Canada’s Sunflower Capital

The Art Gallery in the Park.

Altona punches above its weight in the arts department

By Dorothy Dobbie

Altona businessman Johann Schwartz, flush with money from building elevators to accommodate the grain trade on the recently arrived railroads in Manitoba, created his dream home in 1902. It was the largest house ever constructed in Altona, dominating its Fifth Avenue neighbourhood for a hundred years. It is unlikely that he could have envisioned what Schwartz House would become more than a century later.

Serving as a family home, then as the Elim Bible Institute, and finally as a bed and breakfast in the early 2000s Schwartz House looked as though its life was coming to an end. That’s when it was purchased by a concerned community group that moved it to its current location on Tenth Avenue. They operated it for a while as a place to do arts, but it was tough going and, by 2004, things looked pretty bad.

That’s when chairman, David Friesen, and his corporation Friesens, stepped in with a vision for an expanded arts centre and half the funding needed to get the $1.2 million project started. The printing company’s 100th anniversary was coming up in 2007, and this seemed a great way to celebrate and do something for their town. It would be a wonderful asset to Altona and serve as a tourist draw. The Gallery opened in 2008.

For a town whose emblem is a giant painting on an easel, it was a fitting gift. Altona’s rendering of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was painted by local artist Cameron Cross; it is listed in the Guinness Book of World record as the largest painting on an easel. As the self-proclaimed Sunflower Capital of Canada, Altona farmers saw the profit in this oilseed during the Depression when the price of wheat dropped alarmingly.

With the support of the community, the house and garden were transformed into a destination that is already fulfilling the vision Friesens had for it. The Art Gallery in the Park, housed in the renovated historic home built by Joann Schwartz, encompasses two stories of visual art, the first floor for visitor installations and the second floor to showcase local talents.

Highlights over the past few years include the exhibition of Portage La Prairie artist, Don McMaster, who paid tribute to explorer David Thompson and his influential Metis wife, Charlotte Small. The paintings were based on Thompson’s diaries describing what he saw as he mapped the prairies and the area around Lake of the Woods.

Outside, the house is surrounded by a sculpture garden featuring both local and international sculptors. Of the current 20 pieces, five local artists are on display including Todd Braun and Ken Loewen, both from Altona. From the neighbouring town of Glenboro, wildlife artist Peter Sawatzky has been sponsored by Friesens and Golden West Broadcasting with his life size piece, Buck and Doe. Visitors to Portage and Main in Winnipeg will be aware of his wonderful work, Seal River Crossing, on the Richardson Plaza.

Jake Goertzen from Horndean displays a quirky piece called Morning glory, and a pair of bears by Leo Mol from Winnipeg are on loan to round out the Manitoba inclusions. Another seven artists are from the USA and the rest from various places around Canada and the world.

Many of the pieces are quite significant. Some have been donated by interested citizens, including The Finishing Line, by Alfred Boucher of France, created in 1886 and donated by the late Vaughn Baird, a Winnipeg lawyer and Olympic sports fan.

A lovely version of The Gossips by Canadian Artist Rose-Amiée Bélanger, was a gift from the Friesens Corporation. Chicago’s star sculptor, John Aducci was commissioned by the Friends of the Gallery to do the bronze Whip It. Another Aducci installed by Red River Mutual is Wishbone, a study in aluminum.

The latest installation is a piece called the Ring by Saskatchewan artist Douglas Benson.

The garden itself is still under development, the newly planted trees and shrubs and emerging flower beds providing contrast to the 130-year-old cottonwoods of the older parts of town that were planted by the first settlers as seed brought from Russia. A beautiful water feature sets the stage for the growing collection.

You can buy some of the art displayed in the gallery. You can also become a friend of the gallery with a three-year $1,200 gift.

Altona has a lot of reasons to be proud of its gallery, and indeed, it has been listed as one of the top 50 communities to visit in Canada, listed as a “hidden gem”.

Of course, those who know Altona and some of its 4,125 people are not surprised. Its small population has always punched above its weight being home to such luminous companies as the already mentioned Friesens, Canada’s largest book printer; the founding family of the rapidly growing Golden West Broadcasting which owns and operates a number of radio stations across the Prairies; the founding home of Grey Goose Bus Lines; and the home of the co-op movement in southern Manitoba. Altona was also the founding home of the Mennonite Central Committee’s Gift and Thrift Stores which contribute millions to the MCC each year.

Take a trip to Altona on your way to the U.S. or the International Peace Garden this year. It’s worth it.