MSAC Celebrates 35 Years

Anniversary exhibition features contemporary art

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Dawn Owen, curator of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre’s 35th-annversary exhibition, “XXXV.” Scroll down for a preview of the exhibit. Photos by Dean Palmer

From “aroma art” to an unusual Inuit wedding blanket to works wrought in silver, there’s plenty to see in a current exhibit marking the 35th anniversary of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre (MSAC). The show, called “XXXV,” focuses on modern to contemporary Canadian pieces from the centre’s permanent collection, says Dawn Owen, curator of contemporary art.

“Part of the intent was to break down barriers and assumptions about periods in art and understand what’s happening across Canada,” says Owen, BA ’98.

For this show, she looked to highlight specialties within the MSAC collection, which now totals some 8,000 pieces. Besides picking out several recent acquisitions, she chose a number of paintings, sculpture, photos, Inuit and aboriginal works, silver and textiles. The exhibit occupies the entire centre and includes about 100 works by regional, national and international artists.

Several pieces have Guelph connections, including the centrepiece sculpture occupying the main-floor gallery. Combining unconventional materials – notably aluminum and plastic – Jalousie (Instinctual Mistrust) was done by Prof. James Carl, School of Fine Art and Music (SOFAM).

New works in the exhibition by Guelph artists include Looking Through, an encaustic piece by Don Russell, and Side Splice in acrylic by Cheryl Ruddock.

“We’re always looking for key works by regional artists who are at the top of their practice,” says Owen. She began with the centre as a student intern and completed a master’s degree at York University in 2001.

Among the photographs in the exhibit is Rebecca No. 2, part of a portrait series by Arthur Renwick and inspired by traditional First Nations masks.

Sculptural works include Michael Snow’s Torso (1963), part of his Walking Woman series rendered in canvas and resin. Entering one gallery, Owen urges a visitor to not only look but also inhale. That sweet scent emanates from Untitled (Garments and Garment Bags), a work by “bee artist” Aganetha Dyck involving a dress hung between screens containing beehive cells.

As with other works on display, says Owen, this piece pushes and pulls at assumptions. “You generally don’t think of art as having an aroma.”

Inuit works from the collection include a wedding blanket by Thomassie Kudluk with birds, tools and human figures carved from bone and sewn onto muslin. Owen says the piece is unlike anything she’s ever seen. The MSAC collection has more than 1,000 Inuit wall hangings, sculptures, paintings and other works.

Canadian artists entering the Canadian North – far and near – are also represented here. A small grouping of pieces includes Landforms No. 2 by Guelph artist Werner Zimmermann and Lawren Harris’s Morning Light, Lake Superior. Painted in 1927, the latter is one of the few pieces in the exhibit older than 50 years.

Also featured are wrought silver pieces from a collection now numbering almost 50 works. Owen says that collection has been influenced by Guelph silversmith Lois Etherington Betteridge, whose works in the current exhibit include a sterling silver brandy snifter containing cow bone, ebony and vermilion.

A member of the Order of Canada, Betteridge calls MSAC “the gallery in Canada for contemporary hollowware – not hollowware for the table but decorative items.”

Adds MSAC director Judy Nasby: “This is the largest public collection of silver by contemporary Canadian artists.”

Nasby has overseen MSAC’s growth from the original 150 works in the U of G art collection. She arrived in 1968 fresh from BA studies at McMaster University to serve as curator of that collection. She also taught design and art history in SOFAM.

Much of the collection then was displayed in the L-shaped main corridor of the brand-new MacKinnon Building. In the early 1970s, Nasby moved it to the main floor of the library in the McLaughlin Building, where she exhibited works on portable panels.

She worked with the late Donald Forster, then U of G president, to establish a brand-new art centre in the former consolidated school. From the start, they envisioned a public gallery run by partners: the University, the city, the county and the public school board.

“The consolidated school had originally been given to school trustees as a gift by Sir William Macdonald,” she says. MSAC operates separately from U of G, although its staff members are all University employees.

Under the original bequest, the school “always had to be used for educational purposes. We essentially had to prove that a public art gallery was educational. The only way to do that was to incorporate as a non-profit through the province.”

In 1978, a private member’s bill to set up the institution was passed in the Ontario Legislature. “That’s what we’re celebrating,” says Nasby, “the passage of the act that established the art centre.”

Since then, she adds, “We have been very aggressive in building the collection.” The centre has about $60,000 a year for acquisitions, including funds raised by its volunteer association and matching amounts from the Canada Council for the Arts.

The collection also includes the Donald Forster Sculpture Park, with 37 pieces arrayed around the MSAC grounds. That collection – including the bronze Canadiana/Begging Bear by Carl Skelton – began in 1983. A new piece has been commissioned for installation in 2014.

Back inside, gallery co-ordinator Verne Harrison is eager to discuss his favourite pieces in the anniversary exhibition. Those include London No. 5 by Canadian abstract artist Jack Bush. After exhibition, which will run until July 14, the Bush piece – roughly 12 by five feet in size – is expected to travel to the National Gallery of Canada.

Another of Harrison’s favourites is an acrylic called Night Thunder by Norval Morrisseau; it’s one of a number of the late aboriginal artist’s works in the collection. “This is a Canadian superstar, and he’s actually from Ontario.” Gesturing to the piece, Harrison adds, “You’d be hard-pressed to find another work by a Canadian artist on brown kraft paper now worth $100,000.”

Now marking his twenty-first year with the centre, Harrison also looks after the original works from the U of G art collection, which is on permanent loan to MSAC. His all-time favourite is The Drive by Tom Thomson, painted about a year before the artist’s death in 1917.

As with other pieces in the original collection, the painting had been a gift to the Ontario Agricultural College from a graduating class. The Class of 1926 bought the Thomson work, depicting a river log drive in Algonquin Park, for $500.

For years, the painting hung in the foyer of Johnston Hall. Nasby brought it into the collection along with other pieces around campus. Recently appraised at $10 million, The Drive now reposes – when not on public view – in secure, climate-controlled storage at MSAC.

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