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WAG fires edgy curator

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A cutting-edge art curator with a flamboyant personality -- brought in to spruce up the Winnipeg Art Gallery's staid image -- has been fired while still on probation.

Curtis Collins, the WAG's curator of contemporary art and photography, was shown the door Friday by the institution's no-nonsense director, Pat Bovey, just three months after she hired him.

"I have no comment," Bovey said yesterday as her organization prepared for Friday's public opening of a touring exhibition of paintings by early 20th-century Canadian master Tom Thomson.

"Curtis Collins is not continuing as curator of contemporary art."

Normally loquacious, Collins wasn't much more forthcoming himself.

"I can't give you much, buddy," he said. "It could look bad on me or on the gallery, depending on your perspective."

He is the second key WAG staff member to be fired this year. In May, Bovey turfed the organization's manager of finance and administration.

In his short tenure at the WAG, Collins, 41, projected a glamorous image with his designer suits, shoulder-length hair and rock 'n' roll lingo.

Saying he had the "sexiest job in the building," Collins boasted that he wanted to put the WAG back on the map for producing and exhibiting modern art.

That is an area of the Memorial Boulevard fortress's mandate that has been lacking, its critics contend.

"The WAG has had such a lengthy hiatus from the contemporary art scene that those of us involved in its production and dissemination have long since stopped talking about it," said Sheila Spence, executive director of the Manitoba Printmakers Association.

"The departure of Carol Phillips and later Shirley Madill marked the beginning of the end of contemporary art programming at the WAG."

WAG director from 1985-1992, Phillips is now director of the Exchange District's Plug In Institute of Contemporary Arts.

"I don't know what the challenges (at the WAG) might be now," she said. "For a large public art gallery with multiple obligations to programming, getting the parts to fit is not an easy job for a director or a curator."

Spence, a WAG photographer during Phillips's tenure, says that both Plug In and the artist-run centre Ace Art Inc. do a vastly better job on contemporary art with a fraction of the resources, $500,000 and $200,000 respectively.

"Why not double their funding and see what a genuine commitment to contemporary art can do with increased resources?" she said.

The WAG recently declared a small surplus on last year's $5.1-million operating budget. The gallery employs 64 people, including full-time curators in historical, Inuit, decorative and contemporary art. Its 22,000-piece Inuit art collection is the world's largest.

"It's hard to raise money to show contemporary works," Bovey said. "Collecting institutions are at a big disadvantage for getting those grants."

The WAG, she says, has been unable to secure funding for what was going to be Collins' first public project, Thin Edge of the Wedge, a display of installation art next month by six University of Manitoba art school grads.

In recent years, the WAG has had its biggest success with historical exhibitions, such as Art in the Age of Van Gogh, the Group of Seven in Western Canada and A Thousand Hounds: A Walk With the Dogs Through the History of Photography.

"We have multiple mandates," said Bovey, who took over the WAG in 1999 after a long tenure as head of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. "Maybe we don't have more resources than those single-mandate organizations."

Bovey hired Collins' predecessor, James Patten, shortly after her arrival. Patten left last year for a similar position at the Windsor Art Gallery.

Madill held the job for many years prior until her departure for the Art Gallery of Hamilton after Bovey came on the scene.

Bovey also lost her chief curator, Tom Smart, who moved on to the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh.

His successor, Donna McAlear, left last year when her husband was offered a job in the U.S. Her position is currently being filled on an acting basis by historical curator Mary Jo Hughes, who is responsible for the Thomson exhibition.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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