‘Art is a voice" is a slogan the Winnipeg Art Gallery used during the leadup to the opening of Qaumajuq, Winnipeg’s newest landmark that celebrates Inuit works and those who make them.
The art speaks to people, but the catchphrase is a two-way street. Galleries can ill afford to ignore the voices that react to the art they display to visitors.
Stephen Borys, the WAG’s director and chief executive officer, says it’s members of the public — what they see and what they don’t see — who define art. Ignore at your peril.
"It’s our goal, not just to be a great art museum, but a place where there’s an ongoing discussion and dialogue, where people with different backgrounds, interests, cultures and nations can find something at the WAG for them," Borys says.
"If a museum or gallery responds to that, it’s an incredible dynamic, and if they don’t it’s a huge lost opportunity."
While Qaumajuq was built to provide a place to exhibit the thousands of works by Inuit artists the gallery had acquired and stored for safekeeping over the years, it also serves as a response to the community.
At 50, the WAG is embracing a spirit of reconciliation and reinventionClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Sep. 24, 2021
Paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and Group of Seven artists such as L.L. FitzGerald were among the famous paintings on display when the Winnipeg Art Gallery opened its doors 50 years ago today.
Grand works all, but it was a few sculptures by Inuit artists that were also on display that caught the eye of Princess Margaret, who gave the gallery its grand unveiling on Sept. 25, 1971, during her royal visit to the city, the Free Press reported then.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada was created to document the history of residential schools and the abuse suffered by thousands of Indigenous people who were forced to attend them. After hearing testimony, the commission in 2015 published 94 calls to action, including recommendations to Canada’s museums, galleries and the governments who fund them.
The WAG has been exhibiting Indigenous art for decades, but Borys says the commission’s calls to action were crystal-clear: there is no reconciliation without action, and more must be done by galleries and museums to recognize Indigenous people and culture.
"(Exhibitions such as) 100 Masters, Salvador Dali, the Impressionists, contemporary photography, those shows are very much a part of the WAG mandate but there is no question we have also looked to exhibit more in the areas of all Indigenous artmaking, not just by Inuit artists," Borys says.
Exhibitions such as Insurgence/Resurgence, which in 2017 became the WAG’s largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art, proved the gallery could show works by Indigenous artists — many of whom toil in obscurity — with the same flair as they would a centuries-old painting by a European master.
That mission continues today with its latest show, Naadohbii: To Draw Water, which offers illustrative and conceptual perspectives of water, conservation and its cultural importance from Indigenous artists around the world.
WAG's angular architecture combines form, function in a building both timeless and of its timeClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Sep. 24, 2021
Asked to talk about the Winnipeg Art Gallery building, Stephen Borys pauses for a moment.
“If I had to describe it in one word, it would be ‘timeless,’” says Borys, current director and CEO of the WAG.
"I would say (in) responding to the TRC’s calls to action for museums and galleries that the WAG has taken significant steps to not just exhibit Inuit art but also First Nations and Métis art, historical, modern and contemporary," Borys says. "It is something that I’m very interested in seeing develop more."
The bottom line — getting people to make a trip to the gallery and discover what’s there — remains as important in 2021 as it did when Princess Margaret marked the building’s grand opening 50 years ago. The WAG must cater to customers in the same way Netflix focuses its algorithms for its subscribers and comedians fine-tune their jokes to get the biggest laughs.
"It’s easy for museums to hold onto that elitist mantle and feel they know what’s best; they define the art and hopefully people will come," Borys says. "That’s not the way I see it and that’s not the future of the WAG and the WAG right now."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.