From modest beginnings

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Masterworks museum showcases Bermuda’s inspiration in art

The statue of a moose poking through the bushes outside the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art hints at the ties between the gallery and Canada.

The Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in Hamilton, Bermuda in October. — Photo by The Canadian Press

But it also speaks of the worldwide vision of Tom Butterfield, Masterworks’ founder and creative director, who has spent the last 25-plus years looking to find and showcase art from and inspired by Bermuda.

What started as a modest collection of 12 works has now turned into a 1,486 square-metre museum with more than 80,000 artifacts.

Part entrepreneur, part politician, part circus master, Butterfield is above all an enthusiastic spokesman for the arts. And in working for his beloved Masterworks, he is also part detective in hunting down assets for the picturesque gallery built in a renovated former arrowroot factory in Bermuda’s Botanical Gardens.

“I never know what is around the corner,” said Butterfield, a youthful and trim 65. “I always expect the unexpected. In other words, I go looking for the unexpected because I believe that that’s what will happen in life. If you think good things happen in life, they will happen in life, and you will get good results.

“And that is how I have conducted myself. Even at the beginning when there were so many naysayers and there was so much opposition to what we were doing, I just thought, ‘You know what? They’re all wrong. Everybody’s wrong. I happen to know that this is the right thing.

“Because it’s about awareness, it’s about cleansing one’s spirit and soul in the good things that mankind does. And in my case, it’s obviously the visual arts.”

Bermuda’s beauty has long drawn artists from around the world.

In January, Masterworks is uniting a unique, unlikely group of island lovers including Georgia O’Keeffe, Winslow Homer, Henry Moore, John Lennon and Mark Twain.

O’Keeffe visited Bermuda twice — in 1933 to recuperate from depression, and again in 1934. Homer visited Bermuda regularly beginning in the 1880s. In the summer of 1980, Lennon wrote “Double Fantasy” in Bermuda — the last album released during his lifetime. And according to Butterfield, Twain loved Bermuda. Moore, meanwhile, was inspired by a gift of shells purchased in Bermuda by a friend who had visited the island.

Shaped liked a fish hook, Bermuda covers just 64 square kilometres in the Atlantic some 1,030 kilometres northwest of the North Carolina coast. Its aquamarine waters, pink sands and marvellous vistas have drawn visitors since Bermuda was discovered in 1505 by Spanish sea captain Juan de Bermudez.

Once marketed mainly to well-heeled tourists — it used to be an island getaway for rock star David Bowie and his supermodel wife Iman — Bermuda is now looking to widen its reach.

And those who make the trip are well-advised to visit Masterworks, a feel-good gallery which will open up its basement to show works not on exhibit if asked.

What was once a temporary exhibit in 1986 is today a stylish museum that boasts 1,500 works of art from the 1700s to present day. The gallery also has more than 80,000 items on or about Bermuda, including photographs, postcards and posters.

Masterworks and Bermuda art have proved to be a glorious onion for Butterfield, with each peeling leading to hidden treasure. He cites one Connecticut artist who bought a house on the island and then opened its doors to a litany of other artists.

“This helps explains why we have found Bermuda pieces in Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Missouri,” said Butterfield. “They’ve come from all over the place.”

Masterworks is clearly a labour of love for Butterfield, who with his pink glasses and matching shoelaces on the day is as colourful as the island he calls home.

Art and education have taken him around the world.

Butterfield’s Bermudian father met his Canadian mother while attending McGill University. Born in Bermuda, Butterfield was sent to school at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., before taking media studies at Ryerson University.

After taking time to travel around Europe, Butterfield turned to photography with a Canadian Council grant allowing him to focus on his art in the Maritimes.

By the time he returned to Bermuda in 1980, he had added Canadian citizenship to his portfolio and turned to the wine business to help pay the bills.

Masterworks developed out of a 1986 show during Bermuda’s Heritage Month in May, with the acquisition of an original Andrew Wyeth piece on Bermuda turning heads.

“A local treasure,” said Butterfield, who dug the Wyeth out of a private collection.

In 1987, he was able to get a 1934 O’Keeffe drawing — “Banyan Tree Trunk” — on loan for the temporary exhibit.

“It didn’t take much to realize it was time to move ahead, move on. Because my ambition was not to have Heritage Month celebrated once a year but to have heritage celebrated all year round. And so we started on our own.”

The journey has probed to be long and convoluted. For a while, Masterworks was housed in the Bermuda National Gallery, which houses local and international art, but it proved to be a rocky relationship.

Butterfield then took the core of the collection on the road, drawing attention with stops in Toronto, Halifax, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and London, England, among others.

“As it was travelling around these cities, it was making friends and contacts.”

The travelling show started with 60 works and ended with 120. It also caught the eye of locals back home.

The collection — whose original 12 works were valued at $55,000 — is now underwritten at $26 million. Colonial Insurance, a major sponsor from the get-go, still charges the gallery $1 a year.

The gallery officially moved into its new home in March 2008. Actor Michael Douglas, whose mother is Bermudian, helped pour the rum on a traditional “roof-wetting ceremony” in November 2006. It was a day to remember — Douglas briefly lost his footing while standing in a cherry-picker basket eight metres in the air to christen the museum.

Butterfield said he had no idea when he started that there would be so many art connections to Bermuda.

“Absolutely no clue,” he said. “There was Winslow Homer, a known quantity, on one shoulder and Georgia O’Keeffe, a known quantity, on the other. And then we plunged into it.

“Would I have known that we would have surfaced a Jack Bush (a late Canadian painter) or Henry Moore drawings of Bermuda shells? Not a chance. Malcolm Morley, another Brit — he’s now become an American — came here in 1977. And the list goes on.”

Today, the works by Homer are the museum’s most popular with visitors able to take a trip down the Harbour Road, which overlooks Hamilton, to see the view that inspired his 1901 work “Inland Water, Bermuda.”

Other favourites are O’Keeffe, Moore and Ogden Minton Pleissner, whom Butterfield calls an artist’s artist and one of the great watercolourists of the last century. The late Pleissner’s works beautifully capture the vibrant colours and unique architecture of the island.

Convincing locals to dig into their wallets wasn’t easy at first. But the art itself helped change minds once the drive turned to finding a home for the art.

“People saw the need to create a home for these great treasures,” said Butterfield.

Butterfield did his bit. His fundraising exploits include running the London Marathon five times and the New York Marathon once. He has twice biked the length of England and cris-crossed Europe and Bermuda on two wheels to focus attention on the gallery.

“It’s keeping me very fit,” he said with a belly laugh.

Butterfield and his colleagues raised almost US$9 million to finance the museum’s permanent home. Another $1 million is still being raised.

In 2012, Butterfield was rewarded with an MBE from the Queen for his dedication to both repatriating Bermudian art and nurturing Bermudian artists.

There is more than the moose — known as Northern Lights in its previous life in Toronto — that links the museum to Canada.

The museum maintains a relationship with Ryerson via an internship program involving a graduating student from the university’s museum studies department. The Bermudiana Foundation of Canada helps with the internship program and fundraising.

Some 12,000 visitors come through the gallery doors each year, with Butterfield saying TripAdvisor has become one of the museum’s best marketing tools.

Masterworks is an easy bus or cab ride — or scooter trip for the more adventurous — from the capital of Hamilton, and the surrounding gardens are idyllic. After taking in the art, you can relax at Homer’s Cafe, named after Winslow Homer, for a light meal and glass of wine of cup of coffee. There is also a gift shop.

The gallery is open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., outside of public holidays. Admission is $5 and free for children under 12.

Organizations: College in Aurora, McGill University, Canadian Council Bermuda National Gallery Canada.The museum Bermudiana Foundation of Canada

Geographic location: Bermuda, Botanical Gardens, Atlantic Europe North Carolina Connecticut Toronto England Vancouver San Francisco Los Angeles Missouri Andrew Hamilton New York Philadelphia Boston Harbour Road

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