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City art lover donates Inuit collection to WAG

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A valuable collection of Inuit sculpture donated by a local art lover has just been unveiled at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

The Stafford Collection of Inuit Sculpture opened Saturday and will be on view until sometime in January. The works were acquired during the past 20 years by retired Winnipeg stockbroker Bob Stafford, with help from his wife Marlene.

They represent so many major artists that when Darlene Coward Wight, the WAG's longtime curator of Inuit art, walked into Stafford's River Heights house to assess it a couple of years ago, she was bowled over.

"I wanted everything," recalls Wight. "But he kept three pieces."

The British-born Stafford, who is in his 70s, started out modestly, buying a few smaller pieces that caught his eye in a local gallery. Eventually, sculptures by the most prominent Inuit artists became a passion.

"He got carried away... and started buying pieces that go for thousands," Wight says. "The result is a very impressive collection."

The curator says she can't put a dollar value on the collection, but it's the most important Inuit sculpture donation to the WAG since the Harry Winrob Collection in 2006. A catalogue will soon be published to accompany the Stafford show.

The WAG holds the world's largest public collection of Inuit art and plans to build an Inuit Art and Learning Centre adjacent to its building to highlight its global significance.

"Collectors are attracted to the idea of donating to us because they know the works will be exhibited and researched and published... and not just sit and collect dust somewhere," Wight says.

The Stafford collection consists of 121 pieces, mainly dating from the 1980s to the 2000s -- a period that has been under-represented at the WAG.

They're by established artists such as Osuitok Ipeelee, Davidee Atchealak, Kiugak Ashoona, Nuna Parr and Abraham Anghik Ruben, as well as younger sculptors.

Stafford also collected some pieces from the 1960s and '70s, including a whalebone work by Karoo Ashevak, a famous sculptor who died in 1974.

The show displays 36 of the most notable works, most made of stone that varies in colour from green to grey to black. Humans, shamanic figures and animals such as caribou, polar bears and muskoxen are depicted.

A charming piece made of caribou antler by Luke Anowtalik depicts eight athletic figures swinging from lines suspended between posts. It's based on a gymnastic-like game played by Inuit people, but sculptures of it usually show only one athlete, Wight says.

"It's really a fun piece," she says.

Wight notes that Stafford learned a great deal about Inuit art collecting from Jerry Twomey, an "amazing collector" who donated his 4,000-piece sculpture holdings to the WAG back in 1971.

The Staffords have frequently spent winters in California, where Twomey lived in retirement. They became friends and spent time together until Twomey's death in 2008 at age 93.

Art Preview

The Stafford Collection of Inuit Sculpture

Winnipeg Art Gallery, to January

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2012 D3

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