Art & Artists in Exhibition: Vancouver 1890 - 1950
     Home     Artists     Exhibitions     Organizations     Clippings     References    

Report on Art Galleries, Museums and Other Art Activities in Western Canada July - August, 1935.

by Arthur Lismer

This report was submitted to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
The information was provided courtesy of Charles Hill, National Gallery of Canada


CONFIDENTIAL

The following is a brief report with various recommendations regarding the places visited during a trip through the west in July 1935. I thought that it may be required to know the result of certain observations and enquiries into matters connected with museums, art associations and galleries in the places visited.

WINNIPEG

In Winnipeg the museum established in the Auditorium appears to be an orderly and well presented little collection, open at all times to visitors and containing excellently arranged exhibits of Western Indian subjects, palaeontological (sic), geological and natural history collections.

The grant made to the museum has evidently been used for making better arrangements for showing the collection to visitors. The exhibits seemed well and mostly documented.

In the Art Gallery (on the other side of the Auditorium), on the other hand (although the time of the year was not propitious for inspection) the gallery presented a rather neglected appearance. It is obvious that there is no definite plan for public participation in the enjoyment of whatever collections come their way. The exhibitions through the past year have reportedly been well attended and of fair character. The governing body of the Art Gallery in Winnipeg is responsible for the acceptance or rejection of bequests and the running of the gallery under a small grant of $600.00 from the city. This is totally inadequate to meet the needs of an educational programme and financial needs of running the loan exhibitions. On the other hand there is necessity of developing a strong influence in the art gallery direction to organize such work and to desire it for the public. Inexperience and lack of knowledge of the elementary possibilities of such work is the main factor that works against the establishment of such a programme. In talking this matter over with some of the directors, they are in accord that such work is impossible without considerable financial assistance. Their understanding of what constitutes such assistance is rather extreme. With only half of their demands supplied a progressive public programme could be arranged, gradually increasing the supply from income that could be derived in support of a public programme simply and economically arranged.

The curator finds himself in a difficult position of being willing to progress his work and able enough to carry out the ordinary duties of curatorship but inexperienced in anything like the necessary knowledge and equipment to take the intitial steps to introduce the gallery to the public. Consequently the educational efforts resolve themselves down to the business of dependancy on visiting lecturers and occasional talks to visitors. The curator's salary is $600.00 per year and there are about 600 members paying one dollar per year membership out of which fund anything in travelling exhibitions, insurance and other expenses must be financed. If the directors have confidence in their curator and will give him the necessary time to gather experience and see what other galleries are doing, it is suggested here that support for a trip for the curator to visit galleries in the United States and to spend a little time in Ottawa and Toronto would be of advantage. This would possibly provide the necessary stimulus and experience towards the encouragement of creating a public attitude through educational interests and activities at the Art Gallery of Winnipeg.

SASKATCHEWAN

I have no report on Saskatchewan. I visited Saskatoon but at a time when Dr. Murray and any other likely source of information were on vacation.

EDMONTON

In Edmonton at the University of Alberta there are several activities that are admirable and there is no doubt a keen desire to do something for art in public life.

Dr. Wallace was away on holiday but I was able to find out something about the things that are being done.

(a) The travelling exhibitions through N. & S. Alberta
(b) The classes at the Art Gallery for children
(c) The museum in the University buildings

(a) Professor Corbett, director of the extension work at the University of Alberta is a progressive individual who has given a great deal of time to furthering the idea of travelling exhibitions of pictures. Mr. Norbury, Mr. Bowman and Dr. Carpenter (Calgary) have been the movers and workers in lecturing and travelling with the exhibits. Mr. Leighton of Calgary is an artist of considerable attainment in culture who has also done a great deal for art in Southern Alberta. The reports of these exhibitions have been written from time to time and no doubt they have done a great deal of good in rural parts. Better quality of exhibits, less bad amateurish efforts and fewer travelling student exhibitions seem to be the need from reports given to me from various sources.

The funds to cover these exhibitions might have been used with more variety and under better unified control to assure a higher standard of exhibits and less exploitation of individual and amateur effort. This is a passing criticism from hearsay and reports given after tactful enquiry.

The trouble in Alberta seems to be the same as in most centres, lack of knowledge of art values and divided control and influence coupled with a natural display of animosities between the cities of Calgary and Edmonton and some faction arising out of the initial errors made at the foundation of the association of Alberta artists. But on the whole this effort has been worthwhile and sincerely furthered in the interests of the people.

(b) At the art gallery in the City Block, which is the particular care of Mrs. David Bowman, there is no doubt that nothing would have been initiated or have survived had it not been for Mrs. Bowman. She has been, and is, the aggressive figure in the formation of a public gallery in Edmonton. True it is that it is poorly housed, the pictures are badly hung and not cared for, most of the things on view are not very good in quality but there is a spirit and nucleus from which much may be done. The children's classes on Saturdays are a valiant effort and on the whole the work and spirit shown is admirable. Mrs. Bowman and Miss Bowman, another assistant, and Mr. Norbury have been giving admirable service to large numbers of children who come voluntarily for study at the art gallery.

There might be more variety in the work attempted and a more convincing appreciation as to its purpose but it has the inevitable advantage of appeal to the public and is therefore valuable in its educational effect on the art gallery. There seems to be an unanimity of appreciation about the work generally.

Comparing such free work with the general art work of the elementary schools is unfair to the school work, which was on exhibition at the Edmonton fair during July, but there is no doubt that this voluntary effort of the children is the clue that has been a convincing one to the promotion of a better kind of art instruction in the schools of Alberta.

The limited space and the scarcity of equipment at the Gallery are items that are difficult to overcome in the efficiency of the effort but full advantage has been taken of every facility that the gallery can offer.

It is suggested here that the age levels of the children be broadened to take in younger children than is the case at present. The danger in all such efforts is the failure to understand its real purpose, which is the wider range of appreciation of creative activity and personality of the children themselves.

Mrs. Bowman has undoubtedly been the aggressive force behind all the art movements in the city of Edmonton, independent and rather prone to evade the advances of those who would co-operate with her and impatient of the progress that her work has brought about. The general opinion is that she is difficult but admirable and that she does not want the unity she is striving for.

(c) I visited the museum in the University building - a rather badly displayed collection of admirable and valuable Eskimo art and crafts, costumes and weapons, etc., which does not appear to be available easily to the public.

The palaeontological collection of remains of prehistoric life is, of course, in Alberta at the centre of investigations and is a splendid collection, as is also the Geological and mining exhibit. Of these I have no knowledge except that they are very badly housed and inadequately displayed. As the nucleus of a splendid museum they should be very valuable. There is no attempt to interest the public in them as fas as I could gather but they are no doubt of great value to the students.

Other items respecting the annual Fair - where I saw the English exhibition on view, very badly arranged against raw, ugly, board plank walls and badly lighted; altogether too casual. At the little Art Gallery in the grounds a display of amateur art in painting and crafts was badly displayed, mixed with one or two good things by artists of ability but on the whole very unsatisfactory and antiquated in method of selection and display. Nobody seemed to object, however!

Also in the University building a National Gallery exhibition of English colour prints was shown in a dark corridor, hurriedly pinned on screens and in positions that gave no chance for study. The exhibit was neither titled nor documented in any way.

But in Alberta there are signs of life lacking in other centres, there needs to be a stiffening of the conditions under which loans of exhibits are made and some enquiry into the use of funds and the quality of the exhibits sent on travel to the rural areas.

In Calgary I remember seeing the museum there which has some good features but is on the whole a rather littered collection of badly arranged and valueless material. But I did not see this on this trip and the condition may be improved by this time.

At the art school in Calgary, which is in the Technical School, the work is under the direction of Mr. Leighton and is evidently the only kind of organized art instruction in the province. From what I saw it is somewhat academic, which in itself is not a bad thing but old fashioned and not stimulating or productive of much art interest.

On the other hand there is no doubt that Mr. Leighton's activities have had a far-reaching influence, especially his outdoor school in the summer, which this year has been placed under the department of Education and the Calgary Technical schools. Mr. W.S. Hedley, who is in charge of the art instruction at Edmonton and Camrose Normal Schools is another who has done a great deal for art instruction of teachers and pupils for many years in Alberta. He is responsible for the organization and progress of art courses in the present system and is a leader in the proposed changes.

VANCOUVER AND VICTORIA

In Vancouver the Art Gallery classes under the direction of Mr. Charles H. Scott, principal of the Vancouver School of Art and Design, are a lively and stimulating expression of child art study. They are well organized with a competent and interested staff. The course is a little more formal in the application than the Toronto Art Gallery's effort and the range of activity more restricted, but it does not suffer on this account. It is merely that the activity must grow out of the personal expression of the children themselves and by experience of studying their needs plus the experience of their guides and teachers the progress and new forms of application of the free study plan will develop.

Mr. Scott's chief aid is Mr. Bert Binning, a young man of considerable enthusiasm and ability but one who has seen nothing beyond the limited range of his immediate environment. He is doing excellent work with the classes, is himself a gifted young artist and one of the most able young men in this work I have seen. I think that he would profit by being given an opportunity of extending his experience and knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of child study in other centres. I suggest that a sum sufficient to cover his expenses be allowed the Art Gallery of Vancouver, through Mr. Scott, and that he be sent to Ottawa, Toronto, New York, Buffalo, Toledo, Worcester and Cleveland to make a study of the practice and activities in those centres. I consider these are worthwhile suggestions for the general expansion and progress of the idea of art gallery classes. On my own part, I would be glad to have him for a short time at the Art Gallery classes in Toronto and there would be no difficulty in getting him into good centres in the United States galleries.

Mr. Scott is making excellent use of the grant given to the Art Gallery in Vancouver by the Canadian Committee of the Carnegie fund.

In passing I would say that I consider that all the provincial galleries in the west and wherever the National Gallery has any sort of influence, should be supplied with some printed material and information as to the functioning of an art gallery with the public participation in mind. There are so many things they might do more vigorously and consistently to secure public support to enable them to be more self-independent. The lack of experience and knowledge that such things can be done is the main setback.

In most places visited I found that the two things the acquisitive and the educational were antagonistic, if not actually so in intention there was very definitely a feeling that possessions were important and that these things had to be secured quickly. The slower growth of real public participation has not yet reached a state of comprehension in the minds of directors and officials.

I visited the Vancouver Museum, which is housed over the central public library, an antiquated building in the lower end of the city. Mr. Menzies, the curator, was away but I saw Prof. Hill-Tout, who is the president of the Literature, Arts and Archaeological Society which administers the museum. He is chairman of the Museum. The staff is three people, the Curator, the lady secretary and a caretaker.

Prof. Hill-Tout is a well-known Indian authority and has been responsible for some contributions to the knowledge of the origin of the Indians and Eskimos of the Western and North Western Coasts. He is anxious to secure funds for furthering the work of discovery and appeared to be keen on doing anything to develop the museum if he had funds for the purpose.

The museum itself is badly arranged, that is from a public point of view, but there is no doubt that there is a considerable and valuable collection of Indian folk art and historical records. But it is crowded into antiquated cases, is musty with the neglected air of most old fashioned museums. There is a little oriental native art, some Chinese and Japanese objects and a positivly awful collection of old paintings. This used to be the original art gallery of Vancouver and one has only to see this to realize that Vancouver has improved its status in regards art galleries very considerably.

There is little done for the public, they come in and out casually, although I think that Mr. Menzies does all he can to interest them on such visits. The school children come, but by no regular plan, and there are seasonal public lectures. I imagine these are of the usual museum variety and are for those who are more or less expertly interested.

I talked over matters of educational work with Prof. Hill-Tout and he apparently is anxious to do what Kermode is doing in Victoria. They feel that they are neglected. He is willing to extend the range and organization to include public lectures and children's visits and anxious to work with other educational authorities in furthering an educational plan. He is apparently a man of leisure, elderly but vigorous, and considers that he could do a lot of work himself of this kind. I could see that he did not understand the purpose of any financial support but is willing and anxious to learn. Dean Brock has evidently been giving him some views in the matter which, like most people with fixed opinions about possible assistance to an old established institution, he, Prof. Hill-Tout, had interpreted as being indicative of control.

I was going to see Dean Brock the next day but he was away. This was the day before his tragic death.

I indicated to Prof. Hill-Tout that I was only an enquirer with no official status and left him with no promises except that I would report what I had seen and heard.

If Vancouver is to have a museum, the present one is altogether unworthy of the city. It is serving no public purpose at present, that I could see. They quite evidently want money but also the definitely have no plan for spending it except on further excavations and field work. I carefully explained the purpose of the grant to Victoria and how it was being used. He was willing to do all that and more and anxious to learn all that might be required of the museum to qualify for any financial aid.

In Vancouver also I met a father and son. At this moment I cannot think of the name. He is a director of the Art Gallery and an architect and the son has made application for a study scholarship under the Canadian Carnegie Fund. He is a very likely lad, bright and eager, has just graduated from B.C. University in history and English. Mr. Hort asked me what his next step was in furthering his application, I referred him, of course, to Mr. McCurry.

VICTORIA

At the Provincial Museum in Victoria - Mr. Kermode was away and I saw a young assistant. He and the lady secretary gave me an accout of what was done last season with the grant in educational work. It is an excellent record of lectures by Mr. Kermode and others. The attendance was good and special lectures were given for children. Perhaps the only criticism I can give here is that it appeared to be too formal and a matter of listening to expert information, not entertaining enough for children, too instructive with comparatively little for the audience to do but listen. It was eminently cultural but I imagine a little dull and I cannot see that they could have done it better or differently. But they have apparently made good use of the grant and have increased the range of attendance and public interest.

But the museum itself I found to be interesting, if you know what to look for. It is crowded and, architecturally an impossibility. The Indian collection is immensely valuable, I should imagine, with objects found in no other museum but one cannot study them in this condition.

The Victoria Museum needs space and equipment and aesthetic taste in arrangement. The show cases of bird life and the herds of stuffed game are apalling and old-fashioned and respectable but not illuminating; but there is no doubt that if museum people generally understood what they stand for in the community these days, that here in Victoria there are possibilities of development and usefulness.

In Victoria I had some association with Mr. John Kyle, who is Superintendent of technical training for British Columbia, and was in charge of the summer courses where I lectured. He has ideas and is anxious to repeat the Art Gallery of Vancouver idea in children classes. I believe I excited his curiosity and he made the suggestion that such classes might be started at the Victoria high school on Saturdays and by associating with the museum give a new impetus to the encouragement of public interest. He is of the opinion that the Museum lectures were very good but not suitable to the Victoria public in their present form.

There are signs that some development in the home crafts and the bettering of conditions of the large rural population in the Fraser Valley may be started before long. They are interested in what Quebec is doing for their rural populations with schemes for local encouragement of home crafts. John Kyle is a Scotsman and an artist and is a very excellent man.

VANCOUVER AGAIN - GENERAL

At the University of B.C. I met a group of professors and interested people at Scott's house and we talked of the possibility of founding an interest in art and a course of Fine Arts at the University. They evidently are conscious that such an attempt should be made to inaugurate lectures there. Professor A.F.B. Clarke is an able writer on aesthetics, is the professor of Languages (French I think) and is keen on art subjects.

Vancouver generally is a place that will develop in a few years. They are a long way from contacts and other centres of interest, but they have a feeling for the arts. The art school under Charles Scott, is doing excellent work. I consider it one of the best little schools in Canada, ably organized and the work done has a practical and aesthetic bearing on taste and industry.

The B.C. School of Art under Varley and Macdonald is, or has been, a good influence and some splendid work has been done but it is unlikely that it will open this year. There is no room for two art schools and the Vancouver school (Scott's) has weathered the storm and is really much improved. On the other hand the west coast has profited greatly by Varley's influence. He has raised the whole standard of achievement and interest of hundreds of young people and many of the more mature artists.

In conclusion, for what it is worth, I would urge that the National Gallery present a careful study of museums and art gallery public service in the use of their collections. Some of the assistants of galleries and museums are looking for financial aid without any conception of what might be done with it when they get it. As I understand the Carnegie principle, they give money to established efforts, not for ideas that are yet untried. These centres should be given to understand what is meant by public participation in their collections and to urge them to look around for every available course where they may both give and gather sustenance for self-development.

The only way to improve the status of much of the musty collections and equipment of the western museum is to make them take a leaf out of the book of other museum's histories. There is a lot of material available for the study in written records from the United States and European museums and it requires initiative, personal sacrifice and energy on the part of individuals more than money. I consider that the National Gallery might with advantage set somebody to work making a useful summary of all the experience available of museum and gallery contact with the public. This is, of course, no new thing to advise, but seems to become an urgent need in the solution of the problem of offering financial aid to people who do not know that they want it and know little of how to use it when they get it. (Winnipeg Art Gallery and Vancouver Museum are typical examples of this).

There is no doubting the good the National Gallery is doing in the west. It is heard appreciatively in every centre but also it is criticised with regard to the national collection being in Ottawa and that they should be more widely distributed. This is, of course, absurd and is merely a political device of general western discontent against the east. But at the same time I think that the National Gallery should go a little further into the showman business and let the west know and understand the work it is doing educationally in the west and in all centres in Canada.

It should be clear to these people that the Carnegie fund is administered by a dominion wide committee with its centre at the National Gallery and that it does not seek to control but requests definite plans and suggestions from the applicants for aid. In return it will offer advice and assistance, suggestions and written material on how public interest may be increased.

In the new education for leisure and in new plans for school programmes, the museums and the art gallery are going to play an important role and there is more to it than lectures and buildings and financial aid. Individuals and students and people with a sociological sense are needed with a complete picture in mind of the purpose of all institutions operating in the community, whether they are courts of law, stadiums, concert halls or museums and art galleries.

It is a question that American museums have solved in some measure and personal and civic pride and a feeling for service was the first most desirable thing they had to learn. With all due respect, I beg to suggest that the National Gallery should now go further. In additions to offering exhibitions, lecturers, financial sustenance and a lot of things that reflect to the benefit of the National Gallery and to the development of the whole purpose of art appreciation, they should also give authoritative information and assume the mantle of semi-dictatorship and lift the whole business off the personal plane of individual help into a phase of benificent but firm directorship of ways and means and encouragement of each centre to find its own paths to self-discipline and attainment.

All of which is submitted respectfully by,

Arthur Lismer


     Home