Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To their art's content

Winnipeggers owe a debt of gratitude to a long list of residents who helped create what would become the wedge-shaped icon at Portage and Memorial and fill it with important treasures over the past 100 years

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In 1912, Winnipeg was booming. In just four decades, it had grown from a trading post on the banks of the Red River into Canada's third-largest city -- a cosmopolitan hub of commerce and culture nicknamed "Chicago of the North."

Winnipeg had bankers, businessmen, millionaires and socialites. It also had art lovers and professional artists. What it did not have was an art gallery.

So a group of 37 businessmen and other influential Winnipeggers, recognizing the "civilizing effects of art," each chipped in $200 and rented a couple of rooms in the old Federal Building at the corner of Main Street and Water Avenue.

The Winnipeg Museum of Fine Arts officially opened to the public on Dec. 16, 1912, with an inaugural show of 270 paintings loaned by the Royal Canadian Academy. None were by local artists.

In his speech, Mayor R.D. Waugh painted an optimistic picture of the gallery's future, predicting that by the time the building's lease expired in five years, the City of Winnipeg would "be only too glad to father a scheme for housing the pictures and curios which have been collected in a permanent museum and gallery."

It would take nearly 60 more years -- a span that included a world war and an economic depression -- for that scheme to hatch.

Today the Winnipeg Art Gallery has its own iconic building, a massive, modernist wedge of Tyndall stone on Memorial Boulevard. Canada's oldest civic art gallery, and the country's sixth largest, it currently houses more than 26,000 works of art, ranging from ancient Roman glass to 21st-century multimedia pieces. It also boasts the world's largest collection of contemporary Inuit art.

But it's been a long road to renown.

To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the WAG is retracing its rich and humble roots and remembering the early movers and shakers who, as founding member and businessman George Wilson put it, saved Winnipeg from years of "languishing in comparative darkness so far as the brightening influence of art is concerned."

By 1914, the art gallery was drawing Saturday crowds of more than 1,000 people -- half the attendance of the National Gallery of London, it was noted at the time. One of its first acquisitions, at a cost of $300, was Summer Afternoon, the Prairie by a young Winnipeg painter named Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, who would go on to become a member of the Group of Seven.

In 1925, municipal funding was discontinued amid increasing calls for the gallery to expand its art collection and construct a proper building in which to house it.

That sort of happened in 1933 when the WAG moved into its second home -- the western corridor of the third floor in the newly constructed Civic Auditorium (now the Manitoba Archives building) at St. Mary Avenue and Memorial Boulevard. The Manitoba Museum would later occupy the eastern corridor.

The new gallery space had its own set of challenges, given that the building also housed every major sporting and religious event and concert that took place in the city.

"The Civic Auditorium was kind of an awkward place for an art gallery to be in because you couldn't have security. When there was a wrestling match on, we had to close the gallery down," recalls John Bulman, a businessman and community leader who has been actively involved with the WAG for nearly five decades. He served as board president from 1971-74. (His grandfather, William John Bulman, was one of the founders of the original Winnipeg Museum of Fine Arts.)

The WAG would remain in the auditorium -- which also had to be cleared out once a year when the Shriners took it over -- for 38 years. The limited space didn't stop the WAG from hosting some of the biggest blockbusters in its history, which it did by using off-site venues. The 1961 Van Gogh exhibition was displayed at the newly opened Norquay Building, while the 1964 King Tutankhamun artifacts show was housed in the Legislative Building. Attendance for both exhibitions topped 42,000 visitors.

Bulman, who served as chairman of Tutankhamun Treasures, recalls actually helping to unpack the exhibit. "You wouldn't do that now," he says with a laugh.

In his unpublished memoir, Ferdinand Eckhardt, who served as the WAG's director from 1953 to 1974, talks about his "many sleepless weeks" worrying about the gallery's lack of control at its Civic Auditorium premises. "Thus anybody could have removed a picture rather easily and it was only through the honesty of the people in Winnipeg that little happened."

That Eckhardt, who had a doctorate in art history and was married to composer and musical prodigy Sonia Gramatté (widow of German Expressionist painter Walter Gramatté) would leave the rich art and music scene of Vienna for a third-floor gallery in Winnipeg, came as a surprise to many, Bulman, 83, recalls.

"When he came for the interview and then flew back, someone made the comment, 'Well, we'll never see him again.' But he did come back, and he brought Sonia, who was a very famous composer, and they made a very significant and lasting contribution," he says. (The Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation, a charitable arts organization established in 1982 in Sonia's memory, still operates out of what was the couple's modest home at 54 Harrow St.)

"He probably saw that there was a vision," says Bulman, who hosted the royal luncheon when Princess Margaret and the Earl of Snowdon officially opened the WAG's new and permanent home in 1971.

Margaret Morse, a retired speech pathologist and past board member currently in her 56th year volunteering with the WAG, was also at the opening -- which was hampered by a building trades strike.

"Ferdinand had original paintings coming from Europe and from the old gallery, but the strikers wouldn't allow the trucks to go to the back of the building," she recalls. Only a few pieces made it through in time.

"But Ferdinand had a great sense of humour, and so we had one painting lit up by one cord and a single hanging bulb. Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon went around and we smiled as if everything were just fine and it was all hunky-dory."

Picketing workers also prevented Sonia Eckhardt-Grammatté from performing her specially composed trumpet fanfare from the gallery rooftop, Morse recalls, so she played it from the roof of the Hudson's Bay parkade across the street from the gallery instead.

Throughout most of the 1930s and the war years, the WAG was staffed by a single employee. In 1948, at the instigation of Muriel Richardson, the Women's Committee (later the Volunteer Associates) formed, with the primary purpose of raising funds to buy art.

Apparently this "outspoken" group of 10 women (they would number 250 by 1954), many of them well-educated professionals, threw Eckhardt for a bit of a loop.

"Coming from the Old World, I had never heard of such a thing," he wrote in his memoir. "At the start I tried to be polite and I know the Women's Committee also tried to be kind to me. It did not take a long time, though, before I realized that they were the most thriving part in all the activities of the gallery."

Morse, 87, joined the committee in 1956 and developed a close relationship with Eckhardt. He was determined to have a new gallery, which he referred to as his "child," she says, and never gave up the vision. He would also come to call the Women's Committee his "angels" and eventually joined it himself. Eckhardt died in Winnipeg in 1995 at the age of 93.

It's people like Eckhardt, Bulman and Morse, and many others who made the WAG part of their community and their lives, who are ultimately responsible for the WAG's longevity and success, says Stephen Borys, executive director since 2008.

"We can't take for granted that museums last this long, but here we are a century later," he says. "We're more than just a museum filled with fabulous art; we're a place and a community and that's what has sustained us."

For a full schedule of centennial events, and to retrace the WAG's timeline, go to www.wag100.ca

Visitors are urged to share their WAG memories on the website.

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 G1

History

Updated on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 2:10 PM CST: adds fact box

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