Art expert Gail Nep looks back on fulfilling career

Gail Nep

By MYRON LOVE After more than 40 years immersed in the world of art, Gail Nep has cut back somewhat on her activities.
“I can’t do the schlepping I used to do when I was younger,” she says, recalling the days when she could be found crossing Portage and Main lugging paintings of different sizes to the offices of corporate clients downtown.


And she retired from teaching in 2007 – following a career that included 30 years teaching art at West Kildonan Collegiate. “Many of my former students still keep in touch with me,” she notes. “We talk about art.”
Despite taking things a little easier these days, Nep’s expertise is still in demand. For the past 15 years or so, she has been wintering in Mexico, including this winter. She reports that from her office in her second home in that southern sunbelt country she continues to respond to the needs of her clients, most recently art appraisals for the University of Manitoba and the Buhler Centre.
By turn an art teacher, art gallery owner, appraiser and consultant, art has defined here her life. “I have always loved art,” says the former River Heights girl.
Ironically, Nep - who studied art history in university herself has never tried to forge a career as an artist. “I felt that the world didn’t need another mediocre artist,” she explains.
It was her long time next-door neighbour in St. Boniface – the well known artist Tony Tascona – who pushed Gail Nep into the commercial side of art. Knowing that her brother in Calgary, the late Jerry Nep, was an art collector, Tascona urged her - on one of her visits to Jerry - to take a collection of his and fellow artists’ paintings with her to sell.
On one of her returns, he suggested that she consider becoming an art consultant.
So what does an art consultant do? Well, if you want some advice on choosing paintings she will come to your home and get a sense of your tastes and what might suit you.
In the corporate world, Nep would be called upon to suggest and source paintings that woulld add character to the clients’ reception areas, offices and boardrooms.
Following Tascona’s suggestion, Nep began building up a corporate clientele through making cold calls – by phone or in person. Initially, she worked out of her home. In 1984, however she formed a relationship with high end furniture store Roche Bobois, then newly-arrived in the Exchange District across the street from the Royal Albert Arms.
“I was asked to recommend art pieces to complement the furniture displays,” she recalls. “The arrangement worked out very well. People would come in to buy furniture and would also purchase the artwork.”
Roche Bobois shut its doors in 1988. By that time, Nep had opened her own art gallery, “Uptown Gallery”, in the Exchange District. She relocated Uptown to Academy Road – also in 1988 – in conjunction with Roche Bobois’ closing. A couple of years later, she moved Uptown again – this time to the Forks. In the mid-90s, she closed the gallery and began working full time out of her home.
She notes that it is difficult to turn a profit as an art gallery owner. “A lot of people are intimidated by art galleries,” she points out. “One art gallery owner I knew never put prices on the paintings in her gallery. She said that if anyone had to ask the price of a painting, he probably wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway. I used to regularly take my students to visit art galleries to help them become comfortable in the galleries.”
She notes that in recent years, there has been a trend for artists to display their works on the walls of restaurants –a more informal setting for selling their works.
Nep still sells art from her home. “We have a lot of really good artists in Winnipeg who are selling their paintings across Canada and even in Chicago and New York,” she observes.
As for Winnipeggers’ tastes in art, she reports that most of us are quite conservative. We prefer the tried and true – the Group of Seven, for example – rather than sampling more contemporary pieces.
Nep’s career as an appraiser began with an invitation by the Winnipeg Art Gallery to evaluate some pieces at the gallery. “I didn’t really feel that I was qualified,” she recalls, “but the WAG’s collection manager pointed out that I knew all of the gallery’s artists and was familiar with their style.”
As an appraiser, Nep’s services have been in demand across Canada. Her clients include the National War Museum in Ottawa and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa.
“I love doing appraisals,” Nep says. “At times, it is like doing CSI work. I don’t want to make mistakes. I do a lot of research. At times, I have to search for the artist’s name.“
It is often difficult to tell if a painting is authentic,” Nep points out. “If I am allowed to take pictures out of their frames, I would have a better idea of the authenticity of the picture.” Buying forgeries is an ever-present concern. Even the experts can be fooled.
“The most important consideration in buying art is that the paintings – or photographs – or posters – that you hang on your wall are pictures you love to look at,” she observes. “It doesn’t have to be expensive as long as the picture is one you want to look at every day.”