Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ahead by a century

Exhibit celebrates 100 years of cutting-edge culture and controversy at Canada's oldest civic gallery

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The Winnipeg Art Gallery's triangular modernist building has become an iconic place since it opened in 1971.

Many people don't know, or don't remember, that the gallery had two previous homes before it settled behind those limestone walls.

The earliest was inside the Industrial Bureau, a sort of trade-show/exposition building erected in 1911 at the corner of Main Street and Water Avenue to promote the booming city and attract investment.

The Winnipeg Museum of Fine Arts, as it was then called, opened its inaugural show of paintings from the Royal Canadian Academy on Dec. 16, 1912, inside the bureau.

The business community wanted to signal to visitors that Winnipeg was a "civilized" city and a cultural hub by including art, says Andrew Kear, the WAG's curator of historical Canadian art.

"Although the gallery was certainly supported by the artistic community, it was also seen as aligned with business interests," says Kear, 35, an Ontarian who joined the WAG four years ago.

"It's interesting, because by the 1970s, art -- especially contemporary art -- was very much associated with the counterculture and anti-corporate sentiment."

Kear is the curator of The WAG Century, a just-opened show that traces the institution's history through scale models, photos, exhibition catalogues, ephemera, news clippings, text panels and rotating art from the collection.

The show will be on view on the WAG's mezzanine level for a full year, as Canada's oldest civic art gallery celebrates its 100th anniversary. There will also be historical material at the centennial website,

No matter what the era, from Picasso to performance art, controversy has flared up periodically. In 1914, an irate letter writer to the Winnipeg Telegram, apparently scandalized by paintings called Coloured Girl and Coloured Woman, decried the works as "visible incitements to evil" and "vile pictures."

Early shows were loaned by other institutions or collectors. Kear says one of his most satisfying research discoveries was that the work that was likely the gallery's first acquisition, for the sum of $300, was Summer Afternoon, the Prairie, a 1921 landscape by then-emerging painter Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald. (It is included in The WAG Century.)

It's fitting, Kear says, that "Manitoba's modernist grandfather" and the only Manitoban to belong to the Group of Seven produced the first work bought for the collection.

In 1933, the WAG moved into its second home, the Civic Auditorium (now the Manitoba Archives building), occupying a large corridor on the third floor. The limited space meant some of the biggest blockbusters in WAG history, such as a 1961 Van Gogh exhibition and a 1964 King Tutankhamun artifact show, had to be held off-site at venues such as the Norquay Building and the Legislative Building.

In 1945, the WAG hosted its first exhibition of non-Western art, a show of Chinese paintings.

Volunteers have always made a huge contribution. But in 1955, one member of the women's committee threatened to withdraw her support when the WAG displayed a shockingly modern, abstraction-filled show that she said made her physically ill. "'Nauseating Blobs' Spark Gallery Row" screamed the Free Press headline.

The institution got its first full-time director in 1950, was formally christened the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1963 and held its first major Inuit show in 1964. The 1960s saw the first solo shows for then-nascent local artists such as Tony Tascona, Ivan Eyre and Esther Warkov.

A landmark in WAG history was a 1972 show by Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy and Alex Janvier. It was the first exhibition of contemporary First Nations art ever held at a Canadian public gallery.

In 1976, the WAG scored a Soviet-era coup by bringing in a show of master paintings from Russia. It drew 66,000 visitors in six weeks, although in that era, admission was free or almost free. (Compare that with 30,000 for this year's Norman Rockwell retrospective -- a huge hit by recent standards.)

In 1990, controversial American artist Andres Serrano, notorious for Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine, took part in a forum on censorship at the WAG. His mere presence ignited a firestorm, with some city councillors threatening to pull funding from the gallery.

In 2001, a protester scrawled anti-globalization graffiti on the WAG's facade. The photo of it is shocking, at least to art lovers, because it seems to violate a revered setting.

"The gallery," says Kear, "is culturally seen as this almost sacred space."

Art Preview

The WAG Century

-- Winnipeg Art Gallery

-- To September 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 G3

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