Marina’s Picks: The Winnipeg Art Gallery

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Marina’s Picks is a regular feature from CanadaHelps CEO, Marina Glogovac, highlighting some of the many charities she is personally passionate about. As a champion for smaller charities, Marina wants to help fellow Canadians discover some of the lesser known organizations that are working to make our communities better.

Though I spend my days thinking of technology and charities, art is part of my soul. Most people don’t know that I first came to Canada as part of a modern dance company. My partner is a talented painter and photographer, and one of my children is a writer and filmmaker. So it is with great pleasure to get to highlight the work of the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) as part of our recognition of International Artist’s Day on October 25th.

Stephen D. Borys is the Director & CEO of the WAG. Though the gallery has been around since 1912, it is not the traditional art gallery it once was. For one thing, it is now home to the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world with the Qaumajuq museum. This first-of-its-kind centre connects to the WAG on all levels, creating a 185,000-square-foot cultural campus in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. Qaumajuq bridges Canada’s North and South through exhibitions, research, education, and art making. A community of artists, Indigenous advisors, partners, and stakeholders have collaborated to envision and build a vibrant gathering place where all are welcome and where everyone’s stories are told and heard in a true spirit of reconciliation.

“I find that everyone has a conception or idea about what Inuit art is, in terms of a carving or drawing or a print—and that’s important,” says Borys. “But when they come into Qaumajuq, and come through these extraordinary galleries and spaces, they realize: Wow! Inuit art is so much more than a soapstone carving or a print or a drawing. Inuit artists are working in every media today from film, photography, video, installation work, sound pieces, word pieces, and major sculptures. In other words, we are trying our best to show audiences the depth and breadth of contemporary Indigenous art today.”

The expansion of the WAG was the result of a $70M capital campaign with a new mantra: art is a voice. “It sounds really simple and straightforward but there were many voices and perspectives that weren’t always included or welcome here,” says Borys.” “The WAG was, as many institutions are, a very Euro-centric, non-Indigenous model as a cultural museum. This has changed, largely because of conversations we’re having in the forum.” Borys thinks the campaign’s success could only have come from changing the conversation around the WAG, and museums in general — looking at their purpose in their community and the barriers community members experience in engaging with the museum. Instead of raising money for a new gallery space, they raised money for a transformation:

“I find charities, be it the cultural sector, the education sector, be it inner city programs, we all need to look at and rethink why we’re here, what we are doing, and maybe even examine missions and visions—are they really relevant today and current? What is the impact? I find cultural institutions in many ways remain elitist and out of touch. We just assume we know what’s good for people. I feel in the charity sector that we need to examine values and whose values lead a project. Do they reflect the community?”

The entire main floor of WAG-Qaumajuq is free to enter, and includes exhibitions, a theatre space, a cafe, retail, and hangout space. This access is part of a strategy to rethink what publicly-funded spaces should be, especially in downtown areas where there are few areas where everyone is truly welcome. Borys notes that museums, galleries and cultural institutions hold a lot of square footage in our cities — the WAG is a full city block — so these institutions have a responsibility to their communities.

The team at the WAG focuses on three key things: being relevant, being meaningful, and being impactful in terms of what they do—sometimes outside the parameters of what we think museums should be doing. Art can be a powerful advocacy tool for people to understand a range of societal issues — access to fresh water, sovereignty issues, migration, extinction of animal species — and all of these things are coming out in the artwork, particularly in Indigenous communities.

For the WAG, the silver lining of the pandemic is that it allowed them to build stronger connections to different communities, in particular with northern communities but also across the city of Winnipeg and Canada. The cost to travel from many Inuit communities can be prohibitive so artists’ visits to Winnipeg aren’t frequent, but virtual connections help support the relationships throughout the year. This also meant, despite the strain, that they were better prepared than some to adapt to the virtual demands of COVID.  “We realize the physical experience of the museum is critical,” says Borys. “Nothing can replicate standing in front of an artwork or engaging people with art. But we also feel sometimes those encounters begin virtually and begin far away from Winnipeg. I find both are important, the virtual cannot replace the physical experience but they support each other.”

Through months of shut downs, they weren’t sure what the fate would be of the grand opening celebration of the Qaumajuq museum. They decided to double-down on the virtual experience, and invested the budget from an in-person public opening to a virtual opening. Working with an Indigenous film production company, their virtual opening ceremony saw 50-60,000 attendees. “We probably connected with more people that way than ever before. There were over 220 media outlets and writers from around the world who joined our virtual media event and I don’t think we would have ever had that kind of engagement in person. For a museum that must transcend geographies and kilometers, it wasn’t a bad thing. It’s drawn people in, it’s made WAG a destination, despite all that, through COVID we’ve been able to keep a dialogue going.” The virtual opening can be viewed on the WAG’s website.

As an art lover, but also as a charitable sector that is invested in supporting charities through the hard work of modernizing, I’m inspired by the work the Winnipeg Art Gallery is doing to reinvent itself, engage new communities, and continue their mission. I’ll leave you with these powerful words from Stephen Borys: “I cannot think of a more powerful tool where people can connect and learn from each other and be inspired than art. It’s one of those universal languages. When we really understand it, it’s incredibly exciting—and it’s happening here.”

Head shot of CanadaHelps President and CEO Marina Glogovac.

 

I encourage you to check out and support this inspirational charity that is working so hard to support the community it works in. Learn more about The Winnipeg Art Gallery on their website, or make a gift through their CanadaHelps Charity Profile.

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2 Responses to “Marina’s Picks: The Winnipeg Art Gallery”

  1. Malcolm Burrows

    Marina –
    The WAG is an amazing gallery. I can hardly wait to see its Inuit art in the new Qaumajuq museum.
    Thanks for shining this spotlight in the middle of the country. Winnipeg – Canada’s soul city.

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