The WAG would remain in the auditorium — which also had to be cleared out once a year when the Shriners took it over — for 38 years. The limited space didn’t stop the WAG from hosting some of the biggest blockbusters in its history, which it did by using off-site venues. The 1961 Van Gogh exhibition was displayed at the newly opened Norquay Building, while the 1964 King Tutankhamun artifacts show was housed in the Legislative Building. Attendance for both exhibitions topped 42,000 visitors.
Bulman, who served as chairman of Tutankhamun Treasures, recalls actually helping to unpack the exhibit. “You wouldn’t do that now,” he says with a laugh.
In his unpublished memoir, Ferdinand Eckhardt, who served as the WAG’s director from 1953 to 1974, talks about his “many sleepless weeks” worrying about the gallery’s lack of control at its Civic Auditorium premises. “Thus anybody could have removed a picture rather easily and it was only through the honesty of the people in Winnipeg that little happened.”
That Eckhardt, who had a doctorate in art history and was married to composer and musical prodigy Sonia Gramatté (widow of German Expres- sionist painter Walter Gramatté) would leave the rich art and music scene of Vienna for a third-floor gallery in Winnipeg, came as a surprise to many, Bulman, 83, recalls.
“When he came for the interview and then flew back, someone made the comment, ‘Well, we’ll never see him again.’ But he did come back, and he brought Sonia, who was a very famous composer, and they made a very significant and lasting contribution,” he says. (The Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation, a charitable arts organization established in 1982 in Sonia’s memory, still operates out of what was the couple’s modest home at 54 Harrow St.)
“He probably saw that there was a vision,” says Bulman, who hosted the royal luncheon when Princess Margaret and the Earl of Snowdon officially opened the WAG’s new and permanent home in 1971.
Margaret Morse, a retired speech pathologist and past board member currently in her 56th year volunteering with the WAG, was also at the opening — which was hampered by a building trades strike.
“Ferdinand had original paintings coming from Europe and from the old gallery, but the strikers wouldn’t allow the trucks to go to the back of the building,” she recalls. Only a few pieces made it through in time.
“But Ferdinand had a great sense of humour, and so we had one painting lit up by one cord and a single hanging bulb. Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon went around and we smiled as if everything were just fine and it was all hunky-dory.”
Picketing workers also prevented Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté from performing her specially composed trumpet fanfare from the gallery rooftop, Morse recalls, so she played it from the roof of the Hudson’s Bay parkade across the street from the gallery instead.
Throughout most of the 1930s and the war years, the WAG was staffed by a single employee. In 1948, at the instigation of Muriel Richardson, the Women’s Committee (later the Volunteer Associates) formed, with the primary purpose of raising funds to buy art.
Apparently this “outspoken” group of 10 women (they would number 250 by 1954), many of them well-educated professionals, threw Eckhardt for a bit of a loop.
“Coming from the Old World, I had never heard of such a thing,” he wrote in his memoir. “At the start I tried to be polite and I know the Women’s Committee also tried to be kind to me. It did not take a long time, though, before I realized that they were the most thriving part in all the activities of the gallery.”
Morse, 87, joined the committee in 1956 and developed a close relationship with Eckhardt. He was determined to have a new gallery, which he referred to as his “child,” she says, and never gave up the vision. He would also come to call the Women’s Committee his “angels” and eventually joined it himself. Eckhardt died in Winnipeg in 1995 at the age of 93.
It’s people like Eckhardt, Bulman and Morse, and many others who made the WAG part of their community and their lives, who are ultimately responsible for the WAG’s longevity and success, says Stephen Borys, executive director since 2008.
“We can’t take for granted that museums last this long, but here we are a century later,” he says. “We’re more than just a museum filled with fabulous art; we’re a place and a community and that’s what has sustained us.”
For a full schedule of centennial events, and to retrace the WAG’s timeline, go to www.wag100.ca
Visitors are urged to share their WAG memories on the website.
The WAG launches its 100th anniversary celebrations with the help of over 7,500 enthusiastic visitors, including Mayor Sam Katz (from left), Naomi Levine, WAG board president, and Stephen Borys, WAG executive director, cutting the cake replica of the