Hamilton Artists Inc.

Story by Bryce Kanbara.

The origins of Hamilton’s oldest artist-run centre.

In 1975 when Hamilton’s image was dominated by Stelco, Dofasco and the Tiger-Cats, artists mostly fled to Toronto or the countryside. Yet, a small number of fledging artists who, for reasons of economics, civic chauvinism, or indolence, remained here. And through the collective project of an artist-run gallery they found one another and themselves as artists in their home town.

Founding members Irena Vormittag, Frank Thistle, Sam Robinson and Bryce Kanbara helping to paint the new space for the Hamilton Artists' Co-op, September 19, 1976.
A view of the Hamilton Artists' Co-op windowfront at 143 James St. North, c.1980.

We called our on-the-street project Hamilton Artists Co-op, and quickly established the gallery to be “a social backdrop for exhibiting and discussing art”, as described in the first constitution. The exhibition schedule in those early years was zealously aimed to “break down the elitism that often surrounds art” and “make looking at art as friendly as getting a haircut at the barbershop on the corner” (from another promotional tract).

They rented a narrow storefront at 143 James St. North, near Cannon St. Ironically, the building was one of a cluster on that corner owned by businessman Herman Levy who, we later discovered, was an erudite collector of international art. (He was also a friend of McMaster professor and sculptor, George Wallace whose retrospective exhibition at the INC. in 1983 was a milestone in the gallery’s developing reputation).

Playing with light at the Hamilton Artists' Co-op windowfront at 143 James St. North, c.1980.

The Lunch Bucket Show, Hamilton Post Card Show, Hamilton Travel Poster Show, Rose Corner Bakery Show, featured both bouquets and brickbats to Hamilton made by artists and non-artists alike. These open-call projects invited community participation and declared the gallery’s penchant for regionalism.

A poster for the Lunch Bucket Show at the Hamilton Artists' Co-op, 1976.
A page from the Inc. scrapbooks on the Travel Poster Show, 1981.

There were several outside forces that helped the Co-op endure, stabilize, and incorporate as Hamilton Artists Inc. in 1978: 1. The example and inspiration of Canadian Artists Representation (CAR) activists Greg Curnoe, John Boyle and members of the Niagara Artists Company; Hamilton poet David McFadden who around that time quit his job as a journalist at the Hamilton Spectator to be a poet: Barry Lord (author of Painting in Canada, Towards a People’s Art, and later a principal at Lord and Associates Cultural Resources) who wrote a seminal article about the Co-op in the national publication, Art Magazine). 2. An emergency grant of around $1,000 from the Ontario Arts Council authorized by Visual Arts Officer Peter Sepp upon our visit of solicitation to the OAC office in 1976. 3. The mounting of the Hamilton Artists Co-op exhibition at Art Gallery of Hamilton in 1978 by director, Glen Cumming, despite his uneasy relationship with the Co-op’s populist tendencies.

First logo and letterhead for the Hamilton Artists Inc., 1975.

I recall attending a Visual Arts Ontario conference, shortly after we opened the Co-op and one fact presented about new arts organizations was that the bench-mark for continuing survival was five years, which seemed an eternity. It’s heartening that the INC. is over forty years old, and back on James N. (permanently) in its own building (the former Jerry’s Men’s Shop) with a younger generation of board of directors and a continuing vision for the visual arts community.

Annual general meeting of the Independent Artists Union at Hamilton Artists Inc., Nov. 29, 1987. Photo by Cees van Gemerden.

What held it together during the flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants times, of course, was the hope, determination and devotion of people whose names I try to recall here as being there in the early years, and to whom the cultural community today is unknowingly indebted. Founding members: Paul and Jeni Dyment, Frank Zavarella, Matt Brazeau, Shelley Brazeau, Mel Shimoda, Marie Laywine, Irena Vormittag, Frank Thistle, Peg McNiff, Sam Robinson, Bryce Kanbara; and many unsung heroes and characters who gave the Inc. its character and zing. Among them: William Warwick; Ross Coker, Hubert Ibing, Sharon Monte, Jackie Kay, Gleave Harris, David Avon, Harry Truman, Jim Cherriere, Loretta Masotti, Steve Arthurs…

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