The WOMEN’S ART SOCIETY OF MONTREAL was founded in 1894 by two Montreal women, Mary Martha Phillips and Mrs. James H. Peck (nee Mary Alice Skelton), with the goal of integrating women into the art world at a time in history when women had few rights and were relegated to other roles. The parent body was incorporated in Toronto in 1892.
In the mid-nineteenth century, women were not considered to be serious contributors to the field of art and had enormous difficulty obtaining a public showing, some even having to hide their true identities for fear of social recrimination.
Mary Peck was the first president (1894-1896) of the Montreal branch of the Women’s Art Association and remained on the Executive Committee for several years. Phillips, herself a talented painter and teacher, succeeded Peck as the president in 1897 and served in this capacity until 1906.
In 1907, the Montreal branch of the Women’s Art Association of Canada broke away from the mother organization based in Toronto to form their own independent Women’s Art Society of Montreal. In the years that followed, the Association reached unprecedented levels of popularity, necessitating a cap on membership of 350 in 1911. (Holowach-Amiot, 1993, p. 8) During World War I, the Society threw its efforts behind Canada’s homefront, fundraising through art sales and theatrical entertainments and establishing the Home Relief Fund (later known as the Artists’ War Fund, which provided financial aid to impoverished artists and musicians in Montreal).
Running parallel, in 1920, the Beaver Hall Hill Group became an informal association of Montreal artists, men and women, who shared studio space on Beaver Hall Hill. Also in 1920, it was interesting to note that the National Gallery in Ottawa purchased two landscape paintings by members Jean MacLean and Mary Grant.
After the war, the philanthropic efforts of the Women’s Art Society continued with the establishment of the Soldiers’ Fund, which provided assistance to disabled veterans. Members regularly paid visits to convalescing ex-servicemen at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue military hospital bringing gifts. Moving into the Depression years (1929-1938), these services for veterans and their families continued. The Society also fostered close relationships with organizations such as the Montreal Children’s Library (by giving grants) and the Montreal Council of Women. In 1938, the Society’s efforts shifted towards entertainment and other branches of the arts, such as theatre, music and studio art.
Some of the famous names who spoke at our events: artist William Brymner, architect Percy Nobbs, Anna Leonowens (governess to the children of the King of Siam), A. Y. Jackson, Anne Savage, Stephen Leacock, Wilfred Pelletier. There were others – Maurice Cullen, Arthur Lismer, G. Horne Russell, Adam Sherriff Scott, Edmund Dyonnet, Lilias Torrance Newton – who gladly gave out advice to The Studio Group between 1915 and 1957. Recitals featured Montreal performers like Maureen Forrester, Ronald Turini, Alexander and Lotta Brott no doubt related to Dennis Brott of the present and ever popular Montreal Chamber Music Festival.
With the evolution of women’s rights and the fact that many opportunities and avenues of support are now open to female artists, the Women’s Art Society has evolved with the times. However, it has remained faithful to its basic ideals and as the organization enters its second century of activity, the tradition of promoting the literary, musical and visual arts remains one of its primary goals.
The WASM was incorporated in 1968. In 1981, the Society officially adopted a French name: l’Association culturelle des femmes de Montréal, but the organization remained essentially an English support group. In 1998 it began to accept men as members.
When the McCord Museum opened its doors on October 13, 1921 with its mission to “mirror the city, a city that mirrors the world”, it has always supported the Women’s Art Society of Montreal and now houses most of its historical records. In 1993-94 the McCord Museum had a yearlong exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of WASM. The Women’s Art Society of Montreal has since 2000 called the McCord home for its Speaking Events, which have always been held on Tuesday afternoons. However, due to increased rental rates in 2017 the WASM was forced to relocate. It now hosts its presentations at the Unitarian Church of Montreal situated at 5035 de Maisonneuve West. It is interesting to note that the WASM hosted its events at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from before 1946 to 2000.
The above crest was designed for the Society’s 100th anniversary in 1994.
References: Holowach-Amiot, Elaine. The Women’s Art Society of Montreal: a Century of Commitment to the Arts. Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1993.
In addition to WASM’s Speaking Events and performances, it has always had an Annual Members’ Juried Art Exhibit & Sale. Some of the locations where it has exhibited are the old Eaton’s 9th floor, the Bonaventure, the lobby of Place des Arts and for a while it was held at the Tudor Hall on the 5th floor of Ogilvy, fondly known as ‘la grande dame de la rue Ste. Catherine’ which is yet another cultural icon in this exciting city. Sadly, due to changes in the administration, it can no longer accommodate the WASM. WASM may have found a new home in Concordia’s Grey Nuns Residence Hall at 1190 Guy Street just south of St. Catherine. The Grey Nuns’ building is also a great historical site in Montreal.
Finally, WASM has always had a Members’ Day where new and former members have been celebrated, and also an annual Holiday Luncheon in December.