d sworn off entrepreneurship, the idea of creating an online arts magazine proved irresistible. What a joy to turn my back on the sad end of a media era and join the ranks of talented, generally young people, enamoured by the potential of the World Wide Web. My main activity was (and still is) writing – novels, plays, magazine essays. But the 156 posts I’ve written for Rover put me back in touch with the city’s culture, and offered release from the humiliation of chasing low-paying freelance gigs. Running the site gave me a slew of new friends and made me feel part of the change.

Since launching on October 1, 2008, Rover has published 2,289 original reviews, interviews, essays and stories, mainly about the arts available in Montreal: books, music, film, theatre, dance, visual art, digital and more. Well over a million words – each post professionally edited and offered for free, at your fingertips, night and day.

Rover’s main success has been in discovering new writers and helping build their careers. The archives contain an astounding 290 bylines, ranging from well established writers to neophytes. Some wrote once or twice, others on a regular basis. Most on-line blogs are a free-for-all of crazy typing. Rover held workshops. Every post is edited. Michael Mirolla, Leila Marshy, Jamie O’Meara, Meghan Stewart, Elise Moser, Heather Leighton, Sujata Dey, Chrissy Myers, Eric Hamovitch, Shawn Katz and I have put in thousands of hours making good writing better.

Most of this effort has been unpaid. Small sums went to needy editors. Revenues have come from a trickle of ads, fundraising events, my bank account and a tiny core of donations to #ListMTL, a curated selection of cultural events sent out as an email twice monthly.

A few of the creators we cover have taken out ads, but none have come forward with a consistent promotional plan, or asked how they could help Rover survive and grow. Watching the struggle for audiences, the desperation and disarray, I conclude that producing art is even more difficult now than it was in the 1990s. Some have given up worrying about audiences and instead dig deeper into the grinding world of ever-diminishing grants and fundraising. This dependency is alarming. Greenhouse art is never tasty for long.

I’ve always believed good critical comment to be a fundamental part of the artistic process. An art form, at its best. I still do, although increasingly, consumers and creators seem content to rely for information on a dubious mix of shadowy advertising, celebrity gossip, advertorials, tweets, Facebook and a diminishing number of paper-thin publications. Both sides soak up what is free, never giving a thought to the insidious hidden costs.

The planet is getting warmer but our intellectual bathwater is growing colder by the day. Where these two thermometers meet is anybody’s guess.

Rover has proven that Montreal attracts a huge pool of incredibly well-educated, well-trained writing talent, young and not-so-young people who are eager to examine the fruit of other people’s creativity and spend many hours at the keyboard formulating a thoughtful response. Writing is such hard work!

Rover incorporated as a non-profit company and applied for five arts grants, but to date has been unsuccessful. And yet Rover continues, obviously filling a need for aspiring writers and a small, loyal readership.

I feel proud of what Rover has achieved, of the collective effort of so many smart people. Yet I know the magazine could be so much more important to the community than it is at present.

How to get there? A creative life in Montreal may be more difficult now than it was in the nineties. No company or individual can expect to start up or exist mainly on grants. But the tools for connection and creation are cheaper and potentially more effective than ever before.

I have many ideas about how Rover could grow. All involve money and labour.

Your thoughts would be most appreciated. Please drop by the ELAN panel this Sunday and join in the conversation. If you can’t be present, write to me at You can also join our mailing list here, or donate to Rover using Paypal.

Literary Legacies: A Montreal Story will take place September 21 at 12pm
 at POP Montreal Quarters (3450 Saint-Urbain). Marianne Ackerman will be in conversation with Blue Met founder Linda Leith and writer Katia Grubisic. At 1:45, Albert Nerenberg, filmmaker, prankster, and laughologist will talk about The Montreal Formula: Thinking Outside the Box for Survival. 


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