The Canadian Art Database

Nancy Tousley

True Grit: Susan Whitney pioneers the U.S. art market from her home base in Regina

Canadian Art, Vol. 11 #2, June 1994.
[ 1,963 words ]

Few galleries are so closely allied with the places they inhabit as the Susan Whitney Gallery in Regina, and none has been so active in contributing to a locale's sense of identity. To begin with, there is the building itself, located on the edge of downtown. The gallery occupies a three-storey white frame heritage house with a hip roof and a deep front porch. Since it opened in November 1979, in another turn-of-the-century house a few blocks away, it has been a gathering spot. 'It's a place that acts as a hub to a wheel,' says Joe Fafard. 'The gallery has focused us as a community of artists:' Fafard, Vic Cicansky David Thauberger and Wilf Perreault are regulars at Saturday kaffeeklatsches, where artists meet to swap news and kibitz with whoever else drops in, be it a Regina collector or out-of-towners like Christopher Pratt and Mira Godard. In turn, the work of the gallery's core artists helps to shape the image of the prairie community.

'There's a warmth there that in some ways is antithetical to the contemporary art world,' says independent curator Peter White, director of the Dunlop Art Gallery from 1984 to 1991. Yet, far from being an isolated backwater, the gallery has developed vital connections to the larger world. Of Susan Whitney, he adds: 'Being in Regina has never been a barrier to doing anything.'

Three years ago the forty-three-year-old Whitney became the youngest dealer — and the first working outside of the golden triangle of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal — to be elected president of The Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada. She is the most consistent Canadian presence at international art fairs in the United States. In Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, Whitney's booth invariably draws attention. One year in Los Angeles, she showcased a pair of Fafard's copulating foxes. 'People stare at you, your clothes, the work and try to figure out where you're from,' she says. It's not an easy riddle.

Whitney is a study in contrasts. She has the directness of a Westerner, blended with just the right measure of professional formality. Dressed in a silk Donna Karan suit, she is likely to turn up at a collector's door to deliver a recent purchase in her eighteen-year-old, mustard-yellow Toyota truck. The rusting pickup, bought from Vic Cicansky — it shares her garage with a Saab — has become her signature around Regina, but she spends as much time in airplanes. After fifteen years in business, she displays genuine excitement about her artists' latest work and takes pride in placing Saskatchewan folk art in public institutions like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts or Scotland's Glasgow Museums. 'Susan is very focused,' says Peter White. 'It's not just because she's in Regina, it's about Regina.'

Fafard's bronze cows, Cicansky's ceramic vegetables and preserve-laden pantry shelves, Thauberger's Regina bungalows and Perreault's snow-covered back lanes transform everyday realities into vivid, larger-than-life themes. By now, it is a commonplace to say that the images a culture produces will in turn shape the way the culture sees itself. But seen together, within the gallery framework, these and other works build a sense of place and express the values of prairie culture. A Hutterite cupboard with its original paint, a bright Doukhobor rug, a tramp-art frame, a vignette of pre-agribusiness farm life by Fred Moulding or a painting of a Ukrainian village by Jahan Maka round out the picture.

The gallery's mixture of traditional and contemporary Saskatchewan folk art, functional art, and local, national and international contemporary art both reflects and creates a multi-layered cultural environment. Whitney has endowed the gallery with a sense of its roots. For example, the Saskatchewan folk artists, who drew their subject matter from their daily lives, the place they lived in and the rich reservoir of popular culture, provided a model for younger artists such as Fafard, Cicansky, Thauberger and Russell Yuristy, when they went looking for an alternative to modernism in the late sixties. Another important catalyst for the Regina artists was David Gilhooly, an iconoclastic American ceramic sculptor associated with California funk art who taught at the University of Regina in the early seventies. Whitney also shows his work, ceramic frogs which populate his comical Frog World, and that of Californian Roy De Forest, whose favourite subject is shaggy dogs. The irreverent pop sensibility of California art still permeates the gallery. As well, Hutterite, Mennonite and Doukhobor furnishings have influenced a more recent addition, Brian Gladwell's postmodern, lacquered cardboard-and-wood furniture.

Interestingly enough, the only issue-oriented works Whitney shows are the text-inscribed tapestries of Saskatoon artist Ann Newdigate, a feminist and a libertarian. Speaking of Whitney's lack of concern for the old art-versus-craft prejudices, Newdigate says, 'I don't think Susan thinks of art in terms of materials.' Indeed she doesn't. She works intuitively. 'I love selling, and I love the art. I don't want to sell art I don't feel strongly about,' says Whitney. 'When I look back, the gallery is the only long-term commitment I've made. It's my life.'

Whitney was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1951, and immigrated to Canada three days before her sixth birthday with her mother and eight-year-old brother, Paul. Her father, Buster Whitney, had taken a job with the Ontario government in Toronto. She grew up with a horse and a menagerie of other animals in the country near Palgrave, and attended a two-room schoolhouse. 'Susan thought it was paradise,' recalls her mother. The idyll ended when the family moved to Regina just as Whitney was entering high school. It was a difficult transition. The teenager felt like a misfit until she was admitted to an interdisciplinary fine-arts program in which Vic Cicansky was one of the teachers. During senior year, her parents moved to Ottawa, where Buster joined the Treasury Board. 'We actually left our children,' says June Whitney. 'Most children leave their parents.' Susan graduated and moved to Montreal, where she waitressed and studied fine art at night at Sir George Williams University, until classes were disrupted by the student riots of 1969. She transferred to the University of Saskatchewan at Regina, but lost interest in the compulsory subjects. Before completing first year, she dropped out.

'I think I was typical of my age group at the time,' Whitney says. 'I had no plans for what I wanted to do.' She moved to Silton, a village forty-eight kilometres from Regina, and hauled water, chopped wood and dabbled in tie-dye and batik. 'The whole thing!' she says. 'I was classic:' But one forty-below winter was enough. 'The whole scene' — not exactly a drug-free environment — 'was becoming frightening.' At nineteen, she decided she needed 'a finishing school.' She decamped to her uncle's comfortable home in Ireland and a summer job in her maternal family's one-hundred-year-old business, the Dublin Woollen Company. (James Joyce was once their agent in Trieste.) Whitney got her first taste of retail selling tweeds and Aran sweaters to American tourists. Her taste for high life developed the next year during an au pair position with a wealthy family in France. But, feeling that 'someone so young should not be so spoiled,' she returned to Ireland.

Whitney married a young farm manager in 1973 and taught riding and toured as a groom with an Irish polo team. It was only her husband's desire to emigrate that brought her 'kicking and screaming' to Ottawa. There she found a clerical job in the offices of then justice minister Otto Lang, a Saskatchewan Liberal who became a mentor. In the course of time, however, her marriage broke down (she remarried in 1986). She moved back to Saskatchewan and eventually went to work in Regina for Foster Advertising, a firm with Liberal party accounts. She renewed acquaintances with artists, friends sought her advice on buying art, and she fell naturally into the role of go-between among the political, business and art communities.

In the late seventies in Regina, art was shown commercially at a few frame shops, a florist's, and the Assiniboia Gallery, which handles native and Inuit art and painters primarily from the Saskatoon area. The Regina Five had long since dispersed. The new young Turks — Fafard, Cicansky and Thauberger — were gaining reputations nationally but had nowhere to show at home. To make themselves visible, twenty artists founded the Kesik Gallery, a co-op that operated like a commercial gallery, in 1978. A few months later, Whitney was asked to become the director.

'I was way too independent to work for twenty people,' she says in retrospect, particularly when they were put off by some of the clients the well-connected Whitney brought in. After a year, she told them she was planning to go into business for herself. She remembers: 'They changed the locks and said goodbye.' Her decision created a rift in the community. Some artists wondered just who she thought she was. Others went with her. 'Most people got over it quickly,' she says. The kind of gallery she opened — with Fafard, Cicansky, bookseller and antiques dealer Dick Spafford and a friend, Jill Rawlinson, as silent partners — had no precedent in Regina.

The character of the gallery evolved through discussions with her artists in the kitchen-cum-office of its first house, and she still listens to their advice. Cicansky remembers thinking the model should be Adeliza McHughs's Candy Store Gallery in Folsom, California. McHughs mixed California ceramic sculptors, Chicago painters and folk artists. 'Adeliza was in the 60s,' says Whitney. 'Maybe she would be as crazy and political as I am in the 90s, but she was more of a mother figure and more nurturing. She was there all the time.'

Whitney prefers to be on the move. From the beginning, she travelled to promote her artists. In the past six years, she has attended eighteen art fairs at an average cost of twenty-five thousand dollars per booth, displaying an un-Canadian penchant for taking risks. 'It's such a crapshoot,' Whitney says. 'There is no magic, no guarantees.' In fact, she rarely breaks even without financial assistance from the PADAC Art Foundation or the federal government. Some of her artists are critical of the time and money she invests in fairs, and she knows it. The important thing to her is their long-term potential in establishing a presence in the larger U.S. market. (The inside joke at the gallery is, 'It's a mail-order business.') Every day brings business from the fairs, which now account for twenty-five percent of her sales. As well, Whitney gets a kick out of making sales to celebrities like Daryl Hannah and Oprah Winfrey, finding Cheech Marin in her booth and doing the L.A. clubs after a long day. But the fairs are also backbreaking work. Last year, she attended the spring and fall Chicago fairs and went to Los Angeles in December. This February, she did the Seattle and San Francisco fairs back to back. Wearing her PADAC hat, she adds, 'I don't want to be alone. I want Canada to have a presence internationally.'

How she responds to hearing her gallery described as regional depends on how it's said. 'That's why I'm out on the warpath. I think the work can stand up in any milieu.' On her home turf, the pressure is to remain fresh. 'It's a constant challenge that I never get bored, and I haven't, though it's always in the back of my mind,' Whitney says. 'Dealing is a highly competitive business. You can't get sick, or old, or take a year off. How do you keep the edge? I don't have any solutions: I'll just continue. I think I'll die selling art.'

Canadian Art, Vol. 11 #2, June 1994.

Text: © Nancy Tousley. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.