Showing world-famous artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Auguste Renoir in the same exhibition as talented Canadians like Bill Reid, Wanda Koop and Greg Curnoe might seem like an unusual strategy for a masterworks show—but “100 Masters: Only in Canada” has found success with it at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Last week, it became the most-visited exhibition in the gallery’s century-long history, and it was extended until Labour Day. (To see works and installation views from this popular show, click on the Photos icon above.) Here, WAG director and “100 Masters” curator Stephen Borys talks about the pros and cons of masterworks blockbusters, as well as his thoughts on what museums in Winnipeg and elsewhere need to consider now and in the decades ahead.
Leah Sandals: “100 Masters: Only in Canada” touts the fact that it has brought together works from museum collections across Canada—but six of the works in the show are from American museums. Why is this? Couldn’t six more masterworks have been found north of the 49th?
Stephen Borys: That’s a good question. The reason I included those works from the Walker Art Centre and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is the WAG has a longstanding relationship of exchanges with those two institutions going back to the 1950s.
Minneapolis is the closest major city with old master paintings, and more recently we sent a collection of Inuit art down there. So their inclusion really reflects two institutions that have supported the WAG over the decades outside of the country.
I also thought the title was justified in that the works are in Canada for the run of the show. And of course, the “Only in Canada” phrase comes from Pierre Rosenberg’s “Only in America” publication.
LS: Can you speak more about the connection between “100 Masters” and “Only in America”?
SB: Pierre Rosenberg, who was director of Musée du Louvre years ago, toured the United States selecting great European paintings in American collections—paintings that were really unmatched in Europe. He was literally picking his favourite works, his greatest hits.
I remember getting that catalogue and reading it. “100 Masters” is what I see as my greatest hits in terms of favourites, but it’s also a real dialogue with 30 institutions across the country in terms of what would make up a show like this. For it, I did a 21-city tour that took place over the period of a year and a half visiting museum directors and curators.
LS: In terms of your longer travel history, you spent several years working in the States. Why did you return to Canada? And how did your US experiences change your view of the opportunities and threats at Canadian museums?
SB: My last job here was as an assistant curator at the National Gallery of Canada—and really it was my first job, and an extraordinary privilege to start my career there. When I went to the States, I worked in two institutions: a distinguished college art museum at Oberlin College, where I also taught, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which is the largest university art museum in the United States, and where I also taught.
One thing that really impacted on my work down there in the States was the camaraderie between museum directors. It is, to a large degree, incredibly tight-knit in terms of how they support each other.
I wasn’t planning when I would come back to Canada. But when I had a call from the Winnipeg Art Gallery about this position [in 2008], I realized it was the one job that would take me back to the city where I grew up. It came at a critical time in Winnipeg’s history and in the WAG’s history with its centennial, with the building of the human rights museum, with the goal to build our Inuit art centre. I felt if ever there was a time to go back, this was the time.
What I didn’t have on my side coming back to Canada is I had been away for almost 10 years, so my contacts were more limited. Working on this project was a fabulous way of reconnecting with museums and galleries and their leaders across the country.
LS: So working on “100 Masters” helped develop the thing you found and enjoyed in the States—a sense of being more connected and tight-knit.
SB: Yes. And this year, I became president of the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization. My goal as president is to build upon our collective strengths, our connections large and small. In a way, that’s what the show is all about: our collective cultural strengths coming together and being celebrated in one place.
LS: Speaking of place—you are fairly active on Twitter, and the WAG has nice microsite for this show, indicating a desire to reach beyond the gallery. But one of the descriptions for “100 Masters” insists that these works must be seen in person. This prompted me to wonder: Is this the only way you think attendance can surge at our museums—through these kinds of masterworks showings?
SB: Not necessarily. I have sat on a number of different panels and discussion groups about the history of the blockbuster—“it’s come, it’s gone, it’s back, it’s going.” And I’ve also looked at web presence in those contexts.
But as I worked on this exhibition, I was aware of the power of the object itself. Winnipeg is, in a way, quite isolated. There are people here who have never seen a Rembrandt or Picasso in the flesh.
Sure, [in certain digital contexts like the Google Art Project], you can look on your computer screen and get a much better-resolution, close-up view of a painting than you by can standing in front of it—but it’s more than that. In place, you can see an object that has been produced by someone and has been cared for over the years, and there is nothing standing between you and the object. That’s an experience that I don’t think can be replicated outside of the museum or the gallery.
LS: There are only six women artists in this show. Why is that?
SB: That is a question that comes up. This is a show that spans six centuries, and of course there are more works created by women artists in the last century than there are the preceding centuries. The imbalance is there in terms of what is available in museums.
I could have included some more works by women to create more of a balance. It was actually on my mind at different times when I was looking at works. It’s a fair question, and you might say there are gaps.
Also, some of the works I did want, I couldn’t get—including some by women artists.
LS: You have a strong background in art history, and the collections at the Ringling, where you worked previously, focus on the Baroque period. In contrast, Winnipeg has a strong contemporary art scene for its size. Some observers might be excited to see the “100 Masters” show take place, but they also might be wondering how the WAG is going to reflect the vibrant contemporary art scene that is happening in the city. How would you respond?
SB: There really are three major centennial shows, and the first was “Winnipeg Now” in 2012 that covered 12 contemporary artists who are dispersed around the world in some cases but still call Winnipeg home. Other than Guy Maddin, they were all under 50. So it was really the new generation.
Then as the second show in our centennial year we did an extraordinary Inuit exhibition, “Creation and Transformation.”
So when it came to “100 Masters,” it was not my intention to focus on contemporary; I chose to create a more historical and modern show. It kind of brings us full circle.
Also, I love contemporary work, but if we have too many back-to-back contemporary shows, you don’t always engage the widest audience you might want.
LS: You have talked a fair bit about celebrating 100 years of the WAG. How do you picture it 100 years from now?
SB: One way the WAG is a little different than it was 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, is that with every decade or two, demographics of the city seem to change. My goal is that in 100 years or 50 years, the WAG simply is relevant and reflective of the community around it.
In terms of the nearer future, we also have the largest contemporary Inuit collection in Canada. Either you see that as an asset and an opportunity, or as something like a millstone thrown around your neck. We’re looking at it as an amazing opportunity to push our learning agenda forward.
I mean, Inuit art in Canada has been largely curated by non-Inuit people, and it has a context that is unknown to 98 per cent of the population. How do we communicate the story of Inuit artmaking? We can’t do it in isolation. It’s my goal to work with people in the North in telling that story.
We also have outreach into the inner city, because our downtown has one of the largest First Nations youth populations in the country. So we want to look at how indigenous art and culture is taught in the schools.
Overall, in 100 years, I would like to think there is a dialogue going on between the art gallery and the city and the people it serves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article was corrected on August 14, 2013. One of the original captions incorrectly implied that Monet’s Waterloo Bridge is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The work is actually in the collection of the McMaster Museum of Art.