Winnipeg Art Gallery sells Warhol prints to raise money for Indigenous art

The Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq plans to auction off highly coveted portraits of Queen Elizabeth made by artist Andy Warhol to raise funds for Indigenous art.

The four screen-printed portraits are part of Warhol’s Reigning Queens collection, and have an estimated worth of up to $900,000. In what would be a first for the gallery, all funds from the auction on June 8 are to be placed in an endowment fund specifically for Indigenous art.

Stephen Borys, director and CEO of the WAG, says that to move forward with reconciliation, the gallery needs to acquire more work by First Nations and Métis artists.

“This is an opportunity for us to take a leadership role in the country,” Borys said in an interview.

“There’s work that needs to be done — work that we want to do, and one way we can do that is by exhibiting and collecting more Indigenous art.” 

The WAG’s collection is made up predominantly of artwork by white artists. Through the addition of Qaumajuq, the Inuit art centre, the gallery increased its Inuit art, but First Nations and Métis artists are still scarce, making up just over one per cent of the entire collection, Borys said. 

Man wearing suit smiles in front of camera with arms crossed
Stephen Borys, the director and CEO of the WAG says that to move forward with reconciliation, it is important the gallery acquires more work by First Nation and Métis artists. (CBC)

The symbolism of selling portraits of the Queen to raise money for Indigenous art isn’t lost on him. For many, the prints and their focus on a monarch are a symbol of colonialism, he said. 

“The idea of selling these portraits of the Queen to establish a fund for Indigenous art really sets an amazing tone,” Borys said.

“I think it’s something that, if Queen Elizabeth II was living today, she would support.”

‘Very apropos’: Adams

Winnipeg-based Indigenous contemporary artist KC Adams calls the WAG’s choice to create an endowment fund a step toward equality in the local art world. 

“When I saw they were going to sell the Andy Warhol prints of Queen Elizabeth, I thought ‘Oh, that’s very apropos,'” Adams said in an interview.

“It’s showing the WAG’s commitment to diversifying their collection.” 

Painting of woman with long dark hari and red lipstick. She is wearing all white
Winnipeg-based Indigenous artist KC Adams has 10 pieces in the WAG’s collection, including the above self-portrait, Cyborg Hybrid KC. She believes the gallery’s choice to create an endowment fund is a step forward. (Submitted by KC Adams)

Adams said Indigenous artists face various barriers when compared to non-Indigenous artists.

They are often paid significantly less than non-Indigenous artists, and frequently art institutions and art critics are less inclined to showcase Indigenous art, she said. 

Acquisitions decisions

The WAG receives support from the government for operations but not for acquisitions, something that heavily impacted its ability to purchase Indigenous art in the past, Borys said. 

“Rarely have we been in a position to just go out there and buy what we want with our own funds,” Borys said.

“When a great work comes up at auction or through a dealer and exhibition, we’re rarely in the position to act quickly.”

The hope is that the endowment fund will grant the gallery more autonomy when purchasing art.

A view of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Qaumajuq art centre from above, in twilight.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq receives governments funding for operations but not for acquisitions. Stephen Borys hopes this endowment fund can fill that gap. (Lindsay Reid)

Adams, who has 10 pieces in the WAG’s collection, refers to artists as “cultural representatives.”

Often, they’re the ones who immortalize aspects of the culture and introduce the community to those outside of it, she said.

Like Borys, she sees the creation of an Indigenous art endowment fund as an opportunity for reconciliation.

“When you’re not giving us the opportunity to showcase who we are and what our work is about, then it prevents us from truly having a voice,” she said. 

Hopes for the auction

The decision to sell the Warhol portraits is part of a plan to refine the art gallery’s collection and sell pieces that no longer align with the direction the gallery is going, Borys said. 

It won’t be known until the auction, held in Toronto through the Cowley Abbott auction house on June 8, how much money the fund will receive. 

Cowley Abbott estimated the prints will sell for $700,000-$900,000, but Borys said he’s hoping to exceed that estimate. Warhol originally created multiple prints of four different queens, and Borys said recently, just one of the four queens from the series sold for over a million dollars. 

Currently, the focus for the endowment fund is on living contemporary First Nations and Métis artists in Canada, but the WAG hopes to eventually create a separate fund solely for the broader acquisition of Canadian art.

Even without knowing the auction’s outcome, Adams believes the creation of an endowment fund for Indigenous art is a step forward and hopes it creates change not just locally but on a national level as well.

“When you have an institution like that, it’s a signal to everyone else … especially here in the Prairies,” she said. 

“I think the big picture is that it helps artists in the long run.