Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts

Story by Harold Sikkema, Artist/Educator and Victoria Long, Visual Artist/Educator.

In what light might the visual arts thrive, if not in the good company of musicians, dancers and actors? While Hamilton’s Conservatory for the Arts has for more than a century fostered multi-disciplinary artforms, it has no less enlivened our eyes. Alongside the dramatic depth of Beethoven and the poetic arc of Russian ballet, architectural, sculptural, and painterly faces and feats have made this a special place since its inception, trickling on through turbulent years, closure, hiatus, and re-awakening. HCA reaches artfully onward into the future.

Plaque marking the history of the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts.

Among the many small arts miracles that happened between 1950 and 1999, the revival of an arts heritage at Hamilton’s Conservatory for the Arts may be considered emblematic of the city’s broader pattern.

To properly speak of an arts awakening in the latter part of the 20th century, we’d also have to acknowledge the times of recession and cultural drought that preceded it. Most poignantly, we may recognize those children, who in the 1980s protested and fought (in the fulsome spirit of artists and activists) to save the Conservatory from financial duress. While money troubles did close the doors for a time, they did not ultimately silence Hamilton’s artistic urgency. Today, a youthful energy persists at HCA, revived by inspiration and the decade-spanning hearts of dancers and creators.

Efforts to save the Hamilton Conservatory, Hamilton Spectator, c.1980s.
Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts safe, serving as "a grim reminder of the cash crisis that killed its cultural programs in April 1980," Hamilton Spectator, 1998.

Whether in relation to painting, architecture, or community life, the work of restoration is an artform unto itself: one that demands some discipline in understanding deeper linkages to the past. We might require a leap of imagination to transport ourselves back to 1905, when the Hamilton Spectator celebrated the formal opening of a building “befitting of one of the first conservatories in the Dominion”. More recently, reporter Brian Henley helped us bridge the temporal gap, reminding us about the origins of such a “specialized building type, the only one of its kind to be erected in Hamilton, and designed with the influence of the Richardson Romanesque style by architect A.W. Peene”. A sculptural legacy, to be sure, filled with just the sort of artistry (and gravitas) that opts to soundproof its musical studios with horse-hair insulation.

Drawing of the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts upon its opening in 1905.

Can you imagine James Street South without a railway underpass? Can you picture the neighborhood carrying the sights and smells of a “lively stable”? If so you might also bring to mind the disciplines and practices of “horse-era” artisans and architects, who worked (as least as hard as we do now) to steward the arts. In this light, the events of the 1990s also constitute a re-awakening of older aesthetic influences. The conservatory’s Romanesque edifice isn’t merely the legacy of A.W. Peene; its French and Spanish inflection also pay homage to James Balfour, whose revival style Romanesque Unitarian church had previously marked the address. Whenever we re-open doors, we are privy to a “memory work” that challenges us to also carry forward an artful torch.

It is a torchlight that flickers, as far back as 1770: the birth year of an artist whose spectre gives this story a pivot. Perhaps central to Conservatory’s mystique is Beethoven, and his (now missing) stained glass portrait! Once it filled the tympanum over the building’s staircased entry. Today its absence hints at the voices and stories of so many artisans, builders, students, and geniuses who have added artistic life to the place. It seems fitting to bring into focus whatever we can of their hidden vigor. While mystery clouds certain aspects of the conservatory’s story between 1950-2000, glimmers of delight do persist.

Stained glass atop the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts entrance, 1998.
Entrance to the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts.

While many of the conservatory’s visual flourishes vanished during financial adversity, sufficient traces of visual vigor remain to bring the school and its community back into a visual arts focus. Beyond Beethoven’s stained glass, the conservatory, its faculty, and its wider world, connect us to artistic oeuvres in painting, drawing, and sculpture. A host of noted Canadian artists, prominent women, and potent influencers are well woven into the tapestry of life that goes on thriving under the conservatory’s emblematic roof.

Between 1950 and 1960, Allan K. Scott (conservatory visual art faculty) painted a series of portraits, immortalizing not only the principals and presidents of the school, but also music instructors (Lorne Betts, Reta Bartmann, and Ethel Norris) and administrators, including Erie Hossack (school registrar until 1956). While the paintings had fallen to the Hamilton Public Library for safe-keeping, the re-opening of the conservatory in the 1990s precipitated a permanent loan of these paintings back to HCA, where they remain on display.

Portrait of Reta Bartmann by Allan K. Scott, c.1950s.
Portrait of Lorne Betts by Allan K. Scott, c.1950s.
Portrait of Ethel Norris by Allan K. Scott, c.1950s.

The apparent absence of any self-portrait by Allan K. Scott is as enigmatic as the conservatory’s missing Beethoven: does it reflect the humble character of an unassuming instructor? Or is it indicative of a story we have yet to uncover? If Scott seems understated, we might by contrast note a few of the famed visual arts personas that the Conservatory has brought together, and whose enduring legacy makes even the dim decades seem latent with possibility.

Celebrated Canadian sculptor Elizabeth Bradford Holbrook, CM, O.Ont (1913-2009) was a student at the Conservatory, under the tutelage of Marion E. Mattice (O.S.A. / Ontario Society of Artists). Among the bronze busts for which Holbrook became known are those featuring conservatory principals Reginald Godden and W.H. Hewlett.

Holbrook’s connection with the conservatory comes full circle through her friendship with Marion Farnan (co-founder of Dundas Valley School of Art). Like Holbrook, Farnan studied visual arts at the conservatory under Marion E. Mattice. When the conservatory re-opened, it was Farnan who recalled Holbrook’s bronze works. In a celebrated homecoming, these principals were donated back to the conservatory.

Bust of W.H. Hewlett by Elizabeth Holbrook at the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts.

While artists are often known for their resilience in relation to financial woes, we might also recognize personal and political forms of overcoming as pivotal to HCA’s story. Canada did not celebrate the bankruptcy of the conservatory in 1980, but did welcome shortly thereafter Vitek Wincza, whose defection from Poland’s military regime opened space for a new story in Hamilton: one that would see the visual arts restored to their pedestal, and all arts reawakened at HCA. What began as the Vitek Wincza School of Dance, gave rise to collaborations with the HPO, the creation of children’s ballet (Snow White and Hamilton Nutcracker), and the expansion of artistic horizons to span all disciplines. Vitek recognized that no matter the art form, performance and education were inseparable. His choreography evolved beyond any specific silo, into an artistic discipline encompassing all arts, and a vision to see them thrive.

It might pain some of us to recall the “Harris years”, a time when government cuts marked the pattern in Ontario. As it happened, the youth agency that had taken up shop in the conservatory building found itself among the victims of these cuts to social services in the 1990s. It is something of a silver lining that because of this closure, the building came up for sale at all. In purchasing the building, Vitek gave the visual arts a boost, making HCA the home of “all arts” not just an add-on, or “as well as”. This multi disciplinary foregrounding set the stage for HCA to participate fully in the visual arts renaissance that would soon overtake James Street.

Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts brochure, 1998.

At the core of every renaissance are people, whose collective capacity and commitment build into a sustained momentum. At HCA, something of this spirit is expressed in the work of Alex Dzyubko, whose mural welcomes visitors to HCA with the painterly presence of seven muses, each holding forward a particular theory and practice. Together with the muses, we might consider the arts in terms of vibrations, dialects, languages, senses, or even planets. Such, also, are the different lenses that a renewed HCA faculty has brought back to life in the place.

Dzyubko, like many of the instructors who were a part of HCA’s reawakening, was a regular at the vibrant 1990s openings at Hamilton Artists Inc; in fact, the faculty that Vitek assembled then, also shared in a wider community of artistic commitments, both performative and educational. The threads connecting the HCA faculty, many of whom were visual artists, were already there through organizations like the Hamilton Arts Council. Early on at the HCA Gallery, these bonds were manifested in a faculty exhibition, featuring Pat Kozowyk, Victoria Long, and Tibor Nyilasi. It was this effort that set the stage for the broad ranging visual arts impetus that marks HCA today. Connecting visual arts practice with education, and opportunities for youth. Whether showcasing world class artists, gallery-hopping with children at Kidscrawl, or opening access to the arts to all children through its charitable arm (Culture for Kids in the Arts) HCA continues to build on the vision of its original faculty.

How does one make the final three years of a century noteworthy? If there was a way to round out these 100 years, perhaps it was with the re-opening of a space that holds promise for another 100 or more. The thrust of these exhibitions was to propel HCA into a new millennium.

Since the re-opening of the Conservatory in 1997, the HCA Gallery has welcomed a wide range of Hamilton artists. Many of the artists who defined Hamilton’s vitality between 1950 and 1999 have also brought that vitality to HCA. In particular, the notable voices of Bryce Kanbara, Conrad Furey, Donna Ibing, Shelley Niro, Pat Kozowyk, Peter Karuna, Anne Milne, Denise Lisson, Jim Mullin, Judi Burgess, Paul Ropel-Morski are among the hundreds of artists that have exhibited in this reclaimed space.

The visual arts remain at the centre of HCA’s life and vision, with the HCA Gallery at the architectural core of the space. It also remains a place where the arts are immersive: where you might study a painting, while at the same time experience opera, or theatre, or perhaps even hear Beethoven echoing from somewhere in the ether of Hamilton. HCA has been and will remain a place that connects children to the arts. It has embodied this drama for more than a century. Having survived some doubtful decades, it holds a visual arts promise for a new century to come.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

Official Website: Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts

Other Suggestions

Elizabeth Holbrook