Long before I started working at the Penticton Art Gallery, I was a collector. I started off with bottle caps followed by hockey cards, rocks, coins (which I ended up spending), stamps (which I found out were not worth the catalogue value) and eventually I discovered art. With each collection I threw myself whole heartily into my passion needing to know everything I could about the subject and in doing so, discovered much about myself and the world around me. Each collection held the joy of discovery and the eternal pursuit of the great unknown. I have often wondered if my passion was rational or normal. I have read books on the psychology of collecting and a recent viweing of the show Hoarders has made me re-evaluate my collecting habits. I can thankfully say that I am not a hoarder but I do tend to see value in things that are overlooked by the masses or in the case of my collecting, the art market.
The age old concept that art increases in value once the artist has died is a huge fallacy and is only true if there is some potential for financial gain. There are many artists who in their lifetime find great success both financially and critically but upon their death, their work falls out of favour or there is an insufficiently large inventory of the work and they subsequently fall off the radar. I recently watched a documentary by the noted art critic Robert Hughes called the Mona Lisa Curse. In the film, Hughes explores the radical new relationship the public has with art, art galleries, how art is produced and the way we experience and engage with art. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when public galleries lose public funding which is then replaced by private donors to whom the institution becomes increasingly beholden.
At least once a month I get a phone call from an individual seeking my advice on what to do with the creative legacy of a relative or an individual whose work they have stumbled upon. Some of these artists are incredibly well known and their work is in our collection but in many cases, the artist’s work hasn’t been seen by the public in years, or they come from other places and have little or no connection to this region; others are totally unknown and have never exhibited but still were lifelong artists. This is always a hard conversation as I truly believe that these works do have value, perhaps not a quantifiable monetary value, but value none-the-less. Some do have the potential for financial value but who determines that is also a complicated issue.
Art history is not so much a reflection of what is going on at any given time, it’s often written from the financial success an artist has received both in life but more importantly in death. Sadly the cream doesn’t always rise to the top and the secondary art market and those who collect art have increasing influence on which artists make the grade and which artists are forgotten. If the quality of the work was so important, would an unsigned, unattributed painting by any of the major artists command the same price as one known to be done by the hand of the very same artist? I think not. A number of years ago the Rembrandt Research Project set out to authenticate all the known works by this famous artist and put to rest any questionable attributions. This highly controversial undertaking determined that some paintings which were the anchors of well known institutions were in fact not done by the artist himself and could no longer be called a Rembrandt. What bothers me is that the institutions would then remove these amazing paintings and relegate them to the vault as they were now somehow lesser works. This makes absolutely no sense at all to me.
I do believe it’s important that a public institution collects and documents the richness of our visual arts heritage. While it’s always wonderfulto collect the big name artists, the real gems are those whose work may have been lost in the shuffle. Take for instance the incredible archive we have of Julia Bullock Webster’s work which has little financial value but is a rich documentation of our region and its history. Many women of her generation were quite accomplished artists and it’s interesting to note that the first graduating class of the Vancouver School of Art was entirely comprised of women. That being said, I ask if you can name any one of them? It’s also had to believe that there were only a handful of women artists working prior to the middle of the last century, yet where is the evidence of their work? When I first arrived here I was asked to assess the Penticton Art Gallery’s permanent collection and I realized we had great strength in the works of women artists. I suggested that we make this a primary focus for our collection. Not only would our collection stand out amongst other institutions, it would also provide an interesting counterpoint to the currently accepted view of our region’s art history.
My intent behind this exhibition is threefold. First, it was an economic choice as I needed to cut costs to ensure the gallery had sufficient resources to weather the uncertain financial times. Second, the gallery’s collection is a community asset which we hold in trust and these works should be seen from time to time not only to benefitthe community but also to recognize the artists’ work and to honour those who have so generously donated to this legacy. Third, I wanted to document these works and make them available through our website as they are only valuable if the public knows they exist. It’s an exciting opportunity and one which will no doubt provide some interesting insights and discoveries.
If you have any questions about our collection or inquiries about making a possible donation, please contact me at the gallery. I also welcome any discussion on the thoughts outlined above and I hope they will provide food for thought and another perspective the next time you buy a book of art history or travel to visit galleries and museums in other communities.