Behind the doors of Masters Gallery is a tradition of knowledge and passion that goes back to its founding in 1976, a block away from its current downtown location on 4th Street S.W. As one of the most prominent art dealers in Calgary, Masters has played an integral role in shaping the community’s appreciation for art and culture for almost 50 years.
Like the art on its walls, a certain charm and charisma seem to be a stock-in-trade for the owners of Masters — a natural inclination to understand and explain works of art, an unerring eye for talent, and the invaluable gift of making you feel welcome and comfortable with whatever you are discovering in the treasure chest that is the gallery.
It all began with Peter Ohler and his eclectic passions — a poet, he was also a football quarterback with the B.C. Lions, and won the Grey Cup in 1964. In the early ʼ70s, he moved to Calgary to start an art gallery, Fine Arts and Books, in Mission. In time, he developed an excellent reputation in Alberta, thanks to his keen interest in historic Canadian artworks. He came into possession of a catalogue from the National Gallery of Canada and started promoting artists in its collection, like Janet Mitchell and Marion Nicoll, when they were still relatively unknown.
Eventually his path crossed with Rod Green. Rod had a degree in Zoology and spent a lot of time hiking in the Rockies with his young family and studying water samples from its rivers and lakes — exploring the same region that served as inspiration for the Group of Seven and generations of artists. When Rod noticed a Masters Gallery ad he visited the gallery and met Peter. They clicked immediately. One day on another visit Peter was called away from the gallery and asked Rod if he could mind the shop in his absence. When Peter had returned a half-hour later Rod had sold two watercolours by F.M. Bell Smith. Peter then famously said, “Young man, would you like a job?”
In the early ’80s during a downturn in the Calgary economy, Peter returned to British Columbia and Rod became a partner in the Gallery. From 1987 until 2017, Rod ran the Gallery with Peter’s son Peter Ohler Jr. and together they built a robust clientele and many important private collections. When Rod retired in 2017, his son Ryan became partner and, eventually, sole owner of Masters Gallery.
Ryan had always been interested in imagery and the history of art and the recognition of a vocation came to him naturally. “At the University of Calgary, I studied the Italian Renaissance and Baroque period with Dr. David Bershad, who did for Italian art history in Calgary what my dad did for Canadian art,” he says. “Then I got my master’s degree in art history at University College of London, and spent time studying in Florence as part of my degree.”
Today, Masters Gallery has clients across Canada and abroad, and thanks to Ryan’s frequent travels and contacts in London, Paris, and Toronto, the Gallery has reached an internationally recognized status. When the National Gallery of Canada was launching the European tour of ‘Impressionism in Canada: New Horizons,’ Ryan was pleased to be a sponsor of the exhibition and was honoured to be invited to attend the opening in Munich at the Kunsthalle Museum. The Canadian exhibition toured three European cities, Munich, Lausanne, and Montpellier, and was a tremendous success.
Ryan is a member of the Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery and, since 2020, a member of the Glenbow Museum Board of Directors. Under Ryan’s leadership, the Gallery has partnered with the Calgary Board of Education in ‘Young Masters,’ an educational program that makes the gallery accessible to children. “So many kids are not exposed to the arts, and it’s great to invite them here to have fun and learn about visual arts,” he says. During the pandemic, Ryan developed the ‘Art Stories’ project, which offers free virtual art talks with eminent art scholars on a number of different topics related to Canadian art.
Music completes Masters Gallery’s vision of its role in promoting the arts in the community. Ryan recalls his father’s longtime commitment to the philanthropic role of the Gallery, and his support of institutions across the country interested in Canadian art. Masters Gallery has supported the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999 in a number of creative ways — during the recent Cork and Canvas fundraiser, Ryan gave an enlightening art talk about the Group of Seven. Ryan’s welcoming approach and passion for sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for art resonates with what has been the Masters Gallery credo for more than 50 years: “Art need not be intimidating and it need not break the bank.”