WAG

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS -

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

gallery build­ing.

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