There are triumphs, troubles and, of course, controversies, all shining a spotlight on the ways an art institution embodies the spirit of its time and place.
—Alison Gillmor, CBC Reviewer
The Winnipeg Art Gallery is throwing quite the bash this year,
celebrating its 100th birthday with exhibitions, events and parties.
A new show, The WAG Century, starts with the history of the institution itself.
Gustavo da Roza, building model of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, c.1970 WAG
is a bit of art -- some of the gallery's early acquisitions anchor one
wall, including a luminous prairie landscape by Lionel LeMoine
FitzGerald . But mostly this exhibit is made up of artifacts: exquisite
architectural models of all three WAG buildings, blown-up photos, and
display tables packed with letters, catalogues and pictures.
is not a big splashy show, but a little, intricate show, where you need
time to pore over the details. If you take the trouble, you'll probably
get caught up in the cultural history. There are triumphs, troubles
and, of course, controversies, all shining a spotlight on the ways an
art institution embodies the spirit of its time and place.
are perpetual struggles for funding, especially during the gallery's
fragile start-up period and the Great Depression. There are public calls
for censorship, starting with a huffy letter to the 1914 Telegraph
about two paintings of nudes: "It seems strange that in the midst of
all this talk of suppression of night clubs and the Underworld of
Winnipeg, that visible incitements to evil should be openly exposed to
the gaze of young lads and pure girls."
In the 1950s, a
long-time art gallery supporter complains about "nauseous blobs" of
abstract painting, which are "more than a sensible person can bear."
There are the big blockbuster successes (Tutankhamun Treasures
, Spirit of Ukraine: 500 Years of Painting
shows of Warhol and Van Gogh). There are lectures by renowned public
intellectuals (philosopher Paul Churchland, artist Christo). There are
photos of famous WAG visitors (Harry Belafonte, Princess Margaret). In
one pic, former director Ferdinand Eckhardt chats with actor -- and noted
art collector -- Vincent Price.
The show also reminds us that
institutions are made up of people -- artists, administrators, supporters
and stalwart volunteers. If you're over a certain age, your response to
these pictures might be very personal. (I know mine was -- could it be
that we were ever so young?)
And while the show looks back at
history, it also shows how the gallery is moving into the future, with
an interactive component that allows people to add their own WAG
Oviloo Tunnillie, "Woman playing Accordion", 2005. Green serpentine stone. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. (Robert R. Taylor)
* * * * *
Another recent exhibit at the WAG showcases a really significant donation by Winnipeggers Bob and Marlene Stafford. The Stafford Collection of Inuit Sculpture
features key pieces from the 1990s and 2000s, from the baroque curves of Abraham AnghikkRuben's Shaman Braiding Sedna's Hair
to the rough massiveness of Lucassie Ikkidluak's Muskox
There's also an older piece by one of my all-time favourite artists,
Karoo Ashevak, whose work was always deceptively simple and brilliantly
The Stafford Collection is a timely reminder that the
WAG has, as its website says, "the largest collection of Inuit art in
the universe," numbering over 11,000 pieces. It's also a good lead-up
to the gallery's Centennial Legacy project, a purpose-built Inuit Art
and Learning Centre.