Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess spent a lifetime following her passion.
A lifelong educator and art collector, the Order of Canada recipient bequeathed a collection worth as much as $5 million to the University of Lethbridge following her death at age 100 in 2016.
The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery received word last year that Hess had donated her vast collection, which includes works from some of the most well-known artists in Canada and from around the world.
University president Mike Mahon knew Hess for eight years prior to her death. He said she created a masters-level scholarship for students at the university and her generosity was well known.
“I’ve seen her generosity in spirit, in volunteerism and in funds over the course of her life,” Mahon said
“I knew she had an amazing art collection partly because when I would have a cup of tea in her living room you’d be surrounded by the Group of Seven and Emily Carr and others hanging on the wall or stacked against a chair.
“She had art everywhere.”
The gallery at the University of Lethbridge, now renamed in her honour, has on display 112 of the 1,140 pieces she donated.
“It’s really exciting. I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite. It was hard enough to come up with a selection out of the gift to show this summer,” said assistant curator David Smith.
“What I’ve tried to do is replicate the areas of strength in her collection. More than half of her collection was work by Indigenous artists so more than half the works in this show are Indigenous artists,” he added.
“There’s a selection of Group of Seven works with Tom Thomson and an Emily Carr piece. They’re really great pieces. The Thomson is particularly exciting. A recent guesstimate says there are only about 75 of those panel sketches left in private hands.”
There are about 15 Group of Seven paintings safely behind Plexiglas.
Smith said the remainder of the collection will be displayed in years to come.
Hess, who was the daughter of a lumber magnate, never married and spent her life collecting art and lecturing on it.
She received a doctorate of fine arts from the University of Lethbridge and at one point was a member of the university senate.
“She was very close with A.Y. Jackson. He used to come and stay with her and visit her at her ranch near Cochrane. She’d drive him around to the best spots and they had a really great, lifelong friendship there.”
Also on display until Sept. 7 is an original sketch by Henri Matisse, a print by Pablo Picasso and the art of prominent Indigenous artists, including Alex Janvier, Bill Reid, Tony Hunt, Jessie Oonark and Helen Kalvak.