How volunteers built the Canadian art market
An ongoing series of lectures presented by Concordia researchers at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts aims to situate Canadian art history in a modern-day context.
Curated by Martha Langford, director of Concordia’s Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, the public talks by institute members paint a new picture of the astonishing richness of art history in Canada.
At the third and final presentation on November 22, Anne Whitelaw, associate dean of Research for the Faculty of Fine Arts and an associate professor of art history, will explore the work of volunteer women’s committees and the sale of Canadian art pieces.
We spoke with Whitelaw about the theme of her lecture, “Ask the women, it’s their show,” as well as the general focus of her research.
What can we look forward to hearing about on November 22?
Anne Whitelaw: Attendees can expect to hear about the work of volunteer women’s committees in Canadian art museums, with a particular emphasis on their role in creating a market for contemporary art in Canada at mid-century.
The women’s committees had their beginnings in the 1940s and were fundamental to increasing membership in and raising funds for their respective museums.
In 1947, the Women’s Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto began an annual “Do you own a Canadian picture?” sale that offered work by contemporary Canadian artists for sale over a three-day period.
Art museums across the country took up the idea and over the next decade or so, these sales were one of the most important ways that contemporary artists got their work seen and sold.
As more commercial galleries were established, the sales went out of fashion. But during the 1940s and 1950s, they were a major source of income for many artists we would now consider icons of modern Canadian art, including Goodridge Roberts, Jacques de Tonnancour, F.H. Varley and Elizabeth Wyn Wood.
How does the talk connect to your research and teaching?
AW: The impetus for this research came while I was working on my book on art museums in western Canada (Spaces and Places for Art: Making Art Institutions in Western Canada, 1912–1990, forthcoming this spring from McGill-Queen’s University Press).
It became clear that volunteer women’s organizations were significant forces in the establishment of the ancillary services that are the core functions of the contemporary art museum — services such as educational activities, publicity, gift shops, cafés, and art rental and sales at galleries.
Women continue to play major roles in art museums, including as volunteer workers, but they often face the same challenges accessing leadership positions as women in other employment sectors. I taught a graduate seminar on women and museums in the Department of Art History last year.
Where will you take your research next?
AW: My research on women volunteer organizations in North American art museums is the subject of my next book. It will examine the activities of these women’s groups, their networks, as well as how the concept of work shifted from the 1940s to the 1980s, particularly with the advent of second-wave feminism, and the impact on women’s volunteer societies.
Can you explain the significance of being a member of the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art and what this kind of network means to Concordia?
AW: The institute is a major hub for research on art history in Canada. Its significance lies particularly in the range of initiatives and projects it welcomes under the umbrella of art history — from traditional research on Canadian artists, to the exploration of Indigenous methodologies in art history, to writing on artists from a range of ethnocultural backgrounds in Canada and new material practices.
The Jarislowsky Institute allows for experimental thinking by researchers at all stages of their careers and from across the country. It is the major centre for research on Canadian art in the country and internationally.
Anne Whitelaw’s talk, “Ask the women, it’s their show,” takes place in the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke Street W.) at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, November 22.
Find out more about Concordia’s Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art.