Could you tell us about the origins of the Collectors’ Gallery of Art in Calgary and describe your role within the gallery?
R: I grew up in Toronto, where my parents pioneered their own gallery. They dedicated 35 years to its success, and I grew up immersed in the world of art. It was an enchanting environment. After studying in England for five years, I returned and joined my father’s side.
However, I yearned to establish my own identity in the art world, distinct from my parents’ legacy and find my own niche.
After some time of working together with my dad in the gallery, I met my future husband and we decided to move to Calgary. I still wasn’t too sure what I was going to do exactly, but my passion for the arts remained unwavering. I enrolled in courses at Mount Royal and the University of Calgary to gain a deeper understanding, be more grounded and connect with more people. I even organized art exhibitions in hotel rooms over the years.
The experience made me realize that I needed my own space. Hence, I founded the gallery, and this coming February will mark our 30th anniversary!
It’s been an incredible journey. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know so many wonderful people and witnessing stunning artworks, from paintings to sculptures.
There is so much exceptional talent in this city, and in Canada, although it often gets unnoticed on the international scale.
It would be great if we could have more of that international recognition among other countries. I think Canadians and Albertans in particular, are fond of local art and enjoy supporting local artists.
And that’s where my current focus lies – showcasing and uplifting local talent.
When I first came out here, I couldn’t get into the local arts narratives. While there is absolutely a historical significance there, I personally just didn’t connect with the traditional Western themes.
It’s nice to showcase and get people interested in other things. I believed in showcasing a broader range of Canadian artwork.
With the rise of the internet, we might think we’re expanding internationally, but often, we’re just looking inward. There’s a practical challenge too – shipping artwork can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes almost matching or exceeding the cost of the artwork itself. This presents a significant barrier to our artistic aspirations.
Can you please tell us more about the recent exhibition featuring 10 Ukrainian artists at the Collectors’ Gallery of Art? What inspired the gallery to showcase their work?
R: I’d love to share the full story! My personal background deeply influenced this initiative. I was born in the Czech Republic in 1968, during a time when the Russian invasion was advancing, and borders were tightening. My parents, refusing to live under communist rule, made a decision to leave. They obtained a visa to visit family and relatives in Austria, and with me in tow, they packed up a car with just two suitcases and left. Then they crossed the border and the first plane out was to Canada! And actually we didn’t know until the very last moment about our path. We were told that it might be Australia as well, so you know, I might have not been here.
We were fortunate to have a family sponsor us to come to Canada, where my parents didn’t speak a word of English. They helped my dad find a job, helped them find a place to live, and so on. It was a different time with larger language barriers because you know, English wasn’t so commonplace at the time and people didn’t travel as much. Both my parents had to start fresh.
And so, I always knew that one day I would want to do something similar to what they did for us.
I’ve always carried a strong desire to give back, a sentiment that stemmed from the support we received when we first arrived in Canada. Yet, sponsoring a family posed a significant challenge, mainly because of my location in Chestermere, which is quite distant from the accessible public transit options in Calgary, where they would need to find employment and such.
I considered various options and landed on the idea of a silent auction. So, I began reaching out to artists who were willing to donate their work for this cause.
In late January of this past year, one of my artists informed me that a friend who lives near the gallery had a small bungalow available. This bungalow included the main floor and a basement, which had just become vacant. A couple from Ukraine, who had spent some time in the Czech Republic while striving to come to Canada, had decided to rent this space. However, the bungalow was unfurnished, and this raised practical concerns. Where would they sleep, sit, or even have meals? It was evident that furnishing the place themselves would be a significant challenge, especially considering their imminent job search and other settlement tasks.
So, naturally, I headed home, and as it often happens, everyone’s got that stash of spare toasters, kettles, and those extra pots, pans, bowls, cutlery, and so on. I gathered all these items, including blankets and other things I didn’t particularly need, and handed them over to this couple.
A couple visited, and during our conversation, I learned that one of them, Anna, had a background in art, theatre, and music. She even had experience teaching art. It became evident that her English proficiency was impressive. I mentioned to her that I might not have a full-time position available, but if she was interested in some temporary work until she found one, I could certainly use her assistance here.
It’s heartening to hear that the exhibition includes a silent auction to support the participating Ukrainian artists and musicians. Can you elaborate on how this initiative came about?
R: As Anna and I continued our conversations, she mentioned that artists from Ukraine were reaching out to her, seeking guidance on entering the art scene and hoping to showcase their work.
The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that we should organize an exhibition of their art.
This wasn’t just about the financial aspect; I was determined to contribute 100% of the sales to support the artists. It was also a way to instil confidence, not just in the artists but also in Calgary, showcasing what was happening in Ukraine and the incredible art they were producing.
This idea kept growing, and we ended up with 10 artists. However, we faced language barriers - many of them didn’t speak English, or perhaps just a few words. That’s where Anna became invaluable, acting as a translator and coordinator. As we continued to work on this project, Anna also mentioned that she had friends who were musicians.
We decided to organize an event, and we chose Ukrainian Independence Day for its significance.
The exhibition was complemented by a silent auction. We received about 35 to 40 pieces donated by private individuals, including some of my artists. We even had musicians, including one talented lady who played the Bandura, a traditional Ukrainian instrument akin to a harp combined with a guitar.
This event served as a great opportunity for these artists and musicians to connect and learn from each other, given the commonalities in music and art.
While our show was relatively short due to a pre-planned schedule, it was heartwarming to see the support from the community.
The event had an evening concert, and Anna, who had been a key support throughout, also showcased her musical talents by singing and playing the piano.
We aimed to bridge different art forms, not just visual arts but also music, as music, too, has the power to unite people.
Nine out of the ten artists managed to make it to Calgary for the exhibition. One of them was a photographer who had documented life with soldiers in Ukraine, offering a glimpse into the reality there.
Although it might have been difficult for some to see the harshness of that reality, it was important for people here to understand what was happening in Ukraine. Sometimes, when you watch things on TV, it’s easy to think, “That could be anywhere,” but seeing it up close brought a different perspective.
We all have our origins and stories. For me, it’s a tragedy that we can’t find ways to respect one another without resorting to war. To me, it often boils down to ego and the thirst for power. However, I firmly believe that we all have the capacity to learn and practice mutual respect.
Could you highlight some of the most memorable moments or experiences that stood out during the exhibition’s run?
R: One of the remarkable things I’ve discovered in the gallery is the diversity of people who visit, from all kinds of walls of life. I always talk to everyone and love engaging with visitors, asking them about their thoughts on particular pieces and what they perceive in the room.
For me, hosting this exhibition was about making a positive impact on those who came here, especially those who’ve faced tragedy.
During the opening event, where the enchanting music filled the air, I found myself presented with a lavish bouquet of flowers, which left me in a state of surprise. My immediate thought was, ‘Why are you doing this?’ After all, the very purpose of my efforts was to lend a helping hand to all those present. I was a bit bewildered, wondering about the gesture’s significance. It was then that they kindly explained that such an act of gifting flowers was a cherished tradition, a way of showing appreciation. Their response deeply moved me.
It was a profound moment, and it struck a chord with my emotions. As I observed those who attended the event, tears welled up in many eyes. The music playing in the background carried a haunting quality that seemed to evoke a sense of melancholy and beauty simultaneously, resonating with each person’s heart. The entire experience left a lasting impression of the power of art and music to touch the soul.
What unfolded was a heartwarming scenario where 100% went directly to the artists who sold their pieces, providing them with some financial support. Meanwhile, the silent auction, extending over a week and half, successfully amassed funds, which were then thoughtfully shared among both the musicians from the opening night and the visual artists.
It was essential for everyone involved to benefit from their contributions, not just the artists, as this initiative was truly for the entire community.
When the recipients of these funds were asked about their preferences regarding the allocation of these resources, some chose to forward the money to their family members, extending its reach and impact. Meanwhile, a heartwarming gesture emerged as some contributors decided to donate their shares in order to support a dedicated photographer currently documenting events in the Ukraine.
This photographer’s mission was to raise funds for a special buggy that could be converted to efficiently transport injured civilians and soldiers to hospitals and other critical destinations. Several participants in this initiative decided to divide their shares, ensuring a part went towards these noble adaptations, to enhance its capacity to transport and aid wounded individuals.
Creating and exploring art stimulates our minds, encourages us to think outside the box, and enhances our lives. This is one of the key motivations behind having my gallery – I aspire to share what art has personally meant to me with others, in the hope that they too will recognize its transformative power.
The entire experience has been a profound eye-opener, underscoring the collective impact that a community can achieve when joined in a shared purpose.
Expressing the profound personal significance of curating and hosting this exhibition is a challenge in itself. The rewards extend far beyond my own efforts.
In the context of this exhibition, how do you see art bridging cultural gaps and fostering a sense of community?
R: Every time someone steps into the gallery, whether we engage in conversations about the showcased artists or the events tied to the exhibition, I find myself conveying more than just the physical art pieces. We’ve documented the musicians and vocalists, preserving their performances in videos, and revisiting these recordings is a heartfelt experience. As those melodies fill the air and the images flicker on the screen, it stirs deep emotions within me. I get weepy from the powerful art and the beautiful narratives they hold.
As we look ahead, my aspirations extend beyond this exhibition. I’m inspired by the desire to do more and to make a lasting impact on the local art scene.
The specifics remain fluid at this point, but one of my primary goals is to continue nurturing young artists. I’m deeply aware of the challenges they face. The need to support themselves financially can often compete with their creative pursuits. But the potential these emerging artists hold, the capacity to enrich lives and inspire change through their work, is boundless.
So I often encourage people, especially young people, if they're out and about they go into a gallery and I encourage them to just choose a piece that resonates with them and spend some quality time with.
Look at it for more than five minutes and just think about that piece. And it's amazing the feelings people get and talk about when they do that. The emotions and conversations that arise from this one-on-one interaction can be astonishing.
When we engage deeply with art, we discover the wealth of emotions and insights it can evoke.
Art, in all its forms, is a powerful catalyst for personal growth and the enrichment of our lives. It’s an integral part of our human experience. Preserving its significance is essential. The arts must remain an integral part of our culture, a source of inspiration and self-discovery that continues to shape us into better, more enlightened individuals.
It’s a commitment I hold dear, and I hope to inspire others to do the same. Each of us possesses a unique inner language, influenced by our life experiences, which informs how we perceive and connect with art.
Art’s purpose is to enhance our lives, preserving its role as an integral part of our collective humanity and personal growth.
We all have our own language because of our experiences on what something means to us. And that's what art is supposed to do - it’s supposed to enrich ourselves. And we can't let it fade away because it's so much a part of us and makes us better people, for sure.
The significance of art is paramount, especially for individuals who are newcomers to a different country. Making them feel welcome and a sense of belonging is vital.
Art, in all its forms - be it visual arts, literature, dance, music, or poetry - plays a pivotal role in shaping our daily lives. I firmly believe it should be an integral part of everyone’s existence, for each of these artistic expressions holds profound significance.
Allow me to share a story. When the COVID pandemic struck, our gallery had to close its doors for a few months. Yet, upon reopening, I was pleasantly surprised to see a surge of young visitors. Many of these youngsters, who were typically immersed in their phones, parties, and social gatherings, suddenly found themselves unable to partake in those activities. Bars, theatres, and concerts were off-limits.
What did they do? They started strolling through the gallery, observing the artwork with a keen eye and taking their time. It wasn’t just a fleeting glance; they engaged deeply, spending not just 10 or 15 seconds but truly immersing themselves in the paintings. Their insightful questions and profound engagement with the art truly inspired me. It made me realize that, even in challenging times, the younger generation still craves a meaningful connection with art.
There is hope for the future of visual arts.
I sensed that it was at risk of fading into the background, however the tide has been changing. Many young people, more than ever before, are now actively visiting galleries. It’s not just a small, specific group; it’s the broader younger generation that is showing a renewed interest. This shift has been quite heartening to witness.
One day, a young man in his late teens walked into the gallery. I was engaged in a conversation with a client when I noticed he was eyeing the piano I had on display. I casually mentioned that if he had any questions or wanted to play, he was more than welcome to interrupt us. To my surprise, he responded, “Can I play?” I asked if he knew how to play the piano, and he confidently replied, “Yes, I do.” So, I encouraged him to go ahead.
He began to play a beautiful classical piece, though it wasn’t something I immediately recognized. My client and I continued our discussion, and he continued to play for about half an hour. I was truly in awe of his musical talent. When he finally stopped, I couldn’t help but express my amazement. I asked him how long he had been playing, and he casually responded, “Oh, just three years.” I was taken aback and asked, “Three years?!” He confirmed it and added that he had taught himself. What’s more, he composed the piece he played himself. I was utterly blown away by his talent. I was curious about his age, and when he revealed he was 17, I couldn’t resist saying, “You’re welcome to come and play here anytime!”
Looking ahead, what other exhibitions or initiatives can we anticipate from the Collectors’ Gallery of Art, and how will they continue to contribute to the local arts scene in Calgary?
R: Our most recent exhibition, the HAZEL LITZGUS EXHIBITION, showcased the incredible talent of Hazel Litzgus, a local artist who, at the age of 96, continues to produce stunning watercolour artworks. These pieces are not only visually captivating but also serve as a window into the stories of her childhood. These stories are uniquely portrayed through the perspective of a young girl. Furthermore, we’re excited to share that a book about her, authored by a local art historian, writer, and curator, is currently in the works.
Supporting female artists has consistently been a focal point for me as well.
To champion this commitment, I’ve introduced various exhibitions that explore a diverse range of artistic mediums, from collage to fibre arts, which have often been overlooked.
These exhibitions serve as a platform to spotlight alternative materials and methods of art creation, broadening the horizons of artistic expression beyond the conventional oil on canvas or board.
I aspire to embark on more ventures of this nature, as I consider them highly significant. Among the initiatives I pursue is an annual show called “New Arrivals” or other themed exhibitions. In the past, I’ve hosted exhibitions like “abstraction spelled out phonetically” and “125 years of images of the Rockies.” These themed shows cover a broad spectrum, from watercolours of Canada to depictions of rivers, streams, and waterfalls, incorporating historic as well as contemporary art.
Occasionally, I encounter promising artists who may not yet have gallery representation. To encourage and bolster their confidence, I feature their work in exhibitions, signalling that someone believes in their potential.
This involvement in art circles opens up a world of possibilities, ensuring their artistic journeys are rich and rewarding.
It’s worth noting that gallery representation isn’t always the most conducive path for emerging artists, especially if they lack recognition. Many buyers tend to favour artists they’re familiar with when visiting galleries. Hence, I often advise artists to explore other opportunities for showing their work, such as spaces like cSPACE or Arts Commons. These venues offer valuable exposure without the overhead costs associated with galleries.
Additionally, I encourage artists to apply for grants and engage with the local art community to further their careers.