“The WAA was (and is) a grassroots organization, open to artists, whether amateurs or professionals, and to non-artists. What unites all the members is a desire to learn more about art and a determination to spread the gospel of art throughout the community. No other group’s mission included educating the public on artistic matters to the degree the WAA’s did, and therein lies one of the secrets to the WAA’s longevity” (MacCuaig, 6).
The Art Gallery of Hamilton, Dundas Valley School of Arts, Hamilton Artists Inc., the James Street Art Crawl – all staples of the thriving contemporary arts scene in Hamilton. Each of these institutions began due to community organization and drive. Not because of government initiatives or corporate sponsorships, but because of the efforts of committed residents. Hamilton as a cultural hub has been built by its community, and especially, by its women.
Long before these powerhouse organizations reached their current status, the Women’s Art Association of Hamilton (WAA) was hard at work to lay foundations. While the city began to accelerate in the late 1800s, a group of community-minded women saw that industry was the main concern, while the arts were given little attention by the governing bodies of men. The emphasis on Hamilton’s intense industrialization overwhelmed any room for cultural growth, but it did give way to the establishment of the Hamilton Art School in 1886 out of a need for industrial and commercial artists. This boom also lead to a freshly rich upper class, leaving room for women with servants to pursue interests outside the home. As Stuart MacCuaig writes:
“The proper Victorian woman, whose ‘place’ was unquestionably in the home, “might crochet the mat for a lamp to stand on but she may not clean the lamp”; her activity, from a modern viewpoint, might be described as ‘craft therapy for the severely underemployed’. The wonder is not that so many upper class women had emotional disorders in the Victorian era; the wonder is that they did not have more. As possessions of their husbands, and with little of substance to meaningfully occupy them, the brightest and spunkiest of these women sought an identity and fulfilment in addition to, but independent of, their roles as wives and mothers. The Women’s Liberation Movement can trace its early roots to the last two decades on the 1800s. The Women’s Art Association, though a refined and gentle example of it, was nonetheless an important part of that larger movement” (MacCuaig, 3).
This privileged class of white, upper class Hamiltonian women, while having more freedom to pursue cultural and social interests, still needed to keep within a field that did not threaten Victorian ideas of femininity. Working towards a ‘public good’ was deemed acceptable, and art and culture fit this ideal. Thus, the WAA was born in 1894 and were involved in virtually every aspect of Hamilton’s cultural sector for decades. Through organization, fundraising, operations of classes, studio spaces, scholarships, exhibitions, art loans, public art and memorial construction and more, the WAA has been largely responsible for crafting the Hamilton we know today.
One of their most significant contributions was aiding in the establishment of the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH). In 1897, the WAA began a fund for a public art gallery, and in 1910, the group met with city councillors in a bid to secure the second floor of the Hamilton Public Library, which would become the first location of the AGH. In 1914, after William Blair Bruce’s relatives donated 33 of his paintings to the city with the understanding that they be housed in a public art gallery within a certain time frame, concerned citizens including WAA president S.H. Alexander applied for and obtained a charter which provided for a non-profit corporation to be known as the Art Gallery of Hamilton. They began to hold their annual exhibitions at the AGH in 1947, a tradition that continues today. In 1953, they helped raise funds to move the AGH to their Westdale location, and again in 1977 for the move to their current location on King St W.
Throughout the 1950s, the WAA continued with their stark commitment to raising public consciousness towards art. As modern art boomed as a concept and “the artistic revolution raged across their doorsteps” (MacCuaig, 52), the WAA, traditional by nature, gave way for a number of other experimental groups to spring up across the city, such as The Contemporary Artists of Hamilton in 1948, the establishment of the McMaster Art Department in 1951, the Alan Gallery in the late 1950s and eventually even more hippie-minded joints like the Ebony Knight in 1964 and Hamilton Artists Inc. in 1975. Although the difference in style between the WAA and their contemporaries took a while to meet, the WAA undoubtedly paved the way for community arts organizations to exist and thrive. As was their prominent mandate, the WAA aimed to bring public awareness and interest in art, which they were certainly successful in.
The social and political atmosphere focused on social justice and equality across Canada in the 1960s and influenced the direction of the WAA, shifting the focus away from catering to the upper class and onto the growing middle class – meaning more membership and more money. The climate at large in the 1960s also shifted them further towards modernity. Their scholarship programs began to award young emerging artists, who embraced modernist art and paid for their tuition to the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD). Grace Spence, a decidedly modern woman who piloted planes and served as president of the WAA from 1963-65, also encouraged members to practice these new forms of art themselves, stating “I introduced 10 and 20-week sessions with established and recognized painters. I believe that this exposure to a variety of painting styles served as a stimulus for WAA members to try new avenues in their art. Subsequent exhibitions reflected the effects of these challenges” (MacCuaig, 69).
An organization run by and for women allowed for new ways of being previously unseen in the more patriarchal systems of corporations and larger institutions. The WAA held more democratic, equal and community-focused ways of operating and kept their attention steadfast on how to include the wider public in the conversation. In the 1960s and 1970s, they became openly critical of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, who’s purchasing and exhibiting decisions demonstrated an indifference to community engagement and support of local artists. This criticism validated the mandate of the WAA, to create a space for artists and art lovers in Hamilton, which led to the creation of an increasing number of art groups and gave more options for women artists in the city to find their tribe. The resilience brought by their ‘by women/for women’ mandate has encouraged a slow embracing of change, evolution and growth that has allowed the group to survive for over 100 years.
However their ‘by women/for women’ philosophy imagined more community mindfulness, the WAA never made any self-declarations towards feminism. Generational differences within the association came to a head in the 1970s, as younger members began questioning outdated, sexist traditions still upheld within the association. Until 1975, members were referred to in paperwork by their husbands names (ex. Mrs. Harold Smith), leading to younger members objecting, demanding to be recognized as the individuals and artists that they were. Donna Ibing joined the WAA in the 1970s and remained with the group into the 1980s, feeling mixed emotions about this transitional period of the associations life, “These ladies, with their hats and gloves were intimidating. I went to a few of their teas but found I spent most of my time in the kitchen. I just felt completely out of place… I really liked several of the members, and most were quite nice, but I wanted to talk art and make some changes” (81). Ibing found a more adventurous, like-minded group with the Hamilton Artists Inc., a group which can be argued would not have existed without the WAA’s leadership in the arts before them.
Their foresight in the need to uphold the cultural sector has held strong for over a century, and has given Hamilton its character, personality and current vibrancy. Hamilton’s art scene has been community focused since its inception, and it’s thanks to the WAA that it has largely proceeded in this direction to this day.
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