AGGV dives into the first 30 years of collecting art

Michelle Jacques had to sort through more than 5,000 items during the first 30 years of the gallery's existence.

She knew it would be a daunting task.

In order to create the exhibit, Moving Forward by Looking Back — The First 30 Years of Collecting Art at the AGGV (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria), Michelle Jacques had to sort through more than 5,000 items collected during the first 30 years of the gallery’s existence.

As the AGGV chief curator, she wanted things that cut across the boundary between what’s considered decorative art, fine art or visual. Eventually the items were narrowed down to a long list, then looked at in the flesh. Now the fruits of her labour are about to be unveiled.

“It’s an extremely eclectic collection. The exhibition sort of attempts to figure out what Colin Graham, the (AGGV) founding director was thinking and how he figured out how to build a collection from scratch,” said Jacques, noting the show looks at what Graham was collecting by artists that were working in the moment, along with historical work, both Canadian and European.

“He really felt that would form the kind of foundation of an important collection, but he was also really interested in art that wasn’t Canadian or European.”

When selecting the right pieces for the exhibit, Jacques turned to an unpublished manuscript written by Graham in 1981. She looked for interesting anecdotes on the collectors and artists, then searched for works that would demonstrate some of those stories.

In his memoir, Graham said he decided to give precedence to the purchase of work by leading Victorians. Next in order of priority came mainland British Columbians, followed by the rest of Canada. He also felt it was important Victorians have an opportunity to study the work of leading 20th century masters.

“I did not want the gallery collection to be confined by a Europe-centred view of human culture and hoped it would be possible to have as many civilizations and cultures represented as possible,” wrote Graham, who passed away in February 2010 at the age of 94.

So how does one get a gallery started from scratch? According to Jacques, in the 1950s there was an active community of people trying to get a gallery going in Victoria. Graham came into contact with collectors and artists who donated what they had. Other times it was a proactive relationship between him and the person with enough money to buy art.

It wasn’t until the formation of a women’s committee (which started doing fundraisers) that Graham was able to take control of the decisions as money flowed into the gallery’s coffers.

“That really allowed the collection to take shape because it was the thread where he wasn’t reliant on other people’s taste,” said Jacques, noting Graham was the person who started the AGGV’s extensive Asian collection.

She also discovered Graham had been trying to establish similar art collections from other places, such as pre-Columbian pottery from South America, a small collection of African art and Inuit art, which had become a big interest for collectors in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

After eight or nine years of collecting, however, Graham still had less than 300 works to display. Now, the gallery has nearly 20,000 items valued at more than $160 million and is slated to start construction of the $24-million Next Gallery this spring.

Moving Forward by Looking Back — The First 30 Years of Collecting Art at the AGGV, opens Feb. 25 with a free day-long public open house and runs through Sept. 4.

The exhibition includes paintings, sculpture, prints, etchings and photographs from amongst others, Carole Sabiston, Pat Martin Bates, Emily Carr, Sophie Pemberton, Pegi Nicol MacLeod, A.Y. Jackson, Jack Shadbolt, Fredrick Varley, Johnny Inukpuk, Katsushika Hokusai and Rembrandt Van Rijn.