YOU GOTTA LOVE IT
Galleries West asked four prominent Western Canadian collectors (ROMANA KASPAR-KRAFT, PAUL CRAWFORD, BILL SHURNIAK and TAMAR ZENITH)
to share thoughts, insights and tips about the art of collecting art.
Owner, The Collector’s Gallery of Art, Calgary
By Elizabeth Herbert
Seven-year-old Romana Kaspar gazed up at the huge, mysterious painting on the wall. “This is a very valuable and important work of art,” her father explained. She considered this for a moment. “Must be because he used so much paint!”
For the owner of The Collector’s Gallery of Art in Calgary, the aesthetic response has become more sophisticated, though no less enthusiastic. Romana’s parents were owners of the respected Kaspar Gallery in Toronto and, as she recounts, her earliest visual memories are stocked with images any collector of Canadian historical art would recognize: Thomas Mower Martin, C.J. Way and Marmaduke Matthews.
“Memories and early associations influence what people collect,” Romana says. “For me, there is a strong continuity between the art that was there when I was a child, and what I have in my home now.” Asked if her private acquisitions are motivated by her intuitive responses, Romana says: “Not just my own. My husband Shane (Kraft) loves to collect too. He is often the voice of reason. Actually he’s like a lot of our clients. He does research — he wants to know that any work of art we consider for purchase has a good, solid pedigree. I do believe that this is a sound approach for any collector, whether they are just starting out or have been at it for ages.”
Obviously, Canadian historical art is significant for Romana, but are there surprises to be seen in her home? “The early Canadian avant-garde pieces. William Ronald and his brother John Meredith, for example. I was always aware of the early 20th century European movements — my parents’ roots are there, and I think that kind of sensibility had a great influence on what caught their attention in the Canadian art scene. On the one hand they gravitated toward the “old masterish” look, but their deep respect for Mondrian and Kandinsky made them receptive to Canadian experiments with abstraction. “What’s the one thing Romana dreams of adding to her collection? “Any Lake Superior scene by Lawren Harris. There is something about them that gives me goosebumps.”
- Do your research before you purchase.
- Take your time.
- Buy from someone you are comfortable with, someone you can really communicate with.
Director, Grand Forks Art Gallery, Grand Forks, British Columbia
By Beverly Cramp
When Paul Crawford began collecting art in 1990, it wasn’t the most propitious of times. Kicked out of the University of Victoria at the tender age of 20, he had sold his prized stamp collection to pay the rent and had no immediate plans for the future. Then came one of life’s transformational moments. Waiting for a bus, Crawford whiled away the time in a Salvation Army thrift store.
“I found a framed photograph. It was wrapped in butcher string and the frame was broken but it caught my eye,” says Crawford, who spent four of his last few dollars on the picture. That photograph turned out to be an original Yousuf Karsh — Crawford’s $4 investment is now worth $600.
It wasn’t just the Karsh photograph that attracted Crawford. He wrote to Karsh to find out about the picture’s subject and Karsh sent a handwritten letter back with a self-portrait. “I was more interested in Karsh’s accounts of the people he was photographing and his interactions with them during the photo shoot,” Crawford says.
The events and socio-economic history surrounding artworks became the driving force behind Crawford’s ongoing interest in art, particularly British Columbia art. He returned to university, earned a B.A. in art history (the only subject that had interested him enough to get a passing grade in his first year before being expelled) and embarked on a career in the visual arts. Crawford worked as a commercial art dealer in Victoria and eventually ended up at his current job as director and curator for the Grand Forks Art Gallery.
His job titles and addresses changed but throughout the past 15 years Crawford continued to add to his personal art collection. He has works by famous B.C. artists like Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, Toni Onley and the grandfather of conceptual art in this province, Iain Baxter.
Crawford also has larger collections of lesser-known B.C. artists. He has 40 pieces by William Newcombe, a painter born in Vancouver in 1907 who studied with Group of Seven member Fred Varley. “Newcombe went to Black Tusk Mountain and did lots of sketching like the Group of Seven did,” says Crawford, adding that after WW II, Newcombe tired of Vancouver and moved to England where he exhibited next to Henry Moore and other British modernists. Newcombe died in 1969 and there was only one major retrospective. “He is almost written out of the art history books,” says Crawford.
Ronald Bladen (1918–1988) is another B.C.-born artist collected by Crawford. Bladen is viewed as a father of Minimalism and his work is still sold in New York art galleries.
“There’s so much stuff being lost or threatened,” Crawford says of historically significant B.C. artworks. “I can’t say no when I have a chance to acquire it.”
Crawford’s most intriguing painting is, possibly, a Fred Varley portrait of Henry Mortimer Lamb, who was a critic, collector and big promoter of the Group of Seven. “The same portrait is in the Vancouver Art Gallery,” says Crawford. “Mine is on canvas and the VAG’s is on board. When I showed a photo of my painting to Fred Varley’s grandson, he said, ‘that’s my grandfather’s painting’. But when I told him it wasn’t the VAG painting, he told me that Mortimer Lamb’s wife, Vera Weatherbee, made a copy of the original Varley for herself when Lamb donated a portion of his art collection to the VAG in the 1930s.”
- Do research. Contact the artist or people who are experts on the artist.
- Go to art auctions. It’s a great way to start a collection, especially if you’re on a budget.
- Protect the artwork’s provenance. Never, for example, remove exhibition labels from the back of a painting.
Director, Shurniak Art Gallery, Assiniboia, Saskatchewan
By Wes Lafortune
Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, a small prairie town south of Moose Jaw, seems like a strange place for a gallery housing an international art collection.
“I had to make a home for my family,” chuckles the unmarried and childless Bill Shurniak, referring to his art collection.
Now retired, the 74-year-old banker grew up in nearby Limerick and began his career as a teller at the Imperial Bank of Canada in Assiniboia, just around the corner from where his namesake gallery now stands. One bank branch led to another, and before long Shurniak was embarking on a career as an international financier that had him traveling across the world and living abroad for more than two decades.
It was during this part of his life that Shurniak began to purchase art. “The majority of the paintings are from places where I lived and worked,” he says. “There’s a story attached to almost every painting.”
After more than 20 years in Hong Kong and a recent stint in Australia, Shurniak returned to live in Saskatchewan on his family’s land. At first he considered building his art gallery on the homestead. However, he decided against that after considering the impact on family members still living there, and the kind of security measures needed to protect the collection.
Instead, with his donation of $1 million, the Shurniak Art Gallery opened its doors on July 30, 2005. “We’ve had 6,000 people visit since we opened,” says Shurniak. “It’s quite outstanding.”
A collection that would be noted in any city in the country is simply mesmerizing when you consider that a local tire recycling plant is still considered a major tourist attraction in this town of 2,800.
The Shurniak collection includes more than 500 paintings, with more than 200 on display at any given time. Artists such as A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris and Allen Sapp are represented, but this is not exclusively a collection of Canadian art. Beyond the scenes of Canadiana are works collected from across Europe and Asia. “The collection has an international flavour,” says Shurniak. “There are four rooms of Canadian paintings and two rooms of international paintings.”
Asked what motivated him to build an art gallery in south central Saskatchewan, Shurniak replies, “It will help that part of the province; it will help the town survive.”
It’s the same kind of sentiment that led this humble man to begin collecting in the first place. Thinking of the paintings as members of his family, Shurniak never sold any of the pieces he collected during the past 50 years. “If I had to sell some, it would be like cutting off my right arm.” — Wes Lafortune
- I wouldn’t want to give advice.
- I buy because the piece reminds me of someplace I’ve lived or to help an artist friend — of course I still have to like it.
- I haven’t been looking at the financial gain.
Co-director, Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art, Calgary
By Elizabeth Herbert
Tamar Zenith, elegant in Prada, greets me with a smile and ushers me into a remarkable interior. I look up, and up. Staircases framed by minimalist horizontal bars and delicate rectangular screens create a light-filled space of their own. Walls are cool-toned, the furniture (“We don’t have much of it”) sleek and low.
I contemplate the paintings, mixed media works and photographs. In contrast to the house, the art is luscious, sensuous and painterly.
“My house is my canvas,” Tamar says. “It was designed with a view to displaying our collection.” On one wall is a painting in encaustic (a mixture of pigment and wax used by the ancient Egyptians) by Canadian artist Christopher Kier called Sacred Vessel. I am tempted to reach out and touch its rich, honey-like surface. “My mother Helen Zenith and I are interested in artists who push the boundaries of their process.”
I’m reminded of Gauguin’s famous advice to young painters: “...and that shadow, rather blue? Don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.”
Above the chesterfield is a large work by the Vancouver-born artist Graham Gillmore, who currently works in New York City. His images feature ostentatious “routered in” words and phrases whose meanings are at odds with the frankly beautiful glowing forms below. “Newzones Gallery participates regularly in international art fairs, and my personal collection reflects this experience,” says Zenith.
At the foot of the stairs are four black-and-white photographs by Donald Sultan, whose work may be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name a few. Like magic, loops and lozenges of white smoke entice the eye to dance away from the picture frames — playful, accessible images animating Tamar’s quiet surroundings. “I grew up around beautiful things,” she says. “I was deeply influenced by that.”
TIPS FROM TAMAR
- Collect what you love.
- If what you love does not fit your budget or home, make it work for you. Pay in installments, store the piece or hang it somewhere else — it is important to have the piece of your dreams.
- Be informed, do some research and collect from a reputable gallery or dealer.