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Winnipeg Art Gallery dropping name of Nazi-linked former director

The Winnipeg Art Gallery is dropping Ferdinand Eckhardt’s name from its main entrance hall, website and all other gallery materials.

The decision comes after recent allegations and research show that while living in Germany in the 1930s, the former WAG director was a Nazi supporter, the gallery posted in a statement on its website last month.

The gallery is also conducting research into the origins of materials donated by Eckhardt and the Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation to ensure none of it is artwork was confiscated during the Nazi regime. If that is discovered, “all efforts would be made to return it to the rightful owners or their heirs,” the statement says.

Eckhardt was born in Vienna in 1902 and conscripted into the German army, where he served from 1942 to 1944. He became an art historian and developed a division of art education for the Austrian government before moving to Canada in 1953 to become WAG director — a role he held until 1974.

He was a driving force behind the current WAG location being built, enabling the gallery to move out of a space in the previous location in the Winnipeg Auditorium (presently the site of the Manitoba Archives, across Memorial Boulevard).

The exterior of a building, seen from across the street with the sun beaming on its stone wall. The words Winnipeg Art Gallery are seen on the outside.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery moved from a small space in the old Winnipeg Auditorium to its own building under the guidance of then-director Ferdinand Eckhardt in 1971. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

His wife, Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté, who came to Winnipeg with him, became one of Canada’s leading music composers.

Eckhardt’s connection to and support of Nazi Germany was reported in an article by Conrad Sweatman that was published in The Walrus last November. 

“Eckhardt’s public endorsements of Nazism include signing an oath of allegiance to Hitler and producing several polemics in far-right and Nazified journals in the early 1930s, urging, among other things, that Germany’s cultural arena align itself with the goals of the Nazi state,” the article says.

“Eckhardt went to work for one of the most notorious players in Hitler’s war machine, IG Farben, the same company that built the Auschwitz concentration camp and manufactured Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers,” Sweatman wrote.

WAG-Qaumajuq director and CEO Stephen Borys downplayed the link between Eckhardt and the Nazis when asked by the Winnipeg Free Press about Sweatman’s article the day it came out.

“The only surprising thing is so many things are missing and not substantiated or provided without citations or references, so there are a lot of big gaps,” he told the newspaper.

In a follow-up article in The Walrus on Dec. 7, Sweatman said the WAG minimized the findings but didn’t fully deny them. 

“The WAG’s comments came a few hours after the article’s publication, and they were reeling. But there’s now been plenty of time for them to review the evidence we’ve so far presented,” he said in the piece, which was a Q & A between Sweatman and interim editor-in-chief Carmine Starnino.

An elderly man with thin white hair is in the bottom left corner of the photo. He is in a study room filled with papers and books.
A photo on the University of Winnipeg’s website, under the Eckhardt Gramatté Library, shows Ferdinand Eckhardt working at home in early 1990s. (Eckhardt Gramatté Library/University of Winnipeg)

The WAG’s statement on its website was posted less than two weeks later, on Dec. 19, with the headline “moving forward.”

It says it took the allegations surfaced by Sweatman “with the utmost seriousness” and immediately launched an internal investigation that included researching files at the Manitoba Archives.

Based on those findings, Borys received approval of the WAG board of governors to begin removing Eckhardt’s name.

“This process will take time and updates will be shared with the public,” the statement says.

Black and white photo shows three people posting with a painting of a woman
Ferdinand Eckhardt, left, poses with Eckhardt-Gramatté Music Competition winners Desmond Hoebig, right, and Gwen Hoebig, who went on to become concertmaster with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Taken in 1977, the photo shows the trio with a painting of Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté. (University of Manitoba Archives/Winnipeg Tribune Personalities Collection)

The WAG will also continue researching any gaps in donated artwork’s ownership during the Nazi era.

“The gallery has been doing this research for several decades, and while no gaps in the ownership in the Eckhardt-Gramatté Collection at WAG-Qaumajuq have been found, this investigative work has not been concluded,” the statement says.

“The gallery is committed to examining any new allegations regarding the collection and we will keep you updated as we move further into this investigation.”

The statement goes on to say “all this work around Eckhardt’s past is part of a continued journey towards equity, decolonization and reconciliation — in all its forms.”

CBC News has also reached out to the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg to see if they are considering renaming any facilities that are currently named in honour of Eckhardt’s wife.

The U of M has the Eckhardt Gramatté Music Library while the U of W has a theatre, Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall, and the Eckhardt Gramatté Library on art history.

The glass entrance to a music library has part of the name covered with a black cloth.
A black cloth now covers part of the name at the University of Manitoba’s Eckhardt Gramatté Music Library. (Submitted by Abigail Bernhardt)

The U of W is slated to renovate the hall soon and “will review that space’s name,” said a statement from the post-secondary institution.

A spokesperson for the U of M said that institution is conducting a full review of the use of the Eckhardt name “to determine next steps.”

Two signs with part of a name covered up.
A spokesperson for the U of M said it’s conducting a full review of the use of the Eckhardt name in its institution. In the meantime, signs that bear the name have been covered. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

That includes an honorary degree the university bestowed upon him in 1971.

“In the meantime, any painting or plaque that bears the name will be covered until after the review,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Eckhardt, who also received an honorary degree from Brandon University, was inducted into the Order of Canada (1976) and the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt (1982).

The latter was, at that time, the highest honour the province could bestow on individuals who demonstrated outstanding skills in the areas of leadership, service and community commitment.

CBC has asked the province if it is reviewing that honour.

Eckhardt also received a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977).

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