The Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Visual Arts

Because I have spent so much time going through newspaper articles, I have arrived at some conclusions about these newspapers and their relationship to the visual arts.  These conclusions are based on what was available for me to look at.  The Google News Archive was built on microfilmed copies of selected newspapers and the microfilms contain many gaps, sometimes whole years and even groups of years, and also pages that contain tantalizingly unreadable copy.  My current scanning of the Star-Phoenix especially suffered from this.  So this summary needs to be read with those limitations in mind.

The Regina Leader-Post and its predecessor the Regina Leader are the better source for coverage of the visual arts in the province in the early days because you can look at a long time span of reports.  Regina did have other newspapers but I didn’t look at them as the Leader and its successor were pretty complete in the microfilms.  The Regina Standard would be another early source. The Saskatoon Daily Star, the Daily Phoenix and the Star-Phoenix have later origins and only report on developments from the early days of the younger city, no nineteenth century items.

Google News Archive does not have the Daily Star among its offerings, which is unfortunate for me, since several early years of my original index was drawn from the Star, probably because it offered more years on the microfilmed copies I looked at in 1992 than the Phoenix did.  Although, I tried to match up my index listings with the Phoenix, I noticed that many of the stories covered by the Star were never covered by the Phoenix.  So I assume that, if you are looking for stories about the visual arts in the very early days of Saskatoon, your best bet is to look at microfilm of the Daily Star, a choice I made unwittingly, due to the absence of the Phoenix in the microfilm over a few short years. Looking for stories in these early years is not an easy task as they are few and far between and embedded in tiny print.

You would be hard-pressed to find any stories about the visual arts on the front page of any Saskatchewan newspaper before 1950 and probably for long after.  I think I can only remember one in each city and the art was linked with another important event.  Usually the reports or announcements can be found in the society or women’s page.  Once you know where those pages are located in the newspaper, it makes it easier for searching.  I would say this is almost always true for the Regina Leader, with the exception of the activities of the Regina Society for the Advancement of Arts, Literature and Science (1910-1914). Because many men were involved in this society, its activities didn’t fit with the women’s page.  Most other initiatives in Regina were propelled by women and the reporting on them fit well in the segregated page or pages.

Regina had an advantage in that it had two society editors who seemed to be quite interested in the visual arts, or at least their management encouraged it.  Isabelle C. Armstrong had a byline on the women’s page up to 1914 when Irene”Dinty” Moore took over.  Moore’s tenure with the Regina Leader and Regina Leader Post covered most of the period I looked at. I am pretty certain that she or one of her appointees covered most of the visual arts stories that were worth writing about to 1946 when she retired.  I never saw Moore’s name on the Women’s Page banner but she was fêted for her long and dedicated service when she left the newspaper so I was able to find out how long she had been working for them.  I understand that her successor was Doreen Pechey but by then the society page in provincial newspapers was truly that – reports on weddings, parties, etc.  and articles on art appeared elsewhere.

Moore had actually worked at the Saskatoon Phoenix before she worked in Regina and there are some good examples of her work there, although I’m not sure when she started at the Phoenix.  But after she left, art events were either ignored or often given very short shrift by her unknown successor.  For example, a showing of Canadian artists’ work from the National Gallery of Canada at the Summer Fair in 1916 was given one sentence of copy.  Other events at the fair were given pages and pages. “Dollina” the 28 inch high mother of two even rated a paragraph of writing.  The Regina Leader-Post, on the other hand, recognized this same travelling art show for the big deal that it was (the first time the National Art Gallery had sent out a travelling exhibition to Saskatchewan) and accorded it some respect.  (See post Saskatchewan group and solo shows: An Introduction for links to the story) Writers at Saskatoon’s Daily Star also contributed a couple of articles.  Maybe, this was the policy at the Phoenix, let the other guy do it.

The names of the society editors were often obscure because their names didn’t show up in the women’s page banner but Beryl M. Swain, the Star-Phoenix’s society editor from 1922-1929, always had her name there.  I noticed that Miss Swain, a University of Saskatchewan graduate, was not terribly interested in the fine arts either, although she did do a good job of covering the activities of the Saskatoon Arts& Crafts Society, which was the most influential women’s art organization in Saskatoon.  Articles related to the fine arts, few and far between, usually appeared on the City Page, the third page of the newspaper.  Perhaps this was related to gender bias in management because the other influential Saskatoon arts organizations in this era were not women’s organizations per se.  But there was a noticeable preponderance of articles vaunting craft over art in women’s pages of the Star-Phoenix in the 1920s, indicating a certain bias by the society editor. After Swain left to get married in Winnipeg, Emily Gould took over the helm and her tenure at the Star-Phoenix almost matched the length of Moore’s in Regina.  She was society editor from 1930-1959. Coverage of the visual arts in the 1930s got slightly better but never matched the Regina newspaper in breadth and depth.  I did notice though that Saskatoon occasionally published coverage of Regina art events, whereas it seldom happened the other way around.

It is no wonder that the first actual arts reporters began to surface in Saskatoon in the 1940s because the fine arts had not really been very well served by the Star-Phoenix until then, with one possible exception, the extraordinary coverage of the Group of Seven exhibition opening at Nutana Collegiate in 1928. I am convinced that this exception was because the Star-Phoenix published the manuscript of speaker Aldis W. Cameron, president of the Saskatoon Art Club, in full.   In the 1940s art gradually left the society page and actual columns devoted to visual arts began to appear and articles were often illustrated with photographs of artworks, something hardly ever seen in Regina until after 1950. Jean Swanson, employed by the Star Phoenix from 1942 to 1967, had to have been the first regular newspaper reporter in Saskatchewan who actually reviewed art shows. The coverage of the visual arts in Regina had seriously tapered off in the 1940s and no regular art columns ever appeared.  So the hands -down winner for coverage of the visual arts in Saskatchewan in the 1940s was definitely Saskatoon with its two Saskatoon Art Association/Art Centre columnists, May Fox of “Art Gum” (1942-45) and “so-far Anonymous” of “Art Centre” (1947-49) and the brilliant Jean Swanson, writing for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

Swanson was an exceptional reporter because she had an M.A. in English literature and had done post-graduate studies in aesthetics and criticism at the University of Toronto. Having grown up in Saskatoon and married the eventual editor, she worked at the Star-Phoenix from 1942-1967 and was its book page editor for twenty years.  (In 1947 the Star-Phoenix was lauded by Canadian Art magazine as being the one newspaper in Canada that treated art with the dignity of news, not as a frill- (Information from the flyleaf of Swanson’s book on Hurley called Sky Painter, published in 1972). Although reporting on the Fine Arts has vastly improved now from these early days, it still pales by comparison with the ridiculous amount of minutiae reported about sports competitions in  current newspapers and digital media.

The visual arts was always the orphan child in news articles about the three creative art forms in Saskatchewan.  Musical and dramatic clubs formed early and performance venues followed soon after. Their activities drew a lot of attention from newspapers, rating pages and columns which were not necessarily limited to the society page.  Although both sexes participated in all these creative activities, it appears that visual art, in all its forms, was feminized to a greater extent than any other creative pursuit by reporting strategies.  Additionally, there were theatres but there were no art galleries so there was always something going on in the performance arts but art exhibitions were much more intermittent in the early years, mitigating against regular columns on the subject.

There were lots of anonymous contributors who wrote on specific art events, usually not identified at all by name but sometimes their initials appear at the end of the text. This is a puzzle for someone else to work out.  I understand that Agnes V. Warren, an artist, wrote art columns for the Prince Albert Daily Herald in the 1940s. If someone has access to the microfilmed P.A. Herald, this might be a research project.  Warren had a unique perspective on Saskatchewan art because she had lived and worked as an artist in Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert and had studied art in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Vancouver.

Of course, what was important to newspaper readers in most of the early twentieth century was coverage of the two world wars and the economic and social conditions during the decade long Depression of the 1930s so I am actually surprised that the visual arts got as much coverage as it did, although the never-interrrupted coverage of sports makes it look insignificant.  What is missing from all this, too, is the art activities in the rest of the province.  Rare mentions occurred in the two big city newspapers but most of this activity would be documented in the newspapers of the many other towns of Saskatchewan, so what I have here is a metropolitan view rather than a general view of art reporting in Saskatchewan.

Rivalry between Saskatchewan’s two major cities and its effect on the visual arts

The main point of contention which began the rivalry between Regina and Saskatoon was the choice by the young government of Saskatchewan to locate the new provincial University in Saskatoon in 1909. The people of Regina never got over this during the entire period covered by this blog. It seemed unfathomable to them that the capital city of Saskatchewan could be passed over when it came to becoming the centre of post-secondary education for the people of the province.

Saskatoon certainly received a benefit from it. Unlike Regina, it was a newer place with no pretensions to having any kind of authority in provincial educational matters.  Probably chosen because of its more central location for students from across the province, it had to grow into its place as a major educational centre.

The founding of the Regina Society for the Advancement of Art, Literature and Science was certainly an immediate reaction by Reginans to what they saw as a profoundly wrong decision.  This Society had a beneficial effect on the growth of the visual arts in the capital city by providing the first art exhibitions in the city from 1910-1914. But it could not be sustained as a kind of voluntary form of adult education and fell apart as World War I changed the whole focus of society.

Unlike other provinces, Saskatchewan never developed a provincial art society or council in its beginnings, nor did it have a school dedicated to art instruction.  It’s hard to tell from hindsight whether these things might have happened if the University had been headquartered in Regina from the start. But it is clear that the decision to have the University in Saskatoon and the desire by Dr. Walter Murray, its first president, to have an academic department of art doomed any joint initiatives for some time.

Instead, Saskatchewan had its multi-purpose schools with art classes taught by artists and teachers often on evenings or weekends or its own artists teaching out of self-supported studios.  Regina College attempted to develop an art department but its post-secondary status was provisional until it became an official junior branch of the University of Saskatchewan in 1934 and a School of Art was established in 1936.  Unfortunately, it was too little too late.

With art established as a university subject, an unusual thing in Canada in 1936, only teachers were attracted to the limited offerings of art classes at the university, leaving more elementary art instruction as a special or extracurricular subject in high schools.  Although, this was better than nothing, it meant that those who saw art as their vocation often left the province to attend purpose-designed art schools with a wider offering of options and professional recognition.  The Department of Art at the University of Saskatchewan was really only that in name, as it had one trained academic and one art instructor in either Regina or Saskatoon and few credit courses were offered until the 1950s. You could not major in art and certainly could not get a degree in it until well after that time.

Without a provincial artist’s society or school, and no exhibition venues, artists were forced to find their own way of exhibiting their work and had no choice but to send their work out of the province to achieve professional recognition, usually to the far off centres of Ontario and Quebec.  Both of these problems were highlighted by Ernest Lindner when he began his arts activism in Saskatoon in the mid 1930s, leading eventually to Saskatoon becoming the first affiliated group of the Federation of Canadian Artists, outside of its headquarters in Vancouver.  Even when Regina joined the FCA shortly after Saskatoon with its own branch, the two solitudes didn’t seem to come together well.  The Saskatchewan Arts Board changed that slightly in 1949 by putting on an annual provincial exhibition and collecting provincially.

Regina had wanted a purpose built art gallery for many years when Norman Mackenzie bequeathed his collection of art to the University of Saskatchewan in 1936 with the proviso that the gallery be built in Regina.  It had to wait out the depressed real estate prices of the 1930s and the chaos of World War II and its reconstruction aftermath before a gallery was built. Without such complications, Saskatoon got a long-wished for art exhibition space, the Saskatoon Art Centre, supported by the City in 1944 and later had its own wealthy benefactor/collector who endowed a purpose built civic gallery which then began collecting art.  A true flowering of the arts happened in Saskatchewan when the Norman Mackenzie Gallery opened in Regina in 1953 and the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon in 1964 and its art schools matured.

While waiting for the dreamed of art galleries and art schools, people in both places improvised, building  individual cultures of self-help organizations which arguably both aided and hindered progress but were necessary to make art visible in a place where obscurity was the norm for artists.

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