Jeffrey Spalding - Cropped - 2016
IN MY OPINION
Many of our public art treasures – and the histories they reveal – are shelved, locked away, abandoned
By Jeffrey Spalding
It may be a Canadian delusion, but this has seemed a particularly long and dreary winter. I, for one, am suffering the serious effects of cabin fever. I’ve been hunkered down and just have not been out and about seeing as much art as is my norm. So I found myself especially disappointed that conditions would not allow me to travel to the Lawren Harris exhibition organized this past spring by the Vancouver Art Gallery. Nor would I be on hand to hear the presentation by its exemplary and knowledgeable curator, Ian Thom. Nevertheless, huge kudos to the gallery for bringing this remarkable event together.
Why am I so glum? True enough, Harris is one of my most cherished artists. But it’s not as if I haven’t seen a Harris first-hand before. I suppose it struck me this time just how infrequent these major art historical events have become in Western Canada. Some 137 works strong, this exhibition surveyed Harris’ remarkable inventive odyssey. It was on view a mere two months and then gone; I don’t believe the show is planned to travel. Then, it doubly hit me – 82 of the exhibition’s works are in the gallery’s own collection.
You’re kidding, right? We own this fabulous resource but, customarily, it’s benched? Not available for view? Harris was the foundation upon which art in modern Vancouver was built. The experiential, intellectual and spiritual values of these formally progressive works informed and inspired generations of Vancouver artists. They had this impact because they were readily available for people to encounter. Where does one go now in Western Canada to see a work by the West Coast’s most influential post-Second World War artist, Lawren Harris?
I was heartened to see a couple of other exhibitions on the forthcoming VAG schedule that explore its rich collection. That’s highly commendable. Yet, to me, it’s not nearly enough, and, frankly, I don’t understand it. I suppose I am lamenting that many of my most beloved institutions have changed and left my interests behind. Don’t new generations of art admirers deserve an opportunity to see this important history? Or, perhaps, it’s just me?
The Vancouver Art Gallery, for example, used to dedicate a couple of floors to a historical overview from its stellar collection, offering a decade-by-decade ramble through the art of our time. Through these presentations, I learned about, and grew to admire, the art of B.C. Binning, Jack Shadboldt, Gathie Falk, Ann Kipling and Fred Varley, as well as the phenomenal national and international contemporary collections amassed by Vancouver’s Ron Longstaffe and other collectors. What I also witnessed was the visual thinking of outstanding and dedicated curators whose remarkable connoisseurship crafted these interweavings of themes, thoughts and times. By and large, these individuals are all but gone from the staffs of art museums in Western Canada. The profession has moved on to explore temporary exhibitions and other priorities.
This is nowhere as acute as in Alberta. Practically all the major public collections are either shelved entirely or underutilized. In Edmonton, the Art Gallery of Alberta collection resides in an offsite storage facility, and the 13,000 works held by the University of Lethbridge remain inaccessible, as do the superlative resources at the Banff Centre, the University of Calgary, the Alberta College of Art and Design, the Buchanan collection in Lethbridge, and more. The best bet for those hungry for knowledge about our recent past rests with visits to commercial galleries.
How – and when – did this happen? When did we decide that we don’t value seeing the art of history? Who decided that museums should de-emphasize services offered through public collections? That many of our greatest treasures should be locked away?
Yet, within all this, two bright spots appear. Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery announced recently that it is rebranding as the Remai Modern, embracing an ambition to present art of the modern era, reaching back to the 19th century. Presumably, the gallery will showcase and interpret with pride its newly acquired Picasso print collection within the context of the Mendel’s fine collection. In Calgary, the Glenbow has also unveiled a plan to fully embrace art by acknowledging its vast 33,000-work art collection as central to its programs.
It remains to be seen, though, if either institution will attract key art historical leaders, of the likes of Ian Thom, to guide growth and presentations. But following a dark, dismal winter, this news offers a glimmer of light. It is faint, and yet to be delivered, but I’ll be hoping and cheering them on.
Jeffrey Spalding, artistic director and chief curator of Contemporary Calgary, is an artist, a curator and a member of the Order of Canada. He has worked as a museum director and is past-president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.