The world will never know if The Wedge Collection, one of Canada's largest, privately owned contemporary art collections exploring African diasporic culture and contemporary Black life, would exist had its owner opted to study music instead of dentistry.
“I have the Jamaican immigrant parents, who were like: 'You're going to be a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer. Choose one,'" says Dr. Kenneth Montague, avid art collector and owner of The Wedge Collection. Despite excelling in art and music, he goes on to explain that when faced with acceptances to the School of Music at McGill University and dental school in the same week, his parents hopes for him won.
Fortunately, dentistry worked out for both Montague and the art world. The group practice he founded in Toronto in 1992, Word of Mouth Dentistry, is infused with music and on the walls are a sampling of the 400 or so works he's acquired over 25 years.
“I think if you let happiness—or let's say satisfaction—be the guide, you'll still end up where you were going to be in life. I always loved art. My place in the ecosystem turned out to be as a collector because I had the income and the wherewithal to own some of these works that I loved," says Montague.
In addition to collecting, Montague is founder of Wedge Curatorial Projects, a not-for-profit with a focus on Black identity in contemporary art. He serves on the Art Gallery of Ontario's board of trustees and advises its department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora. He is a member of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums that aims to make institutions more equitable. Earlier this year, he joined the board of trustees at the Aperture Foundation.
Corrie Jackson, senior curator at RBC and oversees the RBC Art Collection, spoke to Montague about his passion to invest, living with art in a kid-friendly home and tips for collectors starting out.
Corrie Jackson: Selections from your collection are part of an exhibition travelling to several museums in the years ahead. What does it mean to see these works out in the world?
Dr. Kenneth Montague: I'm happy about it. I want people to enjoy this work that has been so enriching in my own life. I want people to see work by artists like Sandra Brewster from Canada. And young and upcoming artists like Bidemi Oloyede or Jalani Morgan or Erika DeFreitas.
The show As We Rise is based on the book by the same name [As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic]. It's going to Toronto and Vancouver and then on to Boston in summer 2023. Those artists, not so well-known, are in dialogue in the show with artists like Kehinde Wiley and Ming Smith and Gordon Parks. They're in the mix with Carrie Mae Weems and others.
To me, that's the important thing: bringing artists in, pulling them into the mix. Yeah, I'm excited about people seeing the work, and my beloved Black Canadian artists.
As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic exhibition: Art Museum, University of Toronto.
When I think about The Wedge Collection, I feel like it's anchored by a personal passion that thrives on relationships you've built with the pieces, as well as the artists. How did this passion emerge in your life?
I was born in the 1960s in Windsor, Ont. ... across the river from Detroit, in the era of the civil rights movement. My parents were immigrants from Jamaica, who arrived in Canada in the 1950s.
I grew up being the only Black kid in the class. Yet I'm across the river from a city that's a bastion of Black culture, with Motown and Detroit techno and then into hip-hop. It was fascinating to be that close and yet so removed from a culture.
You're acquiring work inspired by pieces you've seen growing up and bringing the collection into your home. How does your family feel about it?
My partner, Sarah, who is a museum educator, knew the deal when we got married, because we met working together. She's an artist. We have two sons, aged eight and five. I'm very conscious of having them live with the art.
We're not too fussed about things. If something is super valuable and I know they're going to throw a football around the house, I'm not going to put that painting up right now. To date, we've never had any glass broken or any canvases torn.
What's important for me, and intentional, is that my sons grow up seeing the images in the house and have that sense of being surrounded by the beauty of ordinary Black life.
I'm not sure they'll be collectors or even artists, but they'll have an appreciation.
As someone living with a collection at home and, I assume, storing some of it, do you ever feel comfortable letting go of something?
Sometimes a work becomes unmanageable because it's reached a value where it gets difficult for a collector at my level to take care of it.
I've got several pieces in my collection where I'm now paying thousands of dollars a year on insurance. I have young kids, so I can't put that very serious painting in the house where it could get damaged.
Maybe it should be in a more public forum or in a major institution that has resources to take care of the work in terms of conservation. Do you donate? Or do you sell, and use proceeds to acquire more work that fits your mission?
Owning work is a relationship that is, in a way, differentiated from appreciating art or being an arts enthusiast. What strategies have you followed for investing in artwork?
I'm a dentist, so I have a good income, but not the kind of disposable income to be like these mega collectors, who just buy a whole show. For most of the work in my collection [acquired over the past 25 years], I had to be very strategic and cautious about cost.
I was able to acquire these works when, let's say, the going was good. I have been in awe as the prices on so many of the works of Black artists who are in my collection have gone up exponentially. The art market has come around to recognizing the importance of the works.
For me, it was never about money, it was always love.
Montague in front of works by The Wedge Collection artist Ruddy Roye. Photo by Aaron Clarke.
How have you come to an artist's works and, from there, decided to acquire them?
I was, and still am, big on studio visits. I know you are as well. It's always been important for me to meet artists whenever possible. Get to know them. See a broader swath of their work before zeroing in.
I'm as interested in that young artist in their graduation show at OCAD University as that hot artist that went to Yale and is having a big moment.
Obviously, it's a smarter investment to buy that work and bring it into your collection before that notoriety.
It's about—I know it sounds corny—that idea of “lifting as we rise" (my late father, Spurgeon Montague's, family motto). It was a phrase we always heard. As you do well, you should be pulling up people in your community. It's an influence on how I think about bringing artists into the collection.
How does someone who's just getting into collecting approach a gallery? It can be an intimidating experience.
I learned the hard way, like most collectors, you need to do some research if you're going to ask the big questions, like 'how much does that cost?'.
If you're just going to see a show, and you've never heard of the artist, it's exciting. Go into the gallery, experience it.
But if you're going in as a collector with the intent that you might buy something, you need to show that gallery you're serious. You do that by reading up, studying that artist, so they will engage you in conversation and not throw you aside.
Dr. Kenneth Montague's must-reads for young art collectors
Hit the books. I didn't go to art school. I needed to do the research because it's a big investment, financially. There was no internet when I started, so I had to buy books and go to the library.
Look to journals. I'm a big proponent of Artforum, which I've been receiving every month since the late 1990s. I also read magazines like Aperture, Frieze and journals from big public institutions like Tate.
Lead photo by Ebti Nabag.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In Quebec, financial planning services are provided by RBC Wealth Management Financial Services Inc. which is licensed as a financial services firm in that province. In the rest of Canada, financial planning services are available through RBC Dominion Securities Inc.