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A collector's perspective: Kenneth Montague

Dr. Kenneth Montague at his home library with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s, ’Any Number of Preoccupations’, 2010

In arriving at insights, tracking patterns and gauging perceptions, Corrigall & Co rely heavily on conversations and in-depth interviews with other art specialists or stakeholders. We were very fortunate to have had the chance to interview Kenneth Montague. Not only does this Toronto-based art collector have an incredible collection of art by contemporary African artists but his passion for art, and advancing a black and African perspective in his native Canada has seen him curate exhibitions too. His in-depth knowledge of African art has seen him serve as a board Member, Tate Modern African Art Acquisitions.

In our inaugural publication A Decade of Curating, he offered insight into one of the reasons contemporary African art is being more valued in Northern America.

"African American artists are becoming much more prominent and many times there’s a big sense of connection to Africa in their work and just blackness, in general, has become this topic of discussion. Thinking about black consciousness and the movement sort of happened, like black lives matter. It’s really upped the ante and suddenly there is a great interest, not only in the art world but just in general, about what’s happening with the African art scene. So I think these movements of solidarity and black consciousness, new movements in this part of the world has spurred an interest, particularly with young people, about knowing what’s going on at the source. What’s happening on the continent and, whereas, before it used to be oh, we’re different, you know. those Africans are different than my experience, what do I have in common with that person that’s from over there?"

Like many collectors his interest in art developed at a young age. He recalls visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts at 10 years old and being interested in how black identity was represented.

"I remember seeing James Van der Zee’s photography and seeing the image of the ‘Couple in Raccoon Coats’ in front of a Harlem brownstone with a Cadillac with white wall tyres and they’re wearing fur coats and they looked impossibly sophisticated. And I was like a 10-year-old already thinking, kind of having the sort of black imaginary already, because all I would see on television was, you know, goofy depictions, you know, cartoon depictions of black Americans and it was just a totally different thing than Sandford and Son."

Montague bought the Van der Zee work and held an exhibition of his work in his home.

"I had just started my dental office and within five years I was getting bored of just being a dentist. So in 1997, over 20 years ago now, I started a gallery in my home, with a new loft designed by a black Canadian designer; Jamaican / Canadian. The first show we had was also of a Jamaican / Canadian artist. It was a sort of wedge-shaped space, so we called it the Wedge Gallery."

Largely, Montague's collecting has been driven by "thinking about black identity, black culture, through the eyes of many artists." As a result his collection contains works mostly by black artists, from Africa, his native Canada and America, and the UK - such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye - whom he snapped up before her status soared.

"I just had the foresight and got to buy the works. It wasn’t cheap but it was certainly well more affordable than now. I mean we’re talking about differences of buying something for tens of thousands, it’s now like hundreds of thousands, if not into the million, you know. It’s interesting, I have a few of those works and then many, many works that probably haven’t gone up tremendously in value, but have great value to me because, you know, important artists had helped me to put the story together about black identity, which is at the core of The Wedge collection."

Despite the 'black identity' focus to his collection Montague has not limited his collecting to black artists only - he has works by white South African artists such as David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo.

"I’m trying to tell as many stories as possible, from different perspectives. But I mean there are times when it’s like, okay, you are just objectifying the black body. And even within bodies of work. For instance, I am less interested in Pieter Hugo's ‘Hyena Man’ (series) and much more interested in quiet series like The Boy Scouts, which is the work that I have of him."

Collecting art has become a different pursuit since the advent of the internet, and social media, says Montague. Before social media, collectors interested in contemporary African art had to attend events on the continent to discover artists. Montague would make a beeline for the Bamako Biennale. Now he relies more on social media he says.

Getting in early and buying artworks before they reach their full value has been Montague's strategy to collecting - over and above the social political interests he pursues.

"I am not a major collector in terms of resources. It was just like luck, savvy and a little bit of chutzpah that got me where I am. Because if I didn’t have the kind of … well, I guess the word that we’d use would be the foresight to be able to grab the work when I did, I certainly couldn’t afford it now. Now most of this work (by important African artists) is out of my price range."


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