Western Art Association (Saskatchewan) 1909-1916

“In 1908, some members of the Winnipeg Branch of the Women’s Art Association of Canada who had grown restive at the control exercised by the parent organization in Toronto, Ontario established the Western Art Association (WAA). Despite its “regional orientation,” the new association adopted aims similar to those of the Women’s Art Association of Canada such as promotion of handicrafts and education in art history. Over the years they encouraged public interest in the study of art in Western Canada, maintained a permanent collection of First Nations artifacts, organized loan exhibitions, and studio visits and annual lecture series. They also encouraged the establishment of a branch of the Western Art Association in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, staged two “Living Pictures” entertainments, lobbied for an art gallery and museum, established a Handicrafts Shop and tearoom, and sponsored scholarships for female art students at the Winnipeg School of Art. Their lobbying efforts bore fruit in 1913 when, as an acknowledgment of the association’s “pioneering efforts” in the promotion of art in the community, two members of the Western Art Association were appointed to the Art Committee of Winnipeg’s Industrial Bureau whose building now housed the new civic art gallery. In 1914 the Association opened the General Exchange as a market for local sewing, cookery, toys and carving. Although the Western Art Association continued as an organization until 1921, its main years of activity were from 1908 until 1916.”

Virginia G. Berry. Taming the Frontier: Art and Women in the Canadian West 1880-1920. Calgary: Bayeux Arts, Inc. (Winnipeg: The Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2005.) The above excerpt from Berry’s book can be accessed at the Manitoba Archives website  http://nanna.lib.umanitoba.ca/atom/index.php/western-art-association-fonds

The Western Art Association of Saskatchewan was established in late 1909 and became moribund in 1916. Like the parent Winnipeg association, it was a pioneer group and its main goals were to promote handicrafts and educate people about the early history of their own region. The members’ accomplishments were slightly less grand than the Winnipeg group but nonetheless quite notable. Based in Fort Qu’appelle, the Western Art Association curated* and toured exhibitions of indigenous artifacts and settler culture crafts and spent much time planning and fundraising for a monument at Fort Qu’appelle to commemorate the signing of the 1874 treaty between the indigenous people of the Northwest Territories and Queen Victoria’s representatives. They accomplished this feat in 1915 with great ceremony. It was an entirely appropriate organization for the time and the setting and the treaty monument was a first for Western Canada.

Photo clipped from Saskatchewan Archives website


While both men and women belonged to the Western Art Association, the executive was largely female and it was women who decided upon the themes to be followed in each year and who gathered together the collections which were exhibited. In 1910 (Morning Leader May 26) and in 1915 (Morning Leader May 22 and June 12) the group focused on “Indian curios and bead work.” They held a series of exhibitions in people’s homes in places like Fort Qu’appelle, Pense and Balcarres. It is not clear if these beadwork exhibits were shown in Regina. In 1911 (Morning Leader May 9 & June 9) their focus was ecclesiastical art and they gathered materials from churches in the region to have a major exhibition in Regina during the gathering of the Anglican synod there in June. In 1913, the theme was lace, both antique and modern, and this exhibition was also held in Regina before segments of it toured to villages around the capital city. (Morning Leader, June 12 and Oct. 16) In 1914 (Morning Leader May 1) their exhibition displayed metalwork, enamels and ivory and began in Fort Qu’appelle, then Indian Head and Pense before arriving in Regina in June. (Morning Leader June 15) But their main focus in 1914 and 1915 was the erection of the Treaty Memorial in Fort Qu’Appelle and most of their energies were dedicated to that end. The Western Art Association did sponsor an exhibition of Indian work at the Regina Fair in July of 1916 but seems to have died a natural death after that.

The story of the design of the treaty memorial is tied up with Edmund Morris http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/morris_edmund_montague_14E.html, a Toronto artist whose father Alexander Morris had been the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba at the time of the 1874 signing. Morris was often in Fort Qu’Appelle because he was in the process of creating a gallery of 12 Indian portraits for the Saskatchewan government in 1911. He had proposed the idea for a monument to the Western Art Association of Saskatchewan and had come up with a design but his premature death in 1913 meant that his plans for the monument were not carried out.  The Saskatchewan organization went ahead with a more regionally feasible and affordable design. The entire story is detailed in Jean S. McGill’s book Edmund Morris: Frontier Artist, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1984 and has been retold in a number of other writings since then.

A digital copy of the souvenir booklet issued at the time of the monument’s dedication is online at Peel’s Prairie Provinces website. The booklet contains the full text of Treaty #4, dedicatory texts on the plaques and a short history of the Western Art Association. It also lists the names of donors.  http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/bibliography/4174/35.html

The annual reports of the Western Art Association and other related material are held by the Saskatchewan Archives in Regina.

The Qu’Appelle valley was a romantic vacation spot for people in the southern part of the province and attracted artists and history lovers. For a fascinating representation of the ongoing relationship between Fort Qu’Appelle and artists see the Mendel Art Gallery catalogue Qu’Appelle: Tale of Two Valleys published in 2002

*For an academic analysis of the Western Art Association of Saskatchewan see: Cheryl Meszaros, “Visibility and Representation: Art Organizations in Saskatchewan prior to 1945,” 1990, Queen’s University Master of Arts in Art History thesis. In her thesis, which analyzes the function and achievement of art organizations, Meszaros points out the crucial importance of this curatorial approach which contrasts with the ad-hoc gatherings of display material practiced by the WAA’s more urban and slightly later counterpart, the Regina Society for the Advancement of Art and Literature. p.23




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