COLLECTOR'S INFLUENCE: Western Canada
By Beverly Cramp
Like many museums in North America, Western Canada’s large public galleries were started with the collections of private donors. Calgary’s Glenbow Museum was formed in 1966 with the Glenbow Foundation collection, donated by lawyer and petroleum engineer Eric Harvie. After making a fortune from the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1949, Harvie had begun to collect cultural and historical artifacts of the west in earnest in the 1950s. His stated goal was to include pieces from Western Canada, artifacts and art from Asia, West Africa, South America and the South Pacific.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery is Canada’s oldest public art gallery, established in 1912 by a group of ambitious businessmen who understood the “civilizing effects of art.” The WAG gained its reputation as the home of the largest collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world when it acquired the George Swinton collection of 130 Inuit sculptures in 1960, and more than 4,000 Inuit art works from Jerry Twomey in 1971. The WAG is also known for its decorative art collection, based on the donation of objects from Melanie Bolton-Hill in the 1950s. The gallery has since added to this collection and now has over 4,000 pieces of decorative art — from ceramic, glass, metal and textiles from the 17th to the mid-20th century.
Citizens of the city of Victoria own collector Michael Williams’ collection of some 1100 pieces of British Columbia art including contemporary and historic West Coast art (in particular, one of the largest collections of Maxwell Bates paintings along with major Jack Shadbolt works) and Aboriginal art including pieces by Robert Davidson, Sharon Point and Roy Vickers. They’re housed at the University of Victoria but Michaels also donated funds to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, which is itself housed in a historic mansion of Victorian design that was donated in 1951 by Sarah Spencer. The gallery’s permanent collection of 17,000 items is best known for its Asian art, second only in significance to that held by the Royal Ontario Museum.
“Our Asian art collection was started in the early 1950s by some of the wealthy patrons and supporters who had the time and goodwill to develop our cultural institution,” says Jon Tupper, director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. “Once a collection starts, art institutions develop expertise around it and that usually attracts more of the same to the collection. The work done by the early volunteers those many years ago, informs much of what we are doing now.”