The Women's Art Movement in Canada
"In the mid-nineteenth century, women were not considered to be serious contributors to the field of art and had enormous difficulty obtaining a public showing, some even having to hide their true identities for fear of social recrimination"
The Women’s Art Association of Canada (Toronto) and the Women’s Art Society of Montreal are both two of the longest-standing institutions dedicated to women in art which have paved the pathways for artists over the last 100+ hundred years. Both organizations were founded by pioneers in the handicrafts field, Mary Ella Dignam, Mary Alice Peck and Mary Martha Phillips in the late nineteenth century and continue to be leading organizations that invest in the education of upcoming artists of today. Although they share the same roots, the two separate entities have grown to represent the differences in Toronto versus Montreal’s art scene over the years, as well as adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the arts and how they fit into society.
The Women’s Art Association of Canada is a volunteer-led, not-for-profit, charitable organization with over 200 members. The purpose of the organization is to provide public education in the arts, to support women artists and the education of students in the arts through its scholarship program. Its origins date back to September 1887, when a group of young women in Toronto, led by Mary Ella Dignam organized a club for artists like themselves to come together and develop their artistic crafts. These women would meet in a studio space in the Yonge Street Arcade building in their early years as an organization. Dignam would teach classes in drawing, painting, and modeling. They were originally called the Women’s Art Club, and the purpose of the organization was “creating general interest in art and encouragement of women’s work… as well as the holding of art exhibitions and lectures”, and they were extremely successful in doing so. In 1907, there was a bill passed in the House of Commons, Ottawa, incorporating the Toronto organization officially as the Women’s Art Association of Canada.
This photo is from one of the historically lavish garden parties thrown annually at the Women’s Art Association. These parties would typically go on for hours and include shows, musicals, and various theatrical performances.
It was during this time that the Montreal branch broke away from their mother organization, forming their own independent Women’s Art Society of Montreal. This group was led by two leading experts in the handicrafts profession, Mary Alice Peck and Mary Martha Phillips. These women shared a common goal of “integrating women into the art world at a time in history when women had few rights and were relegated to other roles.” By the end of its first year, the WASM had gained 200 members. It offered studio drawing classes, reading classes, lectures on a variety of topics by eminent speakers, and ran sketch and design competitions regularly for various products. It organized two annual exhibitions in Montreal and also presented works in other branches of the WAAC.
The WAAC as well as the WASM both provide scholarships every year to artists from all over the country with diverse backgrounds as an investment in the communities they wish to serve. The WASM has recently launched their Art for Good initiative in which they outline their “overwhelming mission” to use art to “provide an important benefit to all areas of society, from mental health to cultural awareness.” Just last month, the WAAC hosted a luncheon series presentation discussing the various expressions of white supremacy within art and in general society. What seems to be the common factor in the last 100+ years of excellence from these leading organizations is their adaptability to the changing landscape of the world. They seem to understand that art has played a different role in society at different points throughout history, and it is their job as arts institutions to be facilitators of change.
Both of these organizations were started entirely by women at a time when they were excluded from the main conversations around arts and handicraft. These resilient women were working towards building more inclusionary spaces for all craftspeople. After the Industrial Revolution had occurred, many craftsmen and women faced the threat of a thinning demand for their services. It was only a matter of time before handmade goods became too expensive to sustain production and crafts like sewing, woodworking, glass-blowing, and blacksmithing were at risk of becoming obsolete. Organizations like the WAAC and the WASM were born out of the need to protect these crafts. With such an emphasis on preserving ancient trades, the spirit and mission of these communities was always to share knowledge and techniques of artisan craft-making across multi-generational groups and fellow artists of diverse backgrounds.
The women who founded these organizations created their own spaces and found communities at a time when all odds were against them. It is inspiring to see such deep roots in Canadian Arts History which were laid down by passionate and resilient women. For these organizations to be able to change and evolve alongside those same communities provides a great example for how change and progress can occur within other long-standing institutions today.