Arts Patrons, Impresarios, and Philanthropists in Saskatchewan

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Part 2: Bill Shurniak, Arts Patron

By Steven Ross Smith

Bill Shurniak is a modest person. It’s been over two years since he had a public art gallery built – at his expense – in southern Saskatchewan to house and exhibit his private collection of paintings, sculptures, fabric art, and more. “I’m not looking for personal aggrandizement. I feel relieved that I now have a home for my paintings,” he says as we sit in the Limerick room of the gallery among Group of Seven paintings. “I’m happy to be putting something back in the community where I started my working career. It took almost sixty years to get back here.”

Here is Assiniboia, a small Saskatchewan town in the rolling hills between Moose Jaw and the US border.

Shurniak’s parents John and Anna came from Poland to North America, intending to stay for just a few years, but circumstances caused them to remain and eventually become homesteaders in Wood Mountain in southwest Saskatchewan, living first in a tent, while John built a frame and adobe type house for his then small family. Several years later they acquired a farm at Limerick and moved there. When Bill Shurniak finished high school in 1949, his plan to go on to the University of Saskatchewan was ended by his father’s death. A trip about twenty-five kilometres east to Assiniboia with his brother to see his father’s lawyer and pick up new glasses set him on a path he couldn’t have predicted. The lawyer told him that the local Imperial Bank (now CIBC) bank was looking for new employees, and made a call. Shurniak was interviewed and two weeks later was working in the bank. He stayed with CIBC for thirty-five years. “They educated me, trained me and then decided to make an international banker out of me,” he says. He went from the teller’s cage in Assiniboia to managing the bank’s Asia-Pacific Region. He subsequently joined the corporate world and lived and worked in Hong Kong and Australia for many years. “It hasn’t been dull,” he chuckles.

Visual art attracted Shurniak from early on. He began buying prints, but once he had enough money he began to purchase original paintings. One of the first pieces he bought was by Alan Collier in the 1960s. The habit grew, as did Shurniak’s travel destinations. Today his extensive collection comprises pieces of art from all around the world.

As his retirement approached, and with many of his artworks in storage and out of sight, Bill Shurniak began to think about a permanent home and a way for the art to be shared with the public. “I’d thought about leaving the collection to a provincial gallery or university, but then it would cease to be my personal collection and quite possibly even get sold off piece-meal,” says Shurniak. “So I decided to build a home for it, to keep the collection together for as long as possible, and to do it in my own home community, where I grew up.”

Shurniak explains: “Cities have a lot of these types of facilities. Yet, in Saskatchewan, with many of its small towns dying off or having already vanished from the landscape, I decided to build the gallery in Assiniboia and hopefully help preserve the town which is still the main shopping centre for the south country.” This bold decision involved the construction of a lovely building on Third Avenue, right in the heart of town, just down the street from the old Imperial bank building.

“When I moved back from Australia two and a half years ago and started unpacking the paintings, I hadn’t seen some of them for many years,” he says. “It was more than a thrill. When I had it all hung and I was alone in the gallery looking at the works, I must admit that it was a bit emotional.”

Exhibitions change from time to time at the Shurniak Gallery, as not all of the collection can be hung at once. On a visit in midwinter, this viewer’s gaze fell on works as varied as Nicholas de Grandmaison’s portrait ‘Chief John Hunter, Stoney Chief, Morley c1942’, Robert A. Scott’s large gleaming, geologic 1992 abstract ‘Enhale’, and the ‘Untitled Forest Scene’ by “W’Balik, K” of Indonesia, which features a delicate and intricate pattern of birds, insects, and water. Joe Fafard’s sculpture ‘Flowers’ – a charming, near life-size foal – stands near the sidewalk in front of the gallery.

Ninety minutes did not really give me enough time to absorb the work as fully as I would have liked. The seven rooms that comprise the gallery are full, yet each work has ‘breathing space’. The rooms are named after former and existing villages in the area, for example the Limerick room with its paintings by A.J. Casson, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Lawren Harris. But paintings are not the only the artworks. There are fabric works, furniture, sculptures and numerous artefacts.

No particular aesthetic drives Shurniak’s artistic acquisitions. It is a collection gathered with an eclectic personal touch. “Each of the paintings that I have in my collection is reminiscent of places I’ve been, people I’ve met, and artists I’ve come to know – some of whom are now personal friends,” he says.

Shurniak has just returned from a trip where he bought four new pieces. But he will not cull to make room for them. Each piece is a part of his being. “I’ve never sold any of the works of art I’ve collected . . . that would be like cutting off my right arm.”

The gallery is starting to become a travel destination, putting Assiniboia ‘on the map.’ People have come specifically to see the collection from all over Saskatchewan, and from Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg; and friends of Bill Shurniak have come all the way from Australia. In 2007, Shurniak calculates, there were fifteen charter tour buses, and groups of student visitors came from the local schools as well as from Swift Current, Weyburn, Gravelbourg, Ponteix and several other towns.

“We’ve had tourists in the gallery for whom this was their first visit to this part of Saskatchewan. Some of them were even from Saskatchewan. Not only were they impressed with the Gallery, but they were also amazed by the beauty of the landscape. In the spring and summer it’s quite beautiful down here and there are significant points of interest.”

These “points” – all within 45 minutes of each other include – the cathedral at Gravelbourg, the tunnels of Moose Jaw, St Victor’s Petroglyphs, the museum in Willow Bunch, Wood Mountain, Grasslands National Park, the Romanian church at Flintoff, the caves in the Big Muddy, and the Badlands. Shurniak thinks that “this area has to be one of Saskatchewan’s best kept secrets.”

Perhaps with Saskatchewan’s newly acquired caché and prosperity, our south and southwest well-kept secrets will be discovered, with the Shurniak Gallery as a key destination point.

Now Bill Shurniak would like to see some company for his gallery. “It’d be nice to have a few other galleries in town,” he says. “I’d like to see some artists come and establish their homes and studios right here in Assiniboia. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a home and live in a small town in Saskatchewan yet you’re close enough to the cities to market your work. I’ve seen towns where the arts and the artist community have added to the growth of a town and in some cases have kept a town alive – Kleinberg in Ontario, Santa Fe in New Mexico, and Broken Hill in Australia – those are just three examples.”

But art is not just about tourism, collecting and logistics for Bill Shurniak. He sees a value in art that goes well-beyond these notions. “One of the best ways to learn about a culture when you travel to a country is to visit its galleries and museums. Art has always played a very important part in people’s lives. It goes back to the beginning of time. Some of what we call art today served as a means of communication. Some of the aboriginal art work that I have in my collection is a prime example of this.”

Bill Shurniak believes that viewing art is not only enjoyable, but also therapeutic. He says, “I read somewhere recently that visiting an art gallery can be very relaxing. If you come into a gallery feeling tensed up and you let yourself become totally absorbed in the art, it will indeed have a calming affect on you.”

So Bill Shurniak’s gift offers many positive benefits. But he downplays his generosity, suggesting that his philanthropic gesture is not that special. “There are count less numbers of people who give back to their communities in so many different ways,” he says. “People are constantly giving of themselves for the benefit of their community and society. For example, Assiniboia may be a small town, but it has a big heart, and we have over one hundred volunteers helping out at the gallery. I think that Canadians are very generous people, and the majority tend to be very modest about it. In fact, a lot of people prefer to stay totally anonymous.

With his quiet passion, Bill Shurniak has made a significant artistic and social statement in this town of less than three thousand people in southern Saskatchewan. He’s made what some think of as the middle of nowhere into a somewhere, a destination for the sophisticated art lover, and the curious new-comer. And he has set a standard of generosity whose benefit will be felt for years to come.

Part 2 of a 5 part series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

© For permission to reprint this article please contact the SAA.