Rue du Trésor: From artists’ bohemia to organized enterprise

Rue du Trésor: From artists’ bohemia to organized enterprise

LiQ_Mag_July_2015_CoverThis article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Rosanna Haroutounian

Tourists visiting Québec might find it hard to resist a stroll through the quaint pedestrian art gallery on Rue du Trésor. Some stop to get a closer look at the paintings or exchange words with the friendly salespeople while others buy artwork to take home.

These are the typical experiences on Rue de Trésor, the artists’ alley linking Rue De Buade with Rue Sainte-Anne. Few visitors know much about the artists who make their living here, or the intricacies of politics, culture, and economics that help the street survive year after year.

“The street was just an alley to go to the Terrasse Dufferin,” says Jacques Brousseau, an artist who began working on Rue du Trésor in the 1960s with other local artists. Most were students at the École des Beaux-Arts. At that time, artwork was hung on wires using clothespins and the street was lit with kerosene lamps.

“We very quickly began selling the paintings we were creating on site,” says Brousseau. “By Expo 67, the street was full.”

The artists began hiring salespeople to sell their work so they could spend more time producing it.

“At the beginning, it was rebellious, a bit,” says Brian Magher, who has been working as a salesperson on the street since the 1980s. “The police would come and chase the artists away.”LiQ_Mag_Sub_Banner

Soon, the City of Québec stepped in to gain some control over the increasingly lucrative, impromptu gallery. The City and the artists agreed that selling art should be allowed on the street, but only if the artists obeyed certain rules. Each year, every artist pays a fee to the City of Québec, usually between $300 and $400, to sell their artwork on the street. All the artists on the street (39 at present) make up the Association des Artistes de la Rue du Trésor.

“It’s not a little-old-lady-selling-art kind of place,” says Arthur Aron, who was a salesman during the street’s early days before becoming an artist and selling his own work there. “It’s a business.”

Artists are no longer allowed to produce art on the street because of the limited space. Each wall space is about one-and-a-half metres wide and three metres tall. Framed artwork and photography cannot be sold.

Artists are responsible for hiring salespeople to represent them on the street. As with the artists, salespeople must follow certain rules. Each year, they are required to buy a permit from the City, which allows them to sell on the street. The Association has also put regulations in place to govern how salespeople interact with customers and each other.

“When someone looks at your wall, the salesman is allowed to speak to them, and if they walk off, you have to let them go and the next salesman will pick them up,” explains Aron. “People respect that.” Additionally, salespeople must truthfully represent the techniques used to create the work.

Magher works for Aron and another artist on Rue du Trésor. He says the rules in place result in little conflict on the street.

“It’s very competitive in a sense, but you learn to live with it,” Magher says.

Québec’s changing tourism landscape also presents challenges to artists and salespeople. Aron says Cirque du Soleil in the Port of Québec, Carnaval on the Plains of Abraham, and hotels in Sainte-Foy draw tourists away from Old Québec, and away from Rue du Trésor.

“I’m not against these projects; I just think everybody in the ‘Vieux’ has to concentrate on bringing good stores back, making sure there are Christmas decorations, and life,” he adds. “If you take everything away and all there is are tour buses dumping people off for 15 minutes, then it’s going to be tough.”

Still, the street continues to attract budding entrepreneurs. Each year, a jury assesses the work of artists who are vying for spaces on the street. Aron says the jury is made up of Association members, as well as non-members, such as representatives of the City or professors from Université Laval.

“The better the art, the better the business for everybody on the street,” says Brousseau.

The jury assesses the artists’ techniques and ensures they did their own work, but does not meet the artists. Aron says the artists’ anonymity keeps the selection process fair. The number of artists selected depends on the number of spaces made available by artists who have left the street. A draw takes place to determine which of the new artists gets first choice of the available wall spaces.

“It’s like winning the lottery, that wall,” says Aron. “If you get it and work on it, you’ll make money.” He says artists must adapt the subjects, styles, and techniques of their artwork to the ever-changing tastes of consumers.

In the eighties, according to Magher, 70 per cent of the clientele were American. “Now, it’s really international,” he says. The internet has made it possible for visitors to send photos home before making purchases, and have their purchases mailed home instead of packed into suitcases.

The selling season used to end around Labour Day, but the growing number of cruise ships stopping in the Port of Québec has helped extend the selling season into the autumn. Most artists begin selling in April, when the weather starts to warm up and students start visiting on school trips.

“We always try to buy something from the countries we visit, because when we look at it it’s like we’re back in that beautiful place,” says Brousseau’s wife, Denise Godbout, also an artist on Rue du Trésor. “I think this is why the street is successful, because people go there and see something that touches them. When you pass in front of that art piece, it makes your stress go away.”

Godbout and Brousseau agree that it is ultimately the artists’ love for their craft that draws them to Rue du Trésor year after year.

“You can see we are very passionate, and we think we are incredibly lucky because as artists our life is very beautiful.”

While Rue du Trésor brings tourists back to their time in Québec, for locals, it provides a link to their own history of art, culture, and entrepreneurship.

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About Author

Rosanna Haroutounian

Rosanna Haroutounian was raised in Mississauga, Ontario, and studied journalism and political science at Carleton University. She currently works as an English assistant at a college in Quebec City. She enjoys reading, baking, being outdoors, and travelling the world when time and finances allow.

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