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Conversation with Marmie

Updated: May 13, 2020

A friend of mine recently asked me who I would chose if I could have drinks with any person from history. I didn’t have to think for long before confidently responding with the name Marmie Hess. As some of you may know, the UofL Art Gallery received a collection of over a thousand works of art from her estate in 2017. For more information about the Hess collection, click here: I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with this collection over the past couple of years and this experience has inspired me and expanded my knowledge in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. This collection, and Marmie’s life in general, have become somewhat of an obsession of mine as I continue to learn about her legacy.

Marmie Hess at her beloved Spencer Creek Ranch – The Globe and Mail

The UofL Art Gallery received the major portion of the remarkable collection assembled by Marmie. As well, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec received most of her Inuit sculpture collection which contained 750 pieces acquired between 1950 and 1980. An exciting collection of Indigenous work from the Northwest Coast was also gifted to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Of particular significance are the items created by acclaimed Haida artist Bill Reid in the early days of his career. I’m less familiar with the contents of these collections, but MOA has a fantastic online database that’s worth checking out: When considered as a whole, the number of works gifted by her estate to the three institutions after her death numbers over two thousand. This doesn’t include the pieces she donated during her lifetime (which I suspect is also a significant number).

Bill Reid (Haida). Selected works in gold and silver, 1955 – 1970. Collection of Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess. MOA collection: 3258/2 – 11. Photo by Martin Dee.

One of the reasons I think Marmie would be the ideal candidate for an interesting conversation is that she knew so many of the artists working in Western Canada in the 20thcentury personally. Only so much about her relationships with these artists can be decoded from the remaining archival material and remaining fragile human memories slowly being lost to time. Wouldn’t you just love to know what she thought about some of the artists that she collected? Or maybe even more interesting would be the artists she chose not to! It’s so fascinating to me that these were almost entirely contemporary works by contemporary artists when she collected them. Each purchase must have been at once a vote of confidence and thoughtful encouragement for the artist. John Snow put it into words when he wrote to Marmie in 1957, “To be included in your Canadian collection would be a real honour and the highlight to a good year.”[1]

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Marmie through the objects with which she surrounded herself. I think it’s quite special that this collection has the capacity to tell the story of her life through art. Some of the earliest pieces acquired by Marmie in the UofL collection relate to the time she spent teaching at the Banff School of Fine Art (today the Banff Centre) during WWII. The works by HG Glyde and AY Jackson speak to these professional relationships. The works by international artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Joan Miró chart her close friendship with artist and fellow collector Roloff Beny from the 1950s until 1984. Her collection of prints and sculpture by Inuit and Indigenous and Peoples of the Northwest Coast relate to her passion for promoting these artists through her commercial gallery, Calgary Galleries Ltd., which operated from 1971 until 1979.

Henry George Glyde, Peace River Bridge, 1943, Oil on masonite, From the University of Lethbridge Art Collection; gift of Dr. Margaret “Marmie” Perkins Hess, 2017.

Some of the things I’d love to ask Marmie include:

-What was the catalyst for the shift in your collecting focus that saw you turn towards Indigenous artists in the 1950s?

-Tell me about a piece that got away?

-Who are some of the artists that you think should have gotten, or get more, recognition?

The more I learn about the Hess collection and Marmie’s life, the more hooked I seem to become. She lived through an exciting period of art history in Canada and engaged with it in a way that positioned herself as an advocate for artists and a participant in shaping the narrative.

David Smith

Preparator / Assistant Curator

[1] Correspondence from John Snow to Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess, Undated, 2017.76, Box 2, Margaret P. Hess Fonds, University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections.

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