Warhol’s Gretzky among Art Windsor-Essex works to be auctioned off

Warhol’s Gretzky among Art Windsor-Essex works to be auctioned off

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Over the objections of some, for the first time in more than 40 years, Art Windsor-Essex will auction off and part ways with works from its permanent collection.

Among the approximately 100 pieces selected for deaccession — the act of removing a work of art from a museum’s permanent collection — two of the most notable are a duplicate Andy Warhol portrait of former professional ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky, and a 19th century oil on canvas by renowned Canadian painter Paul Kane.

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Combined, those two stand to fetch the gallery just under $1 million at auction if sold at top market value.

Yet the lofty price tag was not the motivation behind the decision to sell, said Art Windsor-Essex’s executive director Jennifer Matotek.

“This is really positioning us to grow the collection in a more meaningful way while releasing work that isn’t making as much sense with our mission and direction and the way we’re moving forward,” Matotek told the Windsor Star.

Proceeds from the sale will establish an endowment fund to purchase contemporary pieces, as well as artwork from living Indigenous artists in the region, which she said will help “address the gaps” in the gallery’s 4,000-piece collection.

However, Ted Fraser, a former curator who began his career in 1971 at the Art Gallery of Windsor — now known as Art Windsor-Essex — told the Star that he feels the gallery is making an “irrevocable decision to auction off a pillar of the permanent collection.”

When determining which pieces to release or hold onto, the gallery’s executive director typically steers the direction, ensuring decisions align with its strategic plan and vision.

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“Warhol’s print of Wayne Gretzky is a multiple in an edition, and may be replaced,” said Fraser, who worked alongside the longstanding founding director Kenneth Saltmarche when he resigned in 1985 after 40 years of service.

Although Fraser said the Warhol print “is not the central jewel of the collection,” he describes as “irreplaceable” Kane’s surviving work, Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake (1846/1848). 

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Art Windsor-Essex’s 19th century oil painting, Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake, by Paul Kane. Photo by Photo courtesy of Cowley Abbott /Windsor Star

After departing from the Art Gallery of Windsor in 1987, Fraser continued his career serving as director of Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum on Prince Edward Island from 1990 to 1995, and executive director of the London Regional Art and Historical Museums from 1996 to 1998.

Canadian art specialist Rob Cowley, who is president of Cowley Abbott, the auction house handling the sale, said he expects Kane’s canvas to sell for $600,000 to $800,000 due to its rarity and Indigenous subject matter.

The painting depicts two canoes on a river surrounded by a mountainous background.

In December 2022, Cowley Abbott sold another piece by the artist— only the second to be offered at auction in the last 20 years — to a private collector in Canada for just over $1 million.

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“His work is very rare at auction,” said Cowley.

“Rarity plays a huge role in valuing artwork. I believe there has been less than 10 of his canvases sold in the history of auctions in Canada, certainly looking at the last 30 or 40 years.”

The Kane and Warhol pieces were gifted to the local gallery by two anonymous donors in the 1980s, said Matotek. At that time, Cowley said Kane’s oil on canvas would have fetched $275,000 from a top buyer.

Matotek said she sees the sales and their proceeds as an opportunity to diversify Indigenous perspectives in the gallery’s permanent collection.

“We have a lot of work in our collection right now that tells a colonial story of Canada,” she said.

“A lot of historical Canadian artwork would have been from a very settler perspective. You do have to ask yourself the question sometimes about what makes sense to hold onto.

“When you’re looking proportionally at the collection, what percentage of your collection do you really want to have from that one perspective?”

A public sale will be held May 30 at Cowley Abbott auction house in Toronto, as part of its annual Spring Live Auction of Important Canadian & International Art.

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Cowley said the Warhol colour serigraph, one of 300 that exist from that series, could grab approximately $20,000 to $30,000. Art Windsor-Essex will hold onto a duplicate of the print, which is currently on display on the second floor of the gallery.

The remainder of the 100-some pieces flagged for deaccession will be donated or exchanged with other public institutions. Also going is a collection of 114 vintage cigar boxes designed between 1895 and 1920.

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Jennifer Matotek, executive director of Art Windsor-Essex, is shown in front of a collection of vintage cigar boxes at the gallery on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Photo by Madeline Mazak /Windsor Star

Since the founding year of the gallery in 1943  at the time called Willistead Art Gallery of Windsor located at Willistead Manor in Walkerville — 343 objects have been deaccessioned. 

Fraser said galleries should steer clear of deaccessioning, warning that it is a slippery slope that could discourage potential art donors.

“While deaccessioning and donations will build an acquisition fund, the possible foreboding message to future donors is ‘don’t,’ if the process is done badly,” he said, adding that museums should rarely sell, and instead be “custodians” of the artwork.

But Matotek said she feels “the idea that a collection is permanent and fixed is changing.

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“I think there is growing understanding that in order to responsibly take care of and maintain what we have, there needs to be thought into what we keep and what we release,” she said.

Matotek said the families of both anonymous donors were contacted and supportive of Art Windsor-Essex’s decision. They were also given the courtesy to purchase the pieces back before they went to public auction.

This marks a growing trend of art galleries nationwide having to adjust the way they purchase new pieces.

In the past, Matotek said the gallery depended on grants from the Canada Council for the Arts for acquisition, but these funding opportunities dried up around four years ago, forcing galleries to dig into their operating budgets.

Art Windsor-Essex’s current annual operating budget ranges between $1 million and $2 million, but Matotek said only between one and two per cent of that pot is devoted to acquiring new artwork.

Ideally, she said, that figure should be closer to five per cent.

“More and more what you’re finding is that not only has deaccession become very important for the acquisition of artwork where those funds are needed,” said Cowley, “but it helps ensure that these galleries continue to have collections that are contemporary and reflect the current culture in Canada and abroad.

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“It’s also important as well to have funds available for the care of the current collection.”

Matotek said the gallery took much of last year to determine which works would be deaccessioned.

Art Windsor-Essex enlisted external consultants to assess the collection and provide recommendations. An external affairs committee further narrowed down the list before it was presented to the board of directors for unanimous approval.

“The board and staff are all completely aligned on this decision and why it is important for the gallery’s future,” Matotek said.

“We’ve been pretty transparent about the choice we’re making. As a non-profit organization, we’re subject to do audited financial statements every year.

“So, obviously, any proceeds from the sale of these artworks is going to be reflected in our audited financial statements, specifically under our endowments.”

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Both featured pieces are currently available for advanced private previews at the Cowley Abbott gallery in Toronto, and will be shipped to Winnipeg at the beginning of May for additional viewings.

Cowley said he has already fielded calls from interested collectors.

Official public previews will begin in Toronto closer to the May 30 auction.

“The pieces could end up in a private, corporate or public collection across Canada or even outside of Canada,” said Cowley.

“Our auctions and bidding activity reaches around the globe.”

A selection of AWE’s deaccessioned works — including the duplicate of the Warhol print — will be on display from April 3 to May 26.

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