Some of the most significant work we do at the Hamilton Arts Council is brought about by hearing recurring concerns in our arts community and responding to that need. Our recent gathering to discuss Hamilton’s art history from1950 to 2000 is a significant example of a conversation started by voices that were previously unconnected but shared the same concern about a significant period of our local history that is at risk of going undocumented.
The publication of Climbing the Cold White Peaks: A survey of artists in and from Hamilton 1910-1950 by Stuart MacCuaig in 1986 began the important work of preserving the history of Hamilton’s visual arts community. However, Hamilton’s art history from 1950 onwards exists only in partial records and the memories of artists from this era, some of whom have already died without passing on their stories of this pivotal time. For this reason, the HAC’s Visual Arts Committee partnered with the Hamilton Public Library and Centre3 for Print and Media Arts to gather together interested individuals for a panel discussion and open forum on how best to approach such a monumental task.
George Wallace (1920-2009), Self Portrait with Dark Glasses, 1995, etching; working proofs; gifts of the artist, 1998. photo: J. Petteplace. Source: McMaster Museum of Art.
We were fortunate to have a great deal of passion and expertise on our panel, which included Tobi Bruce (Art Gallery of Hamilton), Victoria Long-Wincza (Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts), Laura Lukasik (Hamilton Public Library), Colina Maxwell (Centre3 for Print and Media Arts) and Jim Riley (HAC Visual Arts Committee member, who also spearheaded much of the planning for this discussion). Collectively, they offered many valuable perspectives on how we preserve knowledge through archives and the reasons why we value our art history – the need to connect with our artistic predecessors and honour the work of past artists who helped forge the path we walk today.
Another key theme to emerge from the discussion was about form as much as content. All agreed that whatever shapethis art historical project might take should prioritize making the information open and accessible. A book like Climbing the Cold White Peaks may not be the best or only form for telling the story of Hamilton’s art since 1950; a digital archive that includes video and audio interviews with artists from this era would provide a more complete resource for future researchers to develop a definitive story of this era.
Among all the participants, we identified many possible sources of information from this time period, from the anecdotal memories of living artists to institutional archives to the hidden wealth of private collections. With so much information available, and much more waiting to be uncovered, the group discussion quickly turned to the problem of how best to spearhead an organized effort to collect these disparate pieces as a useful resource.
With so many stakeholders invested in the preservation and promotion of the visual arts in Hamilton, a steering committee was proposed as an immediate short-term solution that could collect both organizations and individuals with skills and knowledge to contribute to the project. This collective would have the ability to establish priorities and, as was repeatedly noted as an ideal solution, apply for the funding needed to hire dedicated researchers. Many in attendance readily volunteered to serve on this committee, which was a greatly encouraging sign to all present that the issue is both increasingly urgent and one for which there is great collaborative goodwill among organizational partners.
While the work of writing a new history of Hamilton’s art scene since 1950 will no doubt be years away, the steps for laying its foundations emerged clearly from the discussion:
- Gather existing archival material
- Create new material where history has been undocumented (e.g. artist interviews)
- Combine these sources as a functional and accessible archive
A core steering committee has already stepped forward from this meeting but the door remained open and welcome to any who were unable to attend last week's conversation and would like to get involved - please get in touch by email if you'd like to be included in future planning on this initiative.