Unable to Pay Its Mounting Debts, the Montreal Biennial Has Filed for Bankruptcy

The once-ambitious international biennial filed for bankruptcy protection last month, leaving dozens of creditors in the lurch.

Moyra Davey's Hemlock Forest (2016), production still. The work debuted at the 2016 Montreal Biennial. Courtesy of the Montreal Biennial.

After forming a new partnership with the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal (MAC) in 2013, a resurgent Montreal Biennial looked poised to set the art world on fire. Now, amid mounting debts, the ambitious event has officially filed for bankruptcy.

The biennial filed for insolvency on February 9, according to papers from Industry Canada. The event carries a total debt of CAD 230,724.10, or roughly $179,000 by today’s conversion rate, according to court documents first obtained by Canadian Art. (Note: All following figures have been converted to US dollars.)

The document lists 33 creditors, with Canadian shipping, storage, and art-services facility PACART holding the largest claim, at nearly $67,000. Sutton PR, the cultural public relations powerhouse, faces a deficit of over $19,000, while, on the lesser end of the spectrum, the biennial owes Artforum International about $2,500.

The art world has known of the Montreal Biennial’s troubles for some time. The 2013 edition was delayed one year due in part to a budgetary squeeze. Then, this past summer, six months after the 2016 edition had closed to the public, multiple news outlets reported that artists and art handlers had still not been paid for their work.

Board chair Cédric Bisson acknowledged that the exhibition’s financial position was “precarious” and that the biennial would cancel its 2018 edition as a result. (Canadian Art notes that no artists are included in the official list of creditors; some confirmed to the publication that they had since been paid.)

Deloitte Restructuring Inc., the trustee of the bankruptcy estate, noted that the biennial may have been a victim, at least in part, of an overcompetitive fundraising environment. Since 2016, the biennial “has not been not able to create the balanced budget required to produce its events,” Deloitte stated in a recent report compiled for creditors. “According to its leadership, the realm of philanthropy is very competitive and projects needing support are numerous; the financing for the production of these fixed-cost events therefore represents a significant challenge.”

Reached for comment by artnet News, Jean-Christophe Hamel of Deloitte explained: “Our role now is now really to go through all the books and records of the companies and find out the reasons” for the biennial’s insolvency. Then, Hamel will be tasked with distributing its remaining assets according to the tenets of Canadian bankruptcy law.

As with their American counterparts, Canadian bankruptcy trustees and their staff do not work gratis. Instead, their time and expenses are paid from the assets recovered from the bankrupt entity. As Hamel explained, “In the bankruptcy process, you have to think about the economic benefit of what you’re doing… to maximize the dividend to creditors.” In other words, if the expected cost of pursuing a course of action outweighs the expected financial gain, it would be best to go another route—or, if all routes lead to poor conclusions, move the process to its end as quickly as possible.

Hamel said that his ballpark estimate for administering the bankruptcy proceedings and estate would be around $7,500. According to an initial report filed by Hamel on February 27, the biennial’s accounts were estimated to hold around $22,000. This could leave less than $14,500 to divvy up between any creditors interested in pursuing compensation.

Soon after Hamel reviews the proof of claim documents filed by creditors, he can determine each one’s rightful payment out of the financial ashes. Barring any unforeseen twists to the case, he estimated that process would take no more than a few weeks—a deflating end for an event whose institutional partner, MAC board chair Alexandre Taillefer, once declared would be “one of the 20 or 25 biennales that you absolutely have to see worldwide.”

artnet News reached out to representatives of the biennial and MAC for comment, but did not receive responses by press time.

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