In Barrie Mowatt's blue-collar upbringing in the town of Rossland, B.C., there was little to suggest he would grow up to become one of the province's major players in contemporary art: no paintings on the walls, no coffee-table art books, no trips to France or Italy to view the works of the great masters. There was, however, a portfolio of works by Cornelius Krieghoff, a freebie that came with a Maclean's magazine subscription back in the 1950s, and with which Mowatt was endlessly fascinated.
"It was an eye-opener; a picture of a world that I didn't know existed and it became a very treasured possession," he says. "That was truly the beginning of my whole curiosity about art."
Now Mowatt faces an ending: the closure of his long-time Vancouver gallery. He'll vacate Buschlen Mowatt, after more than 30 years in business, on Saturday. At the same time, Mowatt - founder and president of the Vancouver Biennale - is wrapping up the current edition of the biennial public sculpture exhibition. "At this point, I'm more exhausted than anything else," he says. "There's a lot of stuff to move, a lot of logistics."
After getting swept up in Trudeaumania while studying psychology at the University of British Columbia, Mowatt hitchhiked across the country, a tour that included a life-changing stop in Kleinburg, northwest of Toronto. He was floored by the town's McMichael Conservation Collection of Art, as it was then called, and vowed to meet as many of the surviving members of the Group of Seven as he could.
He got to three of them: Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, and A.J. Casson. From Jackson and Casson, he bought two small works each, on a payment plan of $25 a month. The works still hang in his den. (And yes, he's still kicking himself for not buying from Harris.) But it was a seminal trip to San Francisco with his new partner, Don Buschlen, in 1978 that really solidified things for them, personally and professionally. During Pride celebrations there, Mowatt was exposed not just to open gay culture, but to great contemporary art - and artists, rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Hockney and the influential dealer Nicholas Wilder.
Driving back to Vancouver, Mowatt and Buschlen came up with a plan to sell art in Vancouver. They sold their first work - a Hockney - before they even got home: Heading up Alberni Street downtown, they spotted a friend. Buschlen jumped out of the car, told him about Hockney, and made their first sale.
Buschlen Mowatt incorporated in 1979, operating at first out of their home. Eight years later, they opened the space on West Georgia Street, ultimately representing international artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Rauschenberg and Canadians including Bill Reid and Sorel Etrog.
In 1992, Buschlen, then 33, died from complications of AIDS. Despite Mowatt's grief, he kept the gallery operating - at first in a fog, later with clarity and determination.
But he has become more and more interested in art education and philanthropy, in particular the Vancouver Biennale, which launched in 2005. For 18 months to two years, the works dot the city. At the end of the run, they're auctioned off. Two years later, new works are brought in.
The Biennale has brought Dennis Oppenheim's popular and controversial Device To Root Out Evil (colloquially known as The Upside Down Church) to the city (the work has since moved to Calgary), as well as the current fan favourite, Yue Minjun's A-maze-ing Laughter, a series of 14 laughing bronze figures that has become a magnet for picture-snapping tourists.
"We're enormously lucky that Barrie and the Biennale group have decided to do this in Vancouver, because at relatively low cost to the city, we get a regularly changing display of really impressive public art, the kind of thing we wouldn't normally be able to afford on a permanent basis," says Heather Deal, the Vancouver city councillor who is council's liaison on the Public Art Committee.
But a Biennale finale celebration planned for Saturday had to be cancelled, due to lack of sponsorship support, and Mowatt is now working to keep some of the most popular works in Vancouver. In the next few weeks, the Biennale will launch a campaign asking people to vote on the work they'd like to keep in the city, and donate what money they can. Topping the list of possibilities is A-maze-ing Laughter ("which I don't think we'll be able to afford," Mowatt says; the work is priced at $5-million.) Other options include Jaume Plensa's WE, 2008 and Wang Shugang's The Meeting.
A number of works from past and present Biennales - among them, Oppenheim's Engagement (his glass, aluminum and steel take on engagement rings) and Magdalena Abakanowicz's headless cast-iron Walking Figures - have been offered to the city on a long-term-loan basis as legacy works, but there is still red tape to be worked out, Mowatt says. Sixteen stainless-steel beach chairs installed at Kitsilano Beach - Michel Goulet's Echoes - have been gifted to the city by the Biennale Foundation.
At 65, Mowatt isn't exactly retiring. But he wants to concentrate on the Biennale - in particular its education component, Big Ideas. And he also wants some personal time: to renovate and move into the house he owns on the UBC endowment lands; and to enjoy his home in California with his partner, pianist Murray Nichol, whom he will marry on Dec. 14, their 14th anniversary.
Of the many, many works Mowatt has acquired over the years, there remains the absence of a Krieghoff. Those sled scenes may have been influential when he was growing up, but they're no longer, he says, to his taste.