Winnipeg’s arts community defines it

October 8, 2012

WINNIPEG, MB, Oct. 8, 12/ Troy Media/ – Heritage Minister James Moore has spent more than $28 million of taxpayers’ money to commemorate the War of 1812, which doesn’t mean a whole lot to people in this province.

A new national monument, upgrades to historic sites in the east, and cheesy historical re-enactments might enthrall Prairie tourists hungering for more detail on the dastardly invasion of Sandwich (look it up: July 12, 1812).

But we just don’t go that far back, here in the West.

In 1811, Manitoba was a gleam in Lord Selkirk’s eye when he dispatched a few dozen settlers to the banks of the Red River. Their war of 1812 was more against the elements – cold, pestilence and deadly floods – and their victory resulted in the first European colony in western Canada.

Truth be told, 1912 resonates more with most of us, particularly Winnipeggers. We’ve been celebrating a wide variety of centennials lately, from Union Station to the Winnipeg Law Courts to Westminster United Church to the neighbourhood of Transcona to the Alpine Club (yes, the Alpine Club).

According to some historians, it’s the year Winnipeg ‘peaked.’

In 1912, Winnipeg was only 40 years old and about as cocky as a self-proclaimed titan of industry and agriculture could be. ‘All roads lead to Winnipeg,’ we boasted from the ‘Chicago of the North’ and ‘Gateway to the West.’

Nellie McClung and her suffragette sisters formed the epicentre of the feminist movement in North America; Charlie Chaplin was performing at the Empress Theatre; Winnipeg was Canada’s third-largest city and riding a wave of unprecedented, unparalleled growth and prosperity.

So it’s no surprise that our city forefathers decided to establish their own art gallery in 1912 – today, the oldest civic gallery in the country.

The ‘Winnipeg Museum of Fine Arts’ first opened at the corner of Main and Water Streets in the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau, and housed some 275 works of art – none of which were by local artists.

Its first exhibition was a loan from the east, and reflected neither western nor even particularly Canadian content, according to the late historian Angela Davis.

Today the WAG has its own iconic building, a massive wedge of stone jutting like the prow of a ship towards Portage Avenue.

And its big centennial bash two weekends ago reflected an entirely new, confident sense of place.

Some 7,500 flocked to the party, which featured clowns, magicians, jugglers, live bands, opera, and a midnight fashion show on the celebrated rooftop.

The gallery has become much younger and cooler under the leadership of executive director Stephen Borys, open to everything from jazz concerts to fringe plays.

With almost 24,000 works of art, it is the country’s sixth largest art gallery, and hosts the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art – another big focus of the centennial celebrations.

Last week, a national task force met to plan a new Inuit Art and Learning Centre, which will house the WAG’s collection, and its studio and art learning programs.

Construction of the new centre is set to begin in 2014.

A third major centennial initiative is the WAG’s new partnership with the National Gallery of Canada, designed to bring ‘national treasures’ to Winnipeg over the next three years.

But Borys’s first centennial exhibit is unabashedly, exuberantly homegrown.

Winnipeg Now shines a spotlight on new works by 13 local artists from Guy Maddin to Marcel Dzama to rising star Sarah Anne Johnson. All are making their mark on the international scene.

CBC art critic Alison Gillmor had only praise for the show, calling it ‘edgy, interesting contemporary art’ . . . with some ‘really big, ambitious installations.’

Ambitious is a key word, here. Winnipeg may have peaked economically in 1912, but its powerful and unique arts and cultural organizations were just being born.

A century later, Winnipeg Now and the WAG are a good example of how a healthy arts scene can and should define us.

Even in the wild West, where Selkirk’s settlers won the war of 1812.

Troy Media Eye on Manitoba columnist Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. She is currently working on a history of the women’s shelter movement in Canada.

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