The WAG was established in 1912 when a group of Winnipeg businessmen, recognizing "the civilizing effects of art," each contributed $200 and rented two rooms in the old Federal Building at the corner of Main and Water Streets. Thus, the WAG was born, becoming the first civic art gallery in Canada. Now approaching its centenary in 2012, the Winnipeg Art Gallery has developed from a small civic gallery to Canada’s sixth largest gallery with an international reputation.
As it expanded, the WAG relocated premises several times to accommodate its growing collection, including its former residence in what is now the Manitoba Archives Building on St. Mary Avenue. It was here that the Gallery moved in an exciting new direction under the helm of Viennese-born art curator Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt who transformed this “provincial" gallery into an important international institution during his long tenure from1953 to 1974. Under Eckhardt's aegis, the WAG grew in stature, presenting significant exhibitions. Its juried exhibitions, such as the Winnipeg Show(s), drew entries from across Canada, proving crucial to the definition of Modernism in Canadian art. Through the forethought of the Volunteer Committee to The Winnipeg Art Gallery (now the Volunteer Associates of the Winnipeg Art Gallery), the WAG was gifted a number of works from these groundbreaking exhibitions, significantly enhancing its Canadian collection. Under Eckhardt’s leadership, the collection grew apace with important acquisitions such as the Gort Collection of late Gothic and early Renaissance art.
The 1950s also witnessed the beginning of several of the WAG’s specialized collections, including that of Inuit Art. This area of the collection was significantly strengthened with the acquisition of the George Swinton collection of 130 Inuit sculptures in 1960 and the Jerry Twomey collection of some 4,000 Inuit art works in 1971. The WAG is now home to the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world with over 10,730 works. The Decorative Arts collection, another area of specialized collecting, also began in the 1950s with the acceptance of a collection of objects at the bequest of Melanie Bolton-Hill. This acquisition significantly marked the extension of the Gallery’s mandate beyond collecting fine art. Since then the WAG has amassed over 4,000 pieces of decorative art, covering diverse media of ceramic, glass, metal, and textiles dating from the 17th century to the mid-20th century. The third specialized collection began considerably later in the 1980s with the designation of the photography collection which now numbers some 1,300 works, largely of contemporary Canadian origin.
Eckhardt’s determination also realized the construction of the present WAG building. Designed by Winnipeg architect Gustavo da Roza, built of pale Manitoba Tyndall stone, the building rises like the prow of a ship on its own triangular "ocean." It was opened by Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, on September 25, 1971. In addition to eight galleries, the building contains a 320-seat auditorium, a rooftop sculpture garden and restaurant, a research library, a gift shop, and extensive meeting and lecture space. The WAG footprint expanded in October 1995 with the opening of the new WAG Studio Building next door in the renovated Mall Medical Building. Home to the Gallery's art classes, the WAG facility is the largest program of its kind in Canada, offering children and adults art classes taught by professional artists.
Recently, the WAG has undergone two major renovations. The first, over a period of two years from 2003 to 2005, expanded the vault storage area, significantly enhancing the Gallery’s ability to manage, care, and transport its collections. Then in 2008-09, the WAG received the necessary funding to entirely replace its aging roof, and to transform its celebrated rooftop back to its original splendour and purpose as a sculpture garden. The WAG’s highest gallery space is once again the most famous rooftop in the city for all to enjoy.
The WAG strives to engage audiences through unique and innovative educational programming. Family Sunday and Young Weekends offer children art adventures themed to current exhibitions. The weekly Art for Lunch features artist and curator talks, exhibition tours, and art videos. Weekend public tours of current exhibitions allow our visitors to engage with our Gallery guides to learn more about the art on view. New programs include Double Take which places equal emphasis on exhibition tours and art-making instruction. Our Art Educators are constantly coming up with new offerings to engage our audience—visits to artist studios, a symposium on Canadian female sculptors, a birdwatching excursion in connection with an interactive exhibiton examining how urban birds incorporate the sounds of the city into their song.
Exhibitions and programs are at the heart of the WAG, and over the years the Gallery has established itself as one of Canada's leading art museums, organizing exhibitions of local, national, and international artists. By developing and maintaining Manitoba's visual arts heritage, it ensures the preservation of this legacy for future generations. The WAG is also at the forefront in promoting Manitoba artists nationwide and abroad. With its connections to international curators and artists, the WAG has toured exhibitions around the world—Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Taiwan, Norway, China, Italy, and the United States. Today the WAG has almost 24,000 works of art ranging from 15th-century European paintings to 21st century American multi-media art, and represents artists from countries and cultures around the globe.