There is a Pablo Picasso cartoon-style sketch in the Kelowna Art Gallery.
How it got there, or rather how a gallery like the Vancouver Art Gallery, which owns it, acquires such treasures had VAG senior historical curator Ian Thom waxing poetic on the overtures of art patrons and their ability to help assemble a creatively robust collection on a minimal acquisition budget.
In the 1980s, the gallery established a half-million annual acquisitions fund, which as Thom explains it, began to be used as seed money to attract the kinds of offers the gallery needs.
“Major works cost a lot more than half a million per year,” he said. “So you have to learn how to say those things at an appropriate time that might make someone want to help you.”
The form help comes in is enough fodder for a book on curators’ escapades and he proceeded to fill a morning brunch this past Saturday, July 7 with a select few of the stories, entertaining Kelowna’s art community while driving home the point that generous donors are critical to the art world.
In one story, VAG was named the sole beneficiary of a $3 million estate with the difficult stipulation that the money must go toward the purchase of work by The Group of Seven, he said.
Surveying the gallery’s collection, Thom decided the funds would go to best use on a Frederick Varley painting. The gallery did not have a Varley, though the artist spent 10 years living in B.C.
Apparently, Varley and Jock MacDonald had been hired to teach at the School of Decorative and Applied Arts in the city and split from the institution when the Vancouver School Board, which ran the school, cut their salaries by 60 per cent. Though it was the mid-1930s and money was tight, the artists discovered the school’s principal, Charles Hepburn Scott, was only to have his own salary reduced by 40 per cent. Incensed, the pair broke from the school to go out on their own—their own school went under two years later.
As Scott made recommendations on the VAG acquisitions committee, Varley’s work was off the list. Vancouver managed to miss out on owning a Varley, though he was sitting on its doorstep during an important period of his colour development.
It wasn’t the only hole in the collection. The city also became one of the world’s centres for photographic art and yet the gallery, following on the heels of much of the art world, collected almost none of the images over the course of the art form’s growth.
As luck would have it, the gallery was able to kill two birds with one stone with the $3 million donation. Thom chose Varley’s portrait of Vancouver photographer John Vanderpant who was a fine art photographer, but also the go-to man to have one’s picture taken in Vancouver.
Vanderpant’s work had no market when Thom selected the Varley, so the choice was a bit of a risk.
“Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you will have made exactly the right choice, and sometimes you are late to the game,” he said.
The gallery was so behind on collecting photography, it considered not bothering to collect it at all, though some of the world’s top photographers—Ken Lumm, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace—claim the city as their home. Through patrons’ generous support, the gallery has nevertheless acquired some 2000 photographs at record speed, a small selection of which is hanging on the Kelowna Art Gallery’s walls.
Thom was also in town to introduce a social justice-themed show he had assembled from VAG’s collection called Bearing Witness.
The show includes the Picasso; a jarring look at New York artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero’s work, much expressing disdain for the horror of the Vietnam War; contemplations on slavery by Maria Magdalena Campos Pons; and Ken Lumm’s take on ethnocentric attitudes and hidden racism.
Everything in the show comes from VAG’s collection, giving one a sense of the breadth a gallery’s collection needs to have to offer opportunities to contemplate unique takes on history as in this show.
Bearing Witness is at the Kelowna Art Gallery until Aug. 19.