When Dr. Stephen D. Borys left a position in Sarasota, Florida to move to Winnipeg to become the Director and CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, it may have seemed strange to some, but for Stephen it made a lot of sense.
“I grew up in Winnipeg. I hadn’t anticipated returning to Winnipeg, but this was perhaps the one job that would bring me back, and it did,” said Stephen. Prior to his return to Winnipeg, he had worked in Sarasota at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, where he oversaw the Museum of Art and Cà d’Zan Mansion collections and exhibition programs. Before that, he was the curator at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Cleveland, Ohio. His first prominent role in art was as assistant curator in European and American art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
“Sarasota was wonderful, Cleveland was wonderful as was Ottawa. They’re great cities. But it’s a combination of coming back as a former Winnipegger at not only a critical time in the WAG’s history, but at a critical time for Winnipeg that really convinced me. It’s an amazing period to be living in Winnipeg right now, and I didn’t want to lose that chance.”
Stephen’s road to the WAG started with a bachelor’s degree at the University of Winnipeg, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Toronto before completing his PhD at McGill. While studying, he assumed his life would be much different than it has become, but it was an experience at his first job after university that changed his perspective.
“If you had asked me in the final year of my PhD what I would be doing in the next 10 years, I assumed I would be an academic and teaching at a university” said Stephen. “My first job, which I secured a few weeks before defending my dissertation at McGill, was as a curator at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. That changed everything for me. I realized my interest and passion was actually in working with collections and the public. I’ve also maintained academic posts wherever I’ve been, so I’ve taught, but never full time.”
It’s convenient, if not coincidental, that the WAG sits only a couple of blocks from the U of W, where Stephen completed his bachelor’s degree. Not only does it easily allow him to continue teaching, but it also means a large group of potential visitors is well within walking distance.
“I have a long history with the U of W, as does the WAG. The fact that there are 10,000 students studying a few blocks away is such an opportunity. It’s critical for us to open up our spaces for lectures, as we do, and the programming and the curriculum overlap has been critical. As a professor in the history and cultural studies department, I teach for one reason only: to learn. I teach a graduate course called The History of Museums and Collecting. For me to lend my expertise as an academic and a museum professional is one thing. But to hear from students on what the role of museums today are, why do we collect, why do we build these structures to hold these objects, what is the interface with the public? All those things are helping me be a better director.”
“With young adults, and the close proximity to the U of W, we have the opportunity to introduce, re-introduce or re-engage that age group to the art gallery. We link with people in three ways: the invitation, the welcome and the engagement. A lot of time we focus on the third one, the engagement. What kind of programs are we going to do, how are we going to give them access, how do you accommodate that type of demographic? But long before that comes the need to welcome them, and before that make sure there’s and invitation. To make sure that they know the WAG is for them, and that it’s accessible, it’s respectful, it’s welcoming, it’s low-key. You don’t have to dress up or speak in a certain way to be here. For every individual who walks through our doors, we have one chance to prove to them that it’s worth coming back. It’s that first experience that’s really important.”
Raison d’être: the Inuit Art Centre
When Stephen moved back to Winnipeg in 2008, there had been talk of building an Inuit Art Centre at the WAG to showcase a culture that many Canadians know about, but not many are able to experience the art and culture. The WAG currently holds the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art, with more than 13,000 pieces. The Centre would allow for many more of them to be displayed, compared to the small fraction available to be viewed to the public today. Funding and plans for the Centre are well underway, with plans for a four-storey, 40,000 square foot facility right next to the WAG. Stephen says that the role of Winnipeg in terms of indigenous art and culture is critical.
“The WAG has been collecting and exhibiting Inuit art for about 60 years. We’ve established the largest contemporary collection in the world. We’ve published more and we’ve exhibited more than anybody else. You could say we’re the experts or the leaders, and I think we should be doing more. I’d like us to become a voice and a platform for the Inuit. It’s called a centre because it’s much more than a gallery.”
Stephen notes that the timing was right for his return to the city, with the Inuit Art Centre playing a key role in drawing him back.
“The Inuit Art Centre project and the WAG moving into its second century was pretty exciting. To be able to come back to Winnipeg, and give back a little bit, was enticing. The Inuit Art Centre project has become my raison d’etre. We had been talking about doing this for twenty years, and why hadn’t we succeeded? But when I reflect, if we had built it 20 years ago it would be very different. To build it today in a city with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, with the Journey to Churchill at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, with issues good, bad, challenging and amazing in terms of indigenous culture, I think this is the place for me.”
Focus on the viewer
There are many different viewpoints on art, but Stephen says the WAG is not there to tell you what to like. Rather, it is there to showcase a wide variety which allows the viewer to come to their own conclusion.
“You go from Greek and Roman, to the 100 Masters, to Salvador Dali, to Inuit to contemporary in your face, to Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’, which was amazing film and video work, then art that makes you question ‘is that art’. It’s important to offer diversity.”
“We don’t tell you what’s good and what you need to see. We try to lay it out and let you decide, and give you options over the course of the year.”