Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles, a square kilometre in the city’s downtown devoted to the arts, is a one-stop shopping destination for culture vultures. Offerings include classical music concerts, opera, ballet, comedy and improv, and funky urban street performances.

The Quartier des Spectacles, (French for “entertainment district”), has more than 80 cultural venues and hosts about 40 festivals a year, an entertainment hub rivalled only by New York City's Broadway, some experts argue.

“Montreal is not a huge city like Paris or New York, but it’s become some sort of international hub of creativity,” said Pierre Fortin, executive director of the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership, a non-profit public organization that oversees the neighbourhood’s development.

“There is always something surprising and new and different in the area,” Fortin said. Earlier this year, for six weeks, 21 balançoires (swings), created music when people swung. And “the music becomes louder and in harmony”, when they swung synchronized, Fortin said. The project, designed by artists Melissa Mongiat and Mouna Andraos, is expected to return next year.

The Quartier, located around the Place des Arts and at the intersection of Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent Streets, has been the city's cultural heart for more than 100 years, and has a long and colourful history. In the 1920s, when the age of variety shows, “scopes” movie theatres and nightclubs were in full swing, the city’s Red Light district emerged as a destination “for pleasures of every kind”, according to Partnership materials. Prohibition in the US, as well as the area’s affordability, attracted many artists and cultural organizations.

But over time, the neighbourhood fell into decline. In recent years, the large public spaces and vacant parking lots were taken over by festivals. The International Jazz Festival, Just For Laughs, and FrancoFolies de Montreal -- three of the largest -- draw more than five million visitors every year, according to the Partnership.

In the early 2000s, a plan was conceived to redevelop and revitalize the area, the name Quartier des Spectacles was given, and the transformation began.

“In a lot of cities, you have to fight to make installations. But in Montreal, they promote it,” said Sakchin Bessette, co-founder and creative director of Moment Factory, a new media arts and entertainment studio that designs, among other things, multimedia urban public installations all over the world.

Last fall, the partnership commissioned Elixir, a 20 minute multimedia show presented in a very large water fountain. “It’s a love story between a water drop and a pixel,” Bessette said. “We took over the fountain and projected video and light on the water. When the light touched the water, it really created a beautiful effect -- a dance of water, light, video and music like dancing rainbows,” said Bessette, whose company’s motto is “We do it in public.”

Historically people would gather around campfires and share stories, but “now, in a world of personal screens and personal devices, it is important to have a reason to gather,” he said. “The Quartier brings all of the people together,” artists, residents, tourists, “in a kind of community”.  

La Vitrine, a cultural information and last minute ticket booth, currently has a playful interactive light and video installation by Moment Factory, that will move to a new building, scheduled to open this autumn.

The Quartier’s overall plan includes the Luminous Pathway, which uses exterior lighting to highlight the facades of cultural buildings at night. A double line of red dots (red is a nod to the district’s “red light” history) on the ground indicates there is a cultural venue.

Also planned are the redesign and creation of many public spaces as well as a number of buildings currently in development, like the Maison des Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, and the concert hall for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, scheduled to open in September.

Last week, in collaboration with the One Drop organization, the partnership announced that Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, will hold a special outdoor exhibition of photos from his recent trip aboard the international space station. Beginning 1 September,  65 large scale photos will be shown on the Promenade des Artistes. 

Corresponding with Montréal Complètement Cirque’s performances at different venues throughout Montreal, from 7 to 24 July, passersby walking on a giant chessboard in the Quartier will trigger video projections that preview upcoming shows. And 50 circus artists will perform a variety of free mini shows in the Quartier. (The daily schedule will be posted on their Facebook page.)

“The real end is to have people smile and be happy in Montreal. That’s our mission,” Fortin said.

Upcoming festivals include:
The Montreal International Jazz Festival
through 4 July
Festival International Nuits D’Afrique
from 12 to 24 July
Just for Laughs
from 5 to 31 July
, a LGBT arts and culture festival, from 25 to 31 July
The First Peoples’ Festival
from 2 to 9 August