Susan Whitney Gallery

From the Susan Whitney Gallery Anniversary catalogue published in 1989, written by Nancy Tousley.

From the day it first opened in November, 1979, the Susan Whitney Gallery has been a unique and remarkable undertaking. Few galleries in Canada or elsewhere have developed so richly eclectic yet distinct a personality and fewer still have responded with such attentiveness to the needs and givens of a community, and then taken a hand in the way that community is perceived and perceives itself. Regionalism, that bugaboo of Canadian art, was an issue Whitney met head on, embracing it with a sense of pride in Saskatchewan art and acknowledging place, the wellspring of the Gallery’s heart and character, as a value.

Mixing art with strong Pop, prairie and West-Coast sensibilities, folk art, vernacular artifacts and art made from craft materials, Whitney began to demonstrate, just when the stew of postmodernism was beginning to simmer, that terms like regional or vernacular or funk or folk needn’t be equated with parochialism. More than simply representing its artists in a clean, well-lighted space, the Gallery expressed their sensibility, their lively way of looking at the broad spectrum of culture, their roots, and their affinities. Things were all of a piece.

During the 10 years celebrated here, the Gallery has achieved local, national and North American acclaim, without diluting its piquant flavour. Whitney’s timing and instincts (she’s far too down to earth to fancy the term postmodernism) were right. Like all art galleries with an incisive point of view, Whitney’s is a reflection of her own taste and intuition, reinforced and often guided by her artists, who have introduced her to new people and new areas of interest. She has been an observant listener. The Gallery, which opened in a small turn-of-the-century Regina house on Victoria Avenue and moved into the landmarked 1908 Albert Duncan Residence last year [1988], gives a visitor the feeling that it is being lovingly curated, that a significant aspect of recent Canadian art history is being cared for.

From the start, Whitney showed Saskatchewan’s self-taught artists - Ann Harbuz, Molly Lenhardt, Harvey McInnes, Fred Moulding - in tandem with Victor Cicansky, Joe Fafard, David Thauberger, Russ Yuristy - trained artists who looked to their older, rural colleagues as models and championed their work. Wilf Perreault, Jerry Didur, Don McVeigh and Donna Kriekle, artists in the same core group, were exploring related avenues of Saskatchewan experience and culture that branched into different paths. Quickly, the Gallery’s focus enlarged to include vernacular forms of functional art. In 1980, Whitney mounted the first of the Made in Saskatchewan exhibitions, with the help of dealers Lindsay Anderson, John MacGowan and Dick Spafford, an antiquarian bookseller specializing in Canadiana. The show, an unusual enterprise for a commercial Gallery of contemporary art, included Doukhobor, Mennonite, Hutterite, Ukrainian, and French-Canadian furniture, rugs, quilts, carvings, clothing, painting, samplers and ceramics. For most of its viewers, it was a first introduction to the vibrant material culture of the province’s ethnic heritage, and objects formerly relegated to attics and chicken coops began to take pride of place in collector’s homes. Tramp art frames and shelves can also be found in the Gallery with its signature Mennonite trunks.

These initial interests in functional art have led, characteristically, to bringing contemporary forms of functional art into the Gallery, such as Brian Gladwell’s elegantly postmodern painted cardboard furniture and Cyndy Chwelos’ decoratively inventive ceramic platters, which have been shown atop Doukhobor tables. The Gallery has developed by making these sympathetic imaginative leaps. And if Whitney has been influenced by her artists, she has influenced collecting in Regina and across Canada. Looking outward, the Gallery’s interest in recent history has invited shows of recent work by three members of the now dispersed Regina Five: Ronald Bloore, Kenneth Lochhead and Arthur McKay. Exhibitions of international prints, with an emphasis on American Pop art from both coasts and Chicago, have related important sources of influence on Gallery artists. Whitney continues to show the work of California ceramic sculptor David Gilhooly, whose impact on Regina in the early 1970s was enormous, and the work of Roy DeForest, whose humourous West-Coast esthetic also claims kin in this prairie city. New faces from out of town have included Toronto painter Douglas Kirton, Calgary painter Barbara Milne and Vancouver artist Carole Moiseiwitsch. The Gallery also shows Nova Scotia and Quebec folk artists along with those from Saskatchewan.

The widening of the circle has expanded with the Gallery’s ever surer sense of self. Now it seems both surprising and entirely fitting to find a Gallery like Whitney’s in Regina: that is a measure of her success and collaborations within this closely-knit community. Certainly, there were no guarantees when she started out on a shoestring with a surplus of energy and enthusiasm and only a little experience. Her confidence has grown with the Gallery during the 1980s. She looks forward to the 1990s with a sense of renewed challenge. "You can’t get stale," she says. But how better to see where you’re going than to know so clearly where you and a community have been together?