‘Transformational Gift’ for Lethbridge Art Gallery

This week, staff at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery have been quietly installing works for their upcoming show, Recent Acquisitions – without revealing any details of the show. Up quietly went works by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, Bill Reid, Matisse, Picasso and more – works that haven’t been seen publicly in decades.

The works are part of an enormous bequest: some 1,140 works from the estate of Margaret (Marmie) Hess, which the gallery made public Wednesday morning.

“One could call it a transformational gift,” says U of L Art Gallery director/curator Josephine Mills. “It will give us an extraordinary profile.”

Ms. Hess, who died in 2016 at the age of 100, was an extraordinary woman. The only child of a sawmill magnate, she attended university in the 1930s, when it was unusual for a woman to do so, and studied at the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto. She began teaching art history during the Second World War.

In the 1950s, she travelled extensively in the Canadian North – hitching rides with bush pilots, the university says – and later visited the West Coast as a guest of the Haida and other First Nations. In 1970, she founded Calgary Galleries – one of the first in Canada to showcase Indigenous art. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Lethbridge in 2004.

During her time in Toronto, Ms. Hess got to know members of the Group of Seven, who encouraged her love of art; she became particularly close with A.Y. Jackson. She collected their work, as well as artwork by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, Indigenous artists in Canada and international artists including Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Marc Chagall.

Cliffs Near Petawawa (1916) by Tom Thomson.

UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE ART COLLECTION; ESTATE OF DR. MARGARET HESS

The works hung and were installed in her two homes – one in Calgary, one on her ranch outside Calgary. Most of them, including Thomson’s Cliffs Near Petawawa(1916), have not been seen in public since she acquired them; Ms. Hess rarely lent works from her collection to museums for exhibition. She did lend some of her Indigenous holdings, but not for the last few decades.

Ms. Mills calls the bequest “jaw-dropping” – not just in size and quality, but in the make-up of the collection. “Often when you’re getting a private donation, it will skew heavily toward only being white and male artists,” she says. “Marmie was such an early collector [of] Indigenous art and there’s also a decent holding of art by women artists.” More than half of the works are by Indigenous artists – mostly Inuit, followed by Northwest Coast artists.

While the works are still being appraised – that’s being done in batches – the bequest is worth more than $4-million.

In addition to keeping the news confidential for almost a year, the donation has caused some (welcome) challenges to the tiny gallery, which had a staff of five to begin with (they were able to bring one contract worker on staff and employ another person on contract, as well as getting help from student interns). With the permanent collection previously numbering some 14,000 works, the donation marks a sizeable increase in the gallery’s holdings, making storage space challenging.

“It took a lot of playing kind of Tetris and figuring out how to fit this all in,” says Ms. Mills. “But we did manage.”

The gallery, in processing the donation, also had to cut back on lending out works, something to which it is deeply committed. Not only was it stretched thin in terms of labour, but there were times when it simply couldn’t reach the requested items.

“We’ve been saying ‘no’ to loan requests, but we couldn’t say why,” says Ms. Mills. “So we just seemed sort of unfriendly and unhelpful.”

More than 110 of these works, hung salon-style, are being shown in the gallery’s Recent Acquisitions exhibition, which opened Wednesday. “We want to show as much as we can,” says Ms. Mills. “Just seeing them together is amazing.”

The main gallery has been renamed the Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess Gallery – although it was impossible to erect a sign indicating that in time for Wednesday’s announcement. “There was no way to do that secretly,” says Ms. Mills. “It involved drilling into concrete.”

The exhibition is at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery until Sept. 7.

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