Interest in the founding of a local gallery first developed in the fall of 1968, when the National Gallery of Canada sent
requests across Canada for financial assistance to help them in renovating and
extending their premises in Ottawa. When
one such request was received by the University Women’s Club of St. Thomas, a
creative arts committee was created on December 12, 1968. After considering the request of the National
Gallery of Canada, Lois Farley informed the University Women’s Club at their
next meeting that Elgin County needed its own Art Gallery. Within only a month of first considering the
idea, she had convinced not only the University Women’s Club, the Creative Arts
Committee, personal friends and neighbours, but also the “Green Spot Ladies” as
they were fondly called: Bert McKay and Margaret Thorman. These two individuals, along with several
other local persons, had been instrumental in acquiring the Rebecca Siser
sculpture called “The Family” for the M.F. Hepburn Park. This memorial park was considered the local
“Green Spot” and the addition of a sculpture centered in a small reflecting
pool and fountain has been a local controversial issue. Knowing that these two women were not only
interested in art, but also tenacious, Mrs. Farley enlisted their support in a
It was at this time that the idea for the
first Art Auction of Elgin County was conceived. The creative Arts Committee of the University
Women’s Club elected officers, joined forces and ironed out the details for the
first auction. Solicitation of donations
began immediately with Mrs. McKay, Mrs. Thorman and Mrs. Farley visiting local
artists of St. Thomas and Elgin County to ask for contributions of their own
works of art for the auction. Well known
local artists such as Carolyn Curtis, the late Clark McDougall, and the late D.
Frank Poole, as well as many others, donated their works for the sale.
During the course of gathering art for the
auction, the committee discovered that art was flourishing in Elgin County and
that there was an immediate need for a gallery where exhibitions of all kinds
might he held. Mrs. Farley and her
committee were even more convinced than ever of their cause.
The Creative Arts Committee decided to also ask for the assistance of
London and Middlesex artists. They
traveled to H. B. Beal Technical School in London, where they made speeches to
Herb Ariss, Head of the Art Department and senior art classes, asking them for
donations of their art. The three women
returned to St. Thomas with many now important works. Other London and area artists were
approached; Greg Curnoe, Tony Urquhart, James Kemp, Herb Ariss, Bert Kloegeman
and many others. No one
refused to give a helping hand to the group
who so desperately wanted an art gallery for Elgin. In fact, the response from artists and other
donors was so overwhelming that the cataloging had to be closed several days
before the auction.
Dr. George Sloan kindly lent his newly
acquired building, located opposite the County Court House, to the group as a
place to work from. The building became
a depot for art donations where they were sorted and tabulated. The entire University Women’s Club, as well
as the original Creative Arts Committee, husbands and friends swung into
action. Art was picked up, recorded and
the details of the upcoming auction, scheduled to take place in April, were
finalized. Except for a small space
heater, it was thick sweaters and many a glass of good Canadian Sherry that saw
the enthusiastic group through the cold afternoons of February, March and most
of April, in the unheated building.
Enthusiasm for “ART FOR ELGIN” was
reaching a feverish peak. Friends old
and new were telephoned and asked to assist the day of the auction to attend
this giant night of art; something very new for a baseball oriented
populace. Penny post cards were mailed
and those who supported our scheme purchased a ticket, for the sum of $1.00,
which was redeemable the night of the auction upon purchase of a picture. If not redeemed, it was considered a
contribution towards “ART FOR ELGIN”. A preview was organized for the daylight
hours of April 21, 1969, at the St. Thomas Memorial arena.
In spite of a miserable cold and rainy
night, the arena was jammed as the auction commenced. After opening remarks by Mayor Fanjoy,
colourful “Smokey Meeks”, a local auctioneer, started the auction. Smokey insulted seasoned and novice art
collectors alike into parting with over five thousand dollars in little over
one hour; something unheard of in Elgin.
The first goal of the
University Women’s Club had been met.
They had raised enough money at the art auction to start a collection of
paintings that would form the nucleus of a Permanent Collection for Elgin. What had begun as just a dream of art for
Elgin was now an exciting reality.
As originally planned, the University
Women’s Club used money from the auction to purchase the first piece of art for
the future gallery’s collection; local artist, Clark McDougall’s painting
entitled “Talbot Street”. The work was
stored at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Farley until it went on
exhibition. It is of interest to note
that the works of Clark McDougall, today an important and internationally
respected artist, were not selected for purchasing in 1967, Centennial Year, by
the Elgin County Board of Education because “He outlines in black”.
In order to get broad based support for a
gallery, Lois Farley asked 400 respected and influential St. Thomas and Elgin
County residents to form a large directorate with the object that they would
meet and form a smaller executive gallery board and eventually to establish a
gallery for the area. May 1st,
had been set as Revolution Day in the cultural life of St. Thomas-Elgin. So it was, on that evening in 1969, that the
Creative Arts Committee and all those who could attend of the directorate, met
at another cultural centre of Elgin; The Elgin County Pioneer Museum.
Mr. Don Anderson, of Anderson’s Ltd.,
himself an ardent collector of fine art, maps and books, was elected as the
first president of St. Thomas and Elgin Art Gallery. Bert McKay, Marg Thorman and Lois Farley, the
three women who were the real driving force behind the foundation of the
gallery, were named to the executive “to keep an eye on things”. Also appointed to the first executive of the
gallery was Mr. George Copeland; Mr. Wm. F. M. Haight, Mr Dana Porter, Mr
Baillie Stephenson and Mrs. Sharon Little, a total of 9 persons.
The first executive meeting of the
Foundation was held on May 8th, at the office of Mr. Frank Sanders,
legal advisor for the group. The main
purpose of this meeting was to agree on the broad objectives of the Foundation,
to sign an application for incorporating, and to establish and define the
duties of the working committees. It was
on June 26, 1969, that the By-Laws were completed, the charter came through and
the Gallery became an important cultural centre for the residents of St. Thomas
The first public exhibition of the Art
Gallery Foundation opened Sunday, September 1, 1969, at the YWCA in St.
Thomas. The show was on loan from the
AGO, sponsored y the YWCA in cooperation with the Gallery Foundation. It was at this exhibition that the Directorate
met Mr. Wm. Forsey of the AGO who later assisted the gallery in many ways; one
of which was the personal supervision of the refurbishing of the walls with
burlap at 301 Talbot Street.
Their first exhibition was such a great
success; the Directorate quickly planned another for November 30th,
at Parkside Collegiate of Notman Photographs.
Refreshments were served at the opening by the formed Women’s Committee
which then numbered 56 members.
After having put up exhibitions and
operating without a building for the Fall of 1969, the Directorate of the
Foundation decided to establish a Building Committee on which Don Anderson and
Lois Farley served. At the same time, a
membership Committee, headed by Mr. WMF. M. Haight and Mr. Dana Porter, was
also created. More persons were later
added to the Building Committee to form a Fund-Raising Committee, with George
Copeland, chairman. In less that two
months, these two committees acquired over five hundred memberships, some of
which were family memberships, and an amazing total of $45, 000 to purchase a
The Fund-raising Committee enlisted persons
in St. Thomas and Elgin who were experienced in raising money locally, as well
as members of the University Women’s Club, to assist in this crash project to
raise money. Later that spring, March
1970, a building was purchased at the West end of Talbot Street. The former Imperial Bank of Commerce. The purchase occurred just one year to the
week form the launching of the art project by the Creative Arts Committee of
the University Women’s Club. Many
persons may take credit for the birth of the gallery. Donations from 50 cents to $5000 were
received from area residents, individuals, organizations and foundations which
made the purchase of the gallery building possible.
Briefs for financial operative support were
presented by members of the executive to local City and County Councils,
Federal and Provincial bodies. Some
requests were ignored, others refused.
When a brief was presented by Lois Farley to the Provincial Arts Council
in Toronto, she was told to operate the gallery for one year and then to ask
the Council again.
The Art Gallery Foundation was discouraged
but not beaten. Premier Wm. Davis, then
Minister of Education, had occasion to visit St. Thomas in the company of MPP
for Elgin, Ron McNeil. Prior to his political meeting, a small reception was
held at he home of Dr. and Mrs. Farley at which time Mrs. Farley took the
opportunity to present Mr. Davis with the Foundations’ brief and to explain
their plans. The presentation resulted
in a Provincial grant of $5000! The
Province of Ontario Council for the Arts based their reversal of decision upon
the fact that “if the area had wanted a gallery bad enough to raised $45,000 in
such a short time for capital expenditures, then surely it was a viable local
project deserving of Provincial support from the start.”
By the fall of 1970, membership had risen to
900, the gallery was being renovated and advertisements had been placed in
local and area newspapers for a Director.
Mr. Wm. Forsey, of the AGO, again came from Toronto to act as
professional advisor, and on April 13, Mr. David Morris of Toronto, and former
Director of the Chatham Art Gallery was hired; his duties to commence May 15,
On June 10, 1970, the gallery had finally
become a reality with an official opening.
Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs, Director of the National Gallery of Canada,
was invited to officially open the gallery.
Miss Boggs, during her address, stated that “it is a terribly exciting
thing in this county and in this province to see the springing up of an art
gallery, but what seems more exciting is the speed with which this one has
sprung up. The people of the community
should be very proud of their gallery”.
Miss Boggs also commended the founders of the gallery for their
successful efforts in stimulating so much community involvement in the project
and selecting a very impressive collection with which to officially open the
The gallery officially opened as the Art
Gallery St. Thomas-Elgin. Since then,
the art Gallery has played an important role in developing the visual arts and
artist in Elgin County, in collecting and preserving the artistic heritage of
the region , and cultivating the artistic awareness of the community.
Its’ role as a cultural centre steadily grew
to the point of outgrowing the physical limitations of the building. In 1984 “Project Renewal” was formed to raise
money for a building fund. On September
12, 1986 the sod was officially turned for a renovation and expansion project
which doubled the existing space of the Art Gallery. The continued support and enthusiasm of the
community enable the Art Gallery to officially reopened May 1987.
The growth of the Art Gallery continued and
a successful “Millennium Project” campaign again created much needed funds for
renovations. In the summer of 2000, the
art gallery reopened. Alongside the
building project was the opportunity to change the Art Gallery name to the St.
Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre. The new
name provided a more perceptible representation of the general purpose of the
Art Centre that included not only a gallery of art exhibitions, but an
extensive art education program as well as a permanent collection of important
The Art Centre has accomplished a remarkable
amount in its short history. It has
amassed a collection of over 1500 works of art representing a diverse number of 19th and 20thcentury Canadian artists. It has
assembled an equally rich assortment of exhibitions ranging from works created
by our own young “artists” in the Elgin County school system to works of 19thCentury artists. It has hosted an
equally rich assortment of art classes, special programs and lectures. The Art Centre has the distinction of being
ranked as grade A-1 museum facility capable of housing works of almost any
shape, size or description from around the world. All of this illustrates a commitment to a
mission to collect, preserve and promote our visual heritage, to educate all
interested residents in St. Thomas and Elgin County so that they may come to
more fully appreciate it, as laid out at that first meeting of the Foundation
May 8th , 1969.
With a past history of community commitment
and support serving as an example, we can expect the St. Thomas-Elgin Public
Art Centre to remain an important part of the cultural fabric of our community
well into the next century.