The history of visual artists' groups in Canada is filled with short-lived societies which have had a major influence on both professional and amateur artists. All kinds of associations have existed at one time or another, with artists grouped by age, region, aesthetic idea, medium, profession or even by gender. Artists' organizations have often been founded to meet specific needs (to form pressure groups, organize exhibitions, improve representation in the market) and are generally the product of one person's labour, someone who leads the group as its president or secretary.
The mixed associations created before the 1840s paid little attention to the visual arts, but through their meetings artists were integrated into a network of intellectual exchanges. The Halifax Chess, Pencil and Brush Club (1787-1817) is considered the first artists' organization in what is now Canada, though its mandate extended beyond art to polite pursuits.
The Society for the Encouragement of Art and Science in Canada (Québec, 1827) joined with the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec in 1829 and was composed mainly of military personnel and members of the clergy and liberal professions with scientific, historical and literary interests. The artists in this group were mostly amateurs or young professionals, as in the Society of Artists and Amateurs of Toronto (1834). At irregular intervals, the Toronto Society of Arts (1847) and the Montréal Society of Artists (1847) brought artists together with a public that could give them entry to the wealthiest circles, those few who were commissioning works.
The Montréal association was revived in 1860 as the Art Association of Montréal, but its artists became increasingly inactive. Collectors dominated the association and rented space once a year to show their collections and the works of the few member artists and guests, most of them part of the ephemeral Society of Canadian Artists (1867).
In 1879 the art association acquired permanent premises, which enabled it to hold annual exhibitions based on the model of the Paris salons, to host the Royal Canadian Academy exhibits, and to use some artists as instructors and members of committees. Artists benefited from these activities, but when the art association became a museum, its values changed for many artists. Nevertheless, the school continued to have good teachers; it attracted many promising students, and was an important forum for art educators (see art education).
The founding of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA) in 1880, under the impetus and patronage of Governor General the Marquess of Lorne and Princess Louise, marked an important stage in the recognition of the artist's status in Canadian society. The Academy adopted several regulations from the European and British academies; for example, the election of members by nomination and the artists' donation of admission work. These works became the core of the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
The RCA continued to play a most important role in the history of Canadian art. It became the arbiter of taste in established art circles; its annual exhibitions, held in a few towns throughout the country, became national events; its competitions promoted the development of public art; it was responsible for showing Canadian art abroad at British Empire exhibitions and world fairs; and all the while it sponsored courses as a means of improving the quality of artwork in Canada.
The RCA was less effective in meeting the specific needs of artists in various regions. While its members were selected on a national basis, their representativeness was questionable. It had limited means and a structure constantly hampered by large distances and administration. From its foundation the RCA was challenged by artists who questioned its hold on the aesthetic standards of the nation. Other societies became important to Canadian painters, sculptors, graphic artists and architects.
The Ontario Society of Artists (OSA), founded in 1872, was always dynamic. It created its own collection, had annual exhibitions and founded the Art Union of Canada to encourage collectors to acquire its members' works. In co-operation with the Ministry of Education, the OSA founded a school of art known today as the Ontario College of Art and Design; OSA members planned the curriculum and taught at this school.
As the number of trained and professional artists increased in a society that was expanding both demographically and economically, new artists' organizations appeared, most of which tended to be more specialized. Toronto had many such organizations, less prestigious than the RCA or the OSA, but different goals attracted people who wanted to share their specialties with others of the same mind.
The Toronto Art Students' League, founded in 1886, was not only a school but a setting where members met to draw, discuss, comment on each other's work and create projects together. Most of its members were illustrators, as in the Pen and Pencil Club of Montréal. The Art Students' League gave rise to the Graphics Art Club, which played an important role in the development of graphic art, even before becoming the Canadian Society of Graphic Art in 1933.
Specialized groups were established whose membership included only professionals, people interested in one medium. The short-lived Association of Canadian Etchers (1885) was revived on a more solid basis in 1916 as the Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers and Engravers. The Toronto Camera Club (1891) and the Montréal Sketching Club (1899) had premises for meetings and exhibitions and published texts and catalogues. The large number and membership of these associations indicate how strongly artists felt the need to meet with their colleagues (see also photography; printmaking).
In contrast to highly structured groups like the RCA or the Women's Art Association of Toronto (1890), there were clubs such as the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto (1908), the Mahlstick Club (1899), l'Arche and the Arts Club of Montréal (1912). Members were usually friends who met together when they felt like it, came from the same social class and had the same tastes. Meetings were pleasant; people discussed freely, each in turn presenting his works for friendly criticism. Resources were pooled in order to organize private or public shows, dinners, excursions or exhibitions. The Canadian Art Club (1907) in Toronto was simply a group of well-known artists, some of them members of the RCA, whose sole purpose was to organize exhibitions of members' works and thus to lobby collectors more effectively.
At the turn of the century, artists' groups appeared in the West. The Winnipeg Art Society (1902), the British Columbia Society of Artists (1909) and the British Columbia Art League (1920) were evidence of the country's growth and of the desire of artists and amateurs in these regions to stimulate each other and enliven their activities. In the years after WWI new groups were added to the network: the Manitoba Society of Artists (1925), the Women Painters of Western Canada and the Alberta Society of Artists (1931).
The Maritimes were also active, with associations multiplying there as well. The Maritime Art Association, founded in 1935, drew on the experience of earlier Maritime groups (eg, the Nova Scotia Society of Artists, Newcastle Art Club, Moncton Arts Society, Art Society of Prince Edward Island). In 1940 the Maritime group was unified and strengthened by the publication Maritime Art, which helped to spread news of artists' work. The magazine unexpectedly developed into a national magazine, Canadian Art, coedited by some curators from the National Gallery of Canada, and finally became the independent Toronto publication artscanada.
New national groups were established in the spirit of their predecessors. The Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour (1925) focused on and renewed interest in watercolours, a medium already very popular in the 19th century. The Council of the Guild of Sculptors (1896) was revived and transformed to become the Sculptors' Society of Canada (1928).
The Group of Seven (1920-33) was typical of other associations formed later in the century in that it was organized by several artists who shared an aesthetic ideal. Together they searched for a Canadian iconography based on landscape, yet individually each artist sought to distinguish himself from the group. The Seven were succeeded by the Canadian Group of Painters (1933), which drew its members from across Canada; it was open to men and women and was concerned with modernism and figure painting as well as the landscape, with "the right of Canadian artists to find beauty and character in all things."
Many artists resented the "national institution" the Group of Seven had become, and in the ensuing climate of protest several new groups were formed, particularly in Québec. The Beaver Hall Hill Group (1920-24) in Montréal, mainly women painters from the Art Association school, explored contemporary art trends, and psychological and formal aspects were of utmost importance in their compositions. The Eastern Group of Painters (1938) included 7 active Montréal artists whose common interest was painting, not a nationalist theory.
The Contemporary Arts Society (1939-48) was founded in Montréal by John Lyman to defend modern art. The society was composed of artists and a few intellectuals who did not necessarily share the same style or thinking but who wished to show their support of nonacademic art. In 1948 both the Automatiste and the Prisme d'yeux movements published manifestos which adopted opposing attitudes to artistic creation and caused the demise of Lyman's group (see Refus Global).
Nonfigurative art was established across Canada by the Calgary Group (around 1947), the Plasticiens (manifesto published in 1955), the Association des artistes non-figuratifs de Montréal (1956-61), Painters Eleven (1953-60) in Toronto and the Regina Five (early 1960s). These groups did not attempt to define a new artistic current. Rather, by concentrating on a particular element of their work, from the creative process (individuality of gesture, spontaneity) to the enhancement of certain formal and pictorial elements (surface, space, light, line, colour), artists gave a new perspective to art, while at the same time participating in an international movement. The groups provided a forum for debate among artists concerned with the common issues of the role of art and its meaning in a postindustrial civilization (see also painting).
The militancy of Western society in the 1960s and early 1970s was reflected in the types of artists' organizations established. The 1960-80 period saw the consolidation of existing societies and the creation of new groups that attempted to increase governmental and public awareness of the artist's role and needs. Artists became more politically and socially involved through their associations, seeking to become part of current debates while affirming the professional aspect of their careers.
Groups of artists appeared, such as General Idea in Toronto and N.E. Thing Company in Vancouver, which were stimulated by the development of a common aesthetic and art (see art, contemporary trends). Existing groups generally tried to become more cohesive and more effective in action. The Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers and Engravers, for example, joined with the Canadian Society of Graphic Art to form the Print and Drawing Council of Canada in 1976.
The need for an increasingly international and competitive market led artists to analyse more objectively their associations' goals and the means at their disposal. The Society of Cooperative Artists (1957), which in 1967 became the Society of Canadian Artists, began publishing artmagazine in 1969 in order to give the public better information on its members' work and the activities of other institutions and associations.
Supersocieties were formed on a national scale to represent visual artists throughout Canada on terms different from those of the RCA. The Professional Artists of Canada (PAC) was created in 1969 as an association of associations, comprising 7 existing societies that wished to join together to make themselves heard by the public, whose opinion they were increasingly seeking.
PAC's founding was a reaction by existing associations to the establishment, at the end of 1967, of a more demanding group, the Canadian Artists Representation/Front des artistes canadiens (CAR/FAC). Created through the initiative of Jack Chambers, CAR/FAC was a decentralized structure from the outset which attempted to unite its members on the basis of professional demands, such as royalty payments to artists for the reproduction of their works and a schedule of rates for works hung in exhibitions.
In 1957 the Canadian Conference of the Arts had raised the issues of copyright, tax reform and social security for visual artists who had no agents or regular incomes. With the exception of copyright, these problems remain unsolved, and it appears that artists as a group are not strong enough to ensure that their most elementary demands are met.
Recent formations such as Western Front in Vancouver or Art Metropole in Toronto, although socially aware, exist primarily to provide members and their guests with an organization similar to many "parallel galleries" and artist-run centres across Canada. They give artists facilities and space in which to realize and show their experimental and often unmarketable work.
Québec artists have always remained a separate group within the umbrella associations, though in the 1970s they formed specialized artist groups. Sculptors and engravers have been particularly active (Association des sculpteurs du Québec, 1961-76; Conseil de la sculpture, 1978; Association des graveurs du Québec, 1971; Conseil de la gravure, 1978, which prepared a code of ethics for its members). As within the other Canadian associations, efforts for the long-term unification of Québec artists (Société des artistes professionels du Québec, 1966) have had mixed results because of the lack of general interest and solidarity on the part of the artists as a group.
The most constructive and active groups in the history of art in Canada appear to have been the small, organic ones in which natural affinities have appeared and artists have put the elements of a common aesthetic ideal into practice. These natural associations enable the artist to compare his opinions and works with those of a few colleagues and friends, through direct and informal exchanges, thus helping him face the hesitations and isolation of the studio with more assurance and confidence.