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Ahead by a centuryBy Lindsey Bunin | Mar 11, 2010
Listening to Ian Muncaster recount the life of Zwicker’s Gallery feels like a trip back in time—imagine soldiers marching atop Citadel Hill and horses with buggies trotting along city streets.
Through world wars, multiple locations and owners, and an ever-volatile fine art market, Zwicker’s Gallery has weathered every storm and triumphed in maintaining art culture in Halifax. The gallery opened its doors in historical Halifax to serve the gentry, when the city was home to the second largest military garrison in the British Empire.
“The Zwickers recognized a need and provided for that market, the officers and their families, and became quite successful,” recounts the gallery’s current owner Ian Muncaster.
Judson Zwicker founded Halifax’s oldest commercial gallery in 1886. The gallery was originally located in the North End on Jacob Street. As the South End developed in the early 1900s, Zwicker’s relocated to Granville Street. Leroy Zwicker and his wife Marguerite took over the ownership around 1937. Zwicker’s made the move to its current location, 5415 Doyle Street, in 1970.
Around the time of the final relocation, the Zwickers enlisted the help of Henry Knight to take over the business as they travelled to Harvard University where Leroy Zwicker took part in a medical study for his Parkinson’s Disease.
Meanwhile, Muncaster’s background in marketing brought him to Halifax to assist Dalhousie University in establishing its MBA program. Shortly after arriving in the city, he reconnected with his old friend Knight and learned the story of the gallery. Knight then relocated out of province and left the gallery in the hands of a manager.
“The manager he hired turned out to be dishonest, filling the gallery with tractor trailer loads of junk so it would go out of business,” Muncaster recalls. “Henry got a call from a concerned member of the community and when he came back, there wasn’t a lot he could do. The lady who was managing Zwicker’s poached many of the artists and started her own gallery. It seemed like the end of Zwicker’s.”
That’s when Muncaster stepped in to help his friend. Knowing the role that the gallery had played in the history of the community, he saw the immediate need for its rehabilitation. It wasn’t easy to refurbish what had been lost, and as Knight moved away from the business in favour of other opportunities, Muncaster stepped up to take his place.
“I was always quite interested in art, but never thought in a million years that I’d end up owning a gallery,” Muncaster says. “It was pure serendipity. The place was going to go bankrupt and I saw it as a challenge. I could see that Halifax needed Zwicker’s because it had played such an important historical role in the city.”
Soon after Muncaster got involved, the former manager ran into more trouble and within five or six years, the artists returned to their home at Zwicker’s. “We’ve seen tremendous changes from the 1970s into the 2000s,” Muncaster says. “There’s no question that all of the activity in the art market has grown tremendously.”
A mainstay in the community, Zwicker’s Gallery offers a unique selection of fine art, including contemporary works by local artists, as well as historical art from well-established names. The gallery has carved a niche by also offering antique nautical charts, maps, and engravings, as well as sculptures, ceramics and works by Inuit and Aboriginal artists.
“Most galleries specialize, so our niche would be traditional and historical, some of which is representational and some abstract,” Muncaster explains.
Michael Butt is a regular at Zwicker’s Gallery. A Halifax Grammar School teacher, Butt has been a customer for nearly seven years. While he’s purchased a few paintings over the years, he often comes to Zwicker’s for framing, or just to have a friendly chat with Muncaster.
“In other major cities, there are several galleries like Zwicker’s, but in Halifax, Ian has a unique and important role,” Butt says. “Ian provides a valuable service that goes above and beyond being a purveyor of art. He has an unbelievable wealth of knowledge of the history of art and the history of the city.” Butt suggests just stopping in to chat, even if you’re not an art collector.
Chris Webb knows that Muncaster’s experience and knowledge is just one reason Zwicker’s has stood the test of time. “Ian is able to ride the ebb and flow of the art market because he does so much more,” explains Webb, who is entrenched in the Halifax fine art scene as a visual artist, past president of Visual Arts Nova Scotia and a member of the board of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
“I’m an artist, but I don’t sit in my studio and paint all day long,” Webb says. “I teach and design and do video work. The same goes for Ian. His business is adaptable to the economic climate because he does excellent restoration work and appraising and provides other valuable services.”
Webb notes that Haligonians ought to support landmarks like Zwicker’s. “It’s something we can’t afford to lose,” Webb says. “The gallery has more of a cultural impact than simply selling paintings.”
While many are quick to sing his praises, Muncaster remains humble about the success of the gallery. “Our longevity is really due to luck, I suppose,” he says.
He adds that the city’s art scene would be stronger if the galleries worked together more often. “We’ve been trying to persuade public galleries to do more joint promotions with commercial galleries,” he says, citing successful ventures like the Nocturne art festival. “We all tend to do our own thing, but if we work together, we can all make more of our very limited promotional budgets. Halifax has a vibrant art scene that we should support and nurture for the health of the community.”