Society of Canadian Artists

A History of the SCA

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Extract from 20th Anniversary of Society of Canadian Artists, published 1987

Society of Canadian Artists reaches its 21st year – even the number evokes a coming of age. It is a milestone, a time for salutations for a successful past and a readiness to face the challenges for the future.

For a young artist of the 1970s, presented with the many opportunities for exhibiting in a gallery, looking at his counterpart in the Toronto of the 1950s the experience is more than a nostalgia trip. It is another world. Although there were galleries available for established artists, there was little available for the newcomer. Withstanding accusations and criticism for insularity, the older artists organizations, creations of the 19th century, held power by arranging member exhibitions and organizing an open juried exhibition each year. If an artist did not exhibit with them, his or her statements might remain very personal and very private experiences.

In 1957 a significant arrangement was entered into between the United Steel Workers Union and a group of young Toronto artists concerned with the gallery situation. The Steel Workers provided space and material and the artists set to work and produced an art gallery. They called themselves the Society of Co-operative Artists and their gallery, which was Toronto’s first co-operative gallery, became an important focal point for the tried and the new on the Toronto art scene. Several members of the “Painters Eleven” who had recently disbanded exhibited at the gallery in those formative years with new talent like Martin Hirschberg and Jack Pollock. For eight years the exhibiting artists maintained the gallery on a volunteer basis.


In 1965, with an increased membership, the SCA became aware of the need for larger quarters and so moved to the Central YMCA building on College Street. Prior to leaving their association with the Steel Workers, the SCA members presented the Union with a mural for their Cecil Street offices as a gesture of thanks for providing gallery space for the Society. In October 1965, in conjunction with its last show in the gallery, the SCA presented the completed mural to the Union. Norman Melchoir, an SCA member, had been working on an elaborate design based on the molecular structure of steel. The tools and materials were donated by the Steel Workers Union, and Melchoir’s results were a successful visual co-operation using black steel forms against a backdrop of brilliant colour.


The move to College Street was a symptom of the change occuring within the Society. The association with the YMCA would be brief. The gallery members continued to hang a new show every three weeks from September to May and instituted a series of educational programmes. But by the late 1960s the artistic climate of Toronto had undergone a startling change. Galleries had opened up throughout the city, paralleling educational institutions, industry and business efforts in making space available for the public exhibition of an artist’s work. At the same time several members of the SCA had arranged gallery commitments of their own. After two years at the YMCA and ten years of existence the SCA was forced to look within and re-evaluate.


The resulting self-examination concluded with the closing of the gallery and a name change. In 1967, the year of Canadian centennial celebrations, the Society of Cooperative Artists became the Society of Canadian Artists, acquiring a charter and the status of a non-profit organization. (This information is not completely accurate as the charter was actually dated 1972, although the organization used the name prior to that date.) A new policy, a familiar variation on an old theme, established an annual open juried exhibition. Society of Canadian Artists now offered itself as a direct alternative to the older established groups. For five years the Society held these exhibitions which grew in stature and quality with the succeeding years, eventually becoming one of the largest annual juried shows in Canada. With the open exhibitions came increased membership, not based solely in Toronto but spreading out across Canada to represent nearly every province and territory. To scan the membership lists of 1970, names like Kim Ondaatje, Nancy Keehn, Ladislav Guderna and Juroslav Hovadik appear for the first time.


Early in 1974 the SCA once again sought to change its direction and expressed interest in the international art scene. Plans for the open juried exhibition were cancelled and instead the SCA organized, with the printmaking societies, the Canadian participation in an international graphic exhibition held in Florence, Italy. At the same time, the executive organized and initiated an international cultural exchange in the visual arts between SCA members and the artists of Hawaii. They maintained their Canadian commitments by organizing smaller members’ exhibitions in Toronto and Quebec City.


In 1975, reporting on an SCA members Spring exhibition in Toronto, The Globe and Mail reported: “The show is the only one in town where trends, movements and developments emerging among some very well-known artists and some others with a promising future can be assessed in one or two visits.” The tradition of trial and excellence was being maintained but the SCA was aware that further advancement was essential for its survival.


With a view to arouse more interest and co-operation between artists – east and west – the SCA organized a members exhibition to travel to public galleries in the Maritimes in 1975. The following year a similar exhibition toured commercial galleries in Alberta.


Although the Society of Canadian Artists continued to organize Toronto, regional and travelling exhibitions, the early policy of education and conscious-raising through seminars and programmes, was maintained. In co-operation with Visual Arts Ontario 1976 and 1977 were the years of two major seminars in the “business” of being an artist. Information on galleries, law, corporations, insurance, taxes and commissions was presented to large delegations, many of whom travelled from many parts of Canada to attend. These seminars were designed as a co-operative effort by the two organizations to expand the artist’s awareness of business problems and financial aids through the expertise of prominent panelists.


Educational programmes had been initiated in College Street days and would continue for nearly ten years. These events were planned to show artists at work in widely differing materials. In one year a “studio visit” programme might be as diversified as the printmaking of Michael Bidner and Audrey Garwood, to the sculpture of Oscar Ross, to the painting of Ladislav Guderna and Ingeborg Mohr.


Aware of the rapid changes within the art world of the 1970s, the Society of Canadian Artists joined seven other organizations in December 1973 to found Visual Arts Ontario. In its first six months the SCA maintained a representative on the Steering Committee and since the VAO Board of Directors was established in June 1974, the Society has consistently maintained representation on the Board. Visual Arts Ontario has superseded everyone’s expectations and has more than proven its need to exist. VAO’s mandate to further the awareness and appreciation of the visual arts is being constantly maintained. Under the creative leadership of Mr. William J.S. Boyle, the Executive Director, VAO has become a dominant force in the visual arts of Canada and is a most potent weapon in shaping our cultural heritage and policies, through publications, involvement in international symposiums and providing information to artists and the public.


In 1968 a small group within the SCA felt the need for a “down-to-earth” helpful communications tool for artists across Canada. The result was the launching of the first issue of Artmagazine in May 1969. In the early years members helped lick stamps and type and stuff envelopes but by 1974 the magazine had grown to such a stage of self-sufficiency that it was able to receive its own charter. The magazine continues to be a valuable tool for artists, administrators, dealers and collectors inside and outside the Canadian border.


Society of Canadian Artists has played a noteworthy role in the artistic community since its founding under the direction of a far-sighted and progressive succession of presidents and executives. The following members have served as President of the SCA: Ray Phelps, Tom Chatfield, Pat Fairhead, D. Bellerby, Ina Gilbert, Ron Bolt, Claire Kerwin, Tibor Kovalik, A. Meredith Barry, Kazuo Hamasaki and Janet Newcome Basmadjian. (Pat Fairhead claims that she was never president.)


In 1971 Walter Engel wrote of the SCA in Artmagazine, “The SCA reflects, in the specific field of art, the spirit of Toronto at its best; demanding quality and responsibility … open-minded, cosmopolitan, encouraging new talent and serious efforts … sustaining its character as ‘Canadian.’ As it enters its third decade the Society of Canadian Artists must follow its dedication to the smooth evolutionary advance of the past, at the same time being aware of the need for positive progression in entering the future.”

author: ALAN BATES