Arguably , the public became aware and interested in Canadian contemporary folk art with the publication of the Museum of Man book “From the Heart” in 1983. Since that time as is the case with popular culture, the interest in folk art has waxed and waned. I have experienced many such reversals in the thirty plus years I have been collecting and selling. Things were good in the mid 1990’s. It was a time when we would take a dozen newly discovered Barbara Clark Fleming paintings to the Muskoka show and sell them all within the first hour, leaving us wishing we had brought a dozen more. Meanwhile Bernard Riordin, as Director of the Nova Scotia Art Gallery was pushing hard to have the Maritime folk art scene recognized, and established as the important cultural property which it is. There was a lot of media attention. New collectors were becoming passionate. Those were heady times.
It came to pass that in 1996 a creative, and forward thinking Toronto woman of some position, thought it was the perfect time to open an upscale contemporary folk art gallery in the posh Hazelton Lanes shopping district in Toronto. So she took a boat load of money down to Nova Scotia, had a ball, and made a lot of folk artists very happy by buying up their work, and arranging to have it shipped to Toronto.
The name of the gallery was “Turtle Cove” and it occupied a large, second floor space in the Hazelton Lanes Complex. It was a first rate effort. Upscale fittings, museum lighting, beautifully created vignettes; the whole nine yards. You’ve got to love people who follow their heart, and realize their dream so completely. Unfortunately, unlike the concept “if you build it, they will come” presented in the popular movie “Field of Dreams”, things don’t always work out that way in real life. I think it took only a month or two before our brave entrepreneur realized that her sales projections had been highly over optimistic, and she decided to cut her loses and get out. That’s when I got the call.
At the time, and to this day my main interest lies in older folk art, or at least shall I say in folk art that was not made so clearly with an eye to the market. But then again I am all for contemporary artists making a living, and I admire the work of many contemporary Maritime artists such as Eddie Mandaggio, the Naugler Brothers, Garnet McPhail, etc. who were all well represented here. Also to be frank, the price she quoted was interesting, so I made the trip to Toronto.
Immediately upon entering the gallery I felt sorry to think that such a wonderful effort, so carefully and lovingly realized, had been unable to sustain, and that even before many had learned of it’s existence, it would be taken apart and dispersed as if it had never happened. Ah well, we all know how tough it is to make a go of it in retail, especially when it is a limited market, and the overheads must have been (I can only imagine) astronomical.
It was an easy negotiation I did not argue with the proprietor’s suggestion that I pay her half of what she paid the artists. She kept good books. There was a huge amount of stuff, including hundreds of smaller pieces which I recognized would sell easily. Of a bit more concern was the number of big pieces such as the Pegasus with Rider by Leo Naugler pictured here; and most interestingly, but also representing the biggest unknown was some rare original furniture made by Leo and Bradford Naugler. I don’t know if she inspired or commissioned these pieces but they struck me as being important and rare, although not necessarily easy to sell. Among these pieces I think the best is an iconic “hockey chair” by Bradford Naugler.
It is interesting to note that reportedly Bernard Riordin has recently proclaimed Bradford Naugler “the most important living Nova Scotia folk artist”, and that this chair has again recently sold to a keen Nova Scotia collector for several thousands of dollars. It is complex, and worth considering how occasionally a particular object made by an artist is chosen by an expert as an iconic example of his or her work , and representative of a time and place; thus becoming cherished and immortalized. People who understand this process sometimes become curators, and thus proponents of respecting and supporting our cultural heritage. It’s important work. It’s not always easy to understand.
It took me three full pick up truck loads to clear everything out. As always, I was filled with concern verging on regret when signing the big cheque, and thus taking on the responsibility of relocating such a vast amount of contemporary folk art to new homes. Happily, because of the heated market at the time, it all disappeared quite quickly, and it worked out beautifully. We still enjoy a couple of pieces which we put aside at the time, and it’s satisfying to think I was able to take all that work and find good homes for it. Also it feels good that the vision and enterprise of a folk art lover who “put her money where her heart is” was not in the end, in vain.