History of the Musée

The MAJ’s beginnings date back to the 1940s, when the Clercs de Saint-Viateur established an art gallery in the Séminaire de Joliette, under the direction of Father Wilfrid Corbeil (1893-1979). The calibre of the artworks acquired by the Clercs – one of which was Paul-Émile Borduas’s famous Still Life with Green Grapes (1941) – demonstrates the flair and avant-garde sympathies of Father Corbeil and his collaborators. The Musée du Séminaire soon earned an enviable reputation. Over the years numerous gifts enriched the collection of Canadian paintings and sculptures assembled by Father Corbeil, especially that of Canon Wilfrid Anthony Tisdell (1890-1975), who in 1961 gave the Musée some 400 pieces. The collection continued to grow to such an extent that in 1966 the Clercs de Saint-Viateur entrusted its management to a committee charged with promoting it. The committee, whose members included Father Corbeil and a new collaborator, the future senator Serge Joyal, was formed the following year as an autonomous corporate body under the name of the Musée d’art de Joliette.

When the Cégeps were founded in 1968, the Séminaire’s pre-university programmes were transferred to the Ministère de l’Éducation. At first it was thought that the new Cégep de Joliette would keep the collection, but the idea was soon abandoned and the Musée was obliged to move out of the Séminaire. In 1969 it was moved into the premises of the former Scolasticat Saint-Charles, but this solution could only be temporary, as the clergy wished to give up the building. From that point on, the keyword for the Musée’s management was construction. After prolonged negotiations with the federal and provincial governments to obtain grants for building and operations, construction officially commenced on August 26, 1974, and the Musée opened its doors to the public a year and a half later, on January 25, 1976.

Today the Musée d’art de Joliette (the MAJ) is recognized as Quebec’s most important art museum outside of the major cities. While pursuing the objectives of conservation, dissemination and research established over half a century ago by its founders, the Musée continues to expand its permanent collection, which currently comprises some 8,500 works held in four collections: Canadian art, European art, contemporary art and archaeology. At the same time it offers a wide range of programmes structured around the promotion of its permanent collection and the presentation of temporary exhibitions, as well as a host of educational and cultural activities for visitors of all ages.

The Musée’s architecture

In opening the new building in 1976, the management of the MAJ was realizing a long-cherished dream: to see the institution established in a structure specifically designed for museum purposes.

For Father Wilfrid Corbeil, it was a two-fold dream that came true. The plans for the new building, sketched out by Jacques and Julien Perreault and drawn up by Joliette architect Jean Dubeau, were based on a model designed by Father Corbeil, who loved architecture as much as he did paintings, sculpture and theatre. To house the collection, Father Corbeil took his inspiration from the work of Le Corbusier and decided on an international style of simple shapes that he described as “architectural abstraction”.

In 1985 and in 1992 the building underwent major renovations to double its storage and exhibition spaces. Nevertheless, it was not until 2015 that works forever changed the image of the museum. The new architecture of the building gives it a more open and inviting appearance for the community. The dematerialization of its facades, its extended entrance pavilion directed to the L’Assomption River and its areas encouraging relaxations are part of this new aesthetic. The redeveloped spaces highlight this commitment by inviting natural light, facilitating access to groups and encouraging creativity in its administrative offices.

An interesting note: during the excavations that preceded construction, an enormous rock was found buried under the site where the building now stands. It was thought that it might have been left by the movement of glaciers in the prehistoric Ice Age. This huge stone still stands on the MAJ’s grounds. It is the first thing that visitors see as they arrive.