Story by Nancy McKibbin Gray.
The present day Carnegie Gallery grew out of a project in 1979 called the Carnegie Craft Carnival in response to the perceived threat of losing the heritage building that had, until recently, been the home of the Dundas Public Library. Funds were raised for some much needed building repairs. Out of the successful Carnegie Craft Carnival, a template existed for an organizational structure, from which the Carnegie Gallery emerged. However it was not without some precedent.
In the early 70’s there was a group of young artists who started up the Dundas Craftsman, which operated for several years in various locations in the town. They included Deborah Doran, potter, Fred Longtin, shoemaker, Jackie Prestwich, smocker, Phil Watson, shoemaker and Helen Brink, potter. For a town of its size Dundas had an unusually large community of painters, potters, sculptors, glass blowers, jewellery makers, textile artists and photographers who worked hard to make a living from their art. It was felt that what this community now needed was a permanent venue to show the best art and craft that the region was producing and help the creators benefit from their work.
“Help artists make a living from their work’ became the rallying cry of an enterprising group of community members and artists, initially led by local bookseller Joanna Chapman while also protecting a heritage building in the community. After an initial struggle with objections from the BIA that the Gallery would have an unfair advantage of operating with mainly volunteers, the group opened its doors in 1980 and was registered as a not-for-profit:, the Dundas Art and Craft Association. Shortly thereafter it successfully applied for charitable status and now is planning celebrations to mark its 40th anniversary despite some objectors saying we would not last a year! The Carnegie Gallery has remained one of Dundas’ key arts, heritage and cultural assets since its founding. We believe that the Gallery has contributed to the revitalization of the downtown core and to helping save its architectural integrity that locals and visitors so enjoy. Located in the heart of Dundas, the Carnegie Gallery now welcomes over 20,000 visitors each year.
The basic organizational structure has not changed radically from its original model. There are two types of membership. The first is artist membership, which is juried by a group of peers. There is a commission on sales to defray the operating costs. It was the original group’s deeply felt belief that the artist should always have the larger percentage and for many years it was a 60/40 split and only recently changed to 55/45. The second is community support membership open to everyone. The Association operates a shop area and a large exhibition space. Exhibitions are changed monthly and open to everyone through an annual jurying process.
The Gallery had always operated on a frugal budget with a skeleton staff and many hardworking volunteers but has also always set high standards for both its artist membership and busy exhibition schedule. Its funding is through sales, fundraisers, donations, a municipal grant and occasional project grants. A popular fundraiser was the dinners held in the Gallery. In 1983 the first Secret Gardens Tour took place, now in its 26th year, and is a key annual fundraiser.
For several years the Gallery celebrated St. Luke’s Night, the patron saint of artists by organising a dinner and honouring an outstanding member of the arts community.
Over the years it has hosted many different events in other arts categories. There have been author readings, panel discussions, a wide variety of concerts, lectures and workshops.
It also organized events outside of Dundas, which has included exhibitions at the Broadway Cinema and taking a leading role in organizing the Hamilton Go Show at the James Street North train station.
The Carnegie Gallery has been involved in collaborations with many different groups. For years it hosted an annual exhibition with the local high schools Parkside and Highland. It participated in an exhibition with the Japanese city of Kaga in cooperation with Kids for Kaga, a Dundas student exchange programme. The Carnegie has hosted two glass exhibitions by students from Sheridan College. We worked with the Hamilton and Region Arts Council hosting the biennial Designer Craft Juried exhibitions until the Council cancelled them. After a few years hiatus we reintroduced the ongoing event as the Carnegie Juried Craft Exhibition.
In 1986 the first Arts Dundas Weekend was launched to celebrate the arts community and was built around the Hamilton and Region Potters Guild’s popular Christmas Show and Sale. Working with the Dundas Valley School of Art, the Dundas Museum, the Tower Poetry Society, the Dundas Library and Dundas merchants, special events were organized to highlight the vibrant, varied arts activities that are available in our town.
Two special exhibitions helped the Gallery reach out to a broader audience. First was an environmentally themed project called On the Edge, organized by the artist and a founding member, Catherine Gibbon. Over a period of months a group of artists would spend a weekend in a local environmentally sensitive area drawing and painting. Work produced was exhibited at different locations including the Gallery and the Broadway Cinema. Mohawk College students painted a huge mural on the side of the Broadway. A book was published about the project called ‘On the Edge’ and was edited by Catherine Gibbon.
The second was called The White Line curated by wood engravers, Gerard Brender A Brandis and Wesley Bates. This exhibition was the first review of contemporary Canadian wood engraving to be organized in many years. It also had a book published in conjunction with the show. The White Line was successfully toured across Canada to several public art galleries and crossed the country nearly three times.
The Gallery has also been featured in several different films and we have had actors like Evel Knieval, Natasha Richardson and Meryl Streep visit the Gallery. Work created by our artists has been purchased by the Government of Canada for official gifts and by well-known writers Germaine Greer and Tom Wolfe.
For a Gallery of our size and modest beginnings, we have accomplished an amazing amount. It has been an incredible achievement driven by enthusiasm and belief in the importance of the arts and in community. The next 20 years have also been just as productive culminating in buying the building, renovating and expanding but that is the story for the next instalment.
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