The Contemporary Artists of Hamilton

Contemporary as in 1948-1971…

The 1950s were an time of immense activation and organization for the arts scene in Hamilton. The Women’s Art Association of Hamilton had been a unifying force since the early 1900s, and the introduction of T.R. MacDonald as director and curator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 1947 gave the extra boost that the city needed. Citizens became engaged with the arts in meaningful ways, and businesses began to recognize its importance. Out of this fertile environment, the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton (CAH) grew.

Rae Hendershot, charter member of the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton, and her husband T.R. MacDonald, director and curator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, c.1950.

Founded in 1948, the CAH was envisioned as a way to unite and activate professional artists living and working in the area. According to their Constitution, the group would “make a contribution to art and to the advancement of the cultural life of the community.” Prioritizing professional-level artists, supporters of the arts were also involved as associate members. Membership remained steady through the 3 decades of CAH and included heavy hitters such as Hortense Gordon and Elizabeth Holbrook. Membership was offered after a majority acceptance of the applicants work.

Halloween Party of the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton. Left to right: Hortense Gordon, Aline Myles Banting, Arthur Chrystal, Katherine Chrystal. Each is dressed as a character from a famous painting, 1952.

Holding annual shows featuring members work, the group was able to control how their art was presented as well as socially engage with an ever increasing public interest. Being in charge allowed the CAH to expand their horizons outside of Hamilton, travelling their exhibitions around the province to cities such as Toronto and London.

Hortense Gordon. “Composition”. c.1948. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton.
Rae Hendershot. “Three Graces”. 1946. Oil on canvas. Gift of H.L. Rinn, Esq. 1950. Photo: Michael Lalich. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton.

Exhibitions would generally hold no larger theme other than the geography and camaraderie that united the artists. The first exhibition catalogue expressed their manifesto, “We abide by no creed, and have issued no manifesto except a belief in the artist’s inalienable rights to freedom of expression.” With such freedom came diversity of subject and style, from Gordon’s abstracts to more figurative works by artists such as Rae Hendershot.

Member Maitland Banning recalls how the CAH was envisioned as an intellectual and creative group tête-à-tête by Charles Playfair, “Having been fascinated by an arts-and-letters group in Philadelphia who met up to seed and spur on each others interests, Charlie decided that he’d do the same in Hamilton… when we got together as the Contemporary Artists it was to talk” (Women’s Art Association: The First 100 Years, 57).

Four members of the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton. Left to right: Hortense Gordon, Nancy Campbell, H.L. (Mike) Rinn, Maitland Banning, early 1950s.

Operating by and for artists, the CAH were “innovative and somewhat rebellious pioneers… they were distant forerunners of today’s artist-run cooperatives” (Climbing the Cold White Peaks, 181). Championing the idea of professionalism, that artistic pursuits were a valid career choice, the group significantly changed public perception of the arts in Hamilton. By the early 1970s, their mission was complete as more and more artistic centres arose. With this fresh new landscape of artists, the CAH’s existence became less essential and the group fizzled out. Organizations such as the Alan Gallery and the Hamilton Arts Council arose and flourished in the 1960s because of the efforts made by the CAH, which in turn gave way to organizations such as Hamilton Artists Inc. and Earls Court Gallery that are still going strong to this day.

Listing for the first exhibition of the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton, 1949-1950.
Listing for the second exhibition of the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton, 1950-1951.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

Climbing the Cold White Peaks by Stuart MacCuaig, 1986

Women’s Art Association: The First 100 Years by Stuart MacCuaig, 1996