Author: Sandra Paikowsky
Walter Halsey Abell (1897-1956) came to Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. in the fall of 1928. Educated at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, he had been the editor of the Quaker newspaper The Friends’ Intelligencer and then taught art and aesthetics at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, from 1925 to 1927. Abell’s appointment as the first Professor of Fine Arts at Acadia reflected the ambitions of the Carnegie Corporation of New York to develop cultural expertise in the Maritime Provinces. In Wolfville, he would introduce a ground-breaking course on the history of Canadian art as well on historic and contemporary visual culture. Walter Abell then secured a second and equally important arena for aesthetic advancement and cultural awareness. This was his creation of the Maritime Art Association formed in 1935; and in many ways it parallels his experiments in the classroom. The year before, with financial and ideological backing from the Carnegie Corporation and the support of its president, Frederick Keppel, he had organized the Acadia Fine Arts Club with its membership of town and gown. The art club grew out of Abell’s desire: “to bring the various art activities of Acadia as fully as possible into the life of the university and the surrounding community, and, by enlisting the cooperation of the community, to increase the resources available for the study and enjoyment of art in Wolfville.” (1) With an initial membership of seventy, he also set up a picture-loan collection and held regular talks and workshops. More importantly, he joined with Elizabeth MacLeod, the director of the Mount Allison Art School in Sackville, to obtain circulating exhibitions from the Carnegie-supported College Art Association and the American Federation of Artists. Abell’s own earlier ties to these groups undoubtedly played a role in their willingness to send artwork to such remote Canadian centres; and several of the shows traveled to other Maritime venues. The six exhibitions from the United States shown at Acadia in 1934-35 included “Self Portraits in Prints” by sixty contemporary European and American artists and “Oil Painting by Contemporary Artists.” This programme clearly demonstrates that the region was not quite so isolated from viewing international art as it might proclaim.
More important for the future of the Maritime Art Association, in 1934 Abell also obtained another small Carnegie grant to investigate “the development of art interest in the Maritimes.” (2) It is not surprising that the Corporation would support Abell’s study as it had been funding American community-based art groups since the early 1920s. (3) Abell and MacLeod first envisaged the association as an interprovincial exhibition circuit. (4) As they wrote to fourteen potential organizations and institutions in eight centres across the region, “we feel that the benefits [of] cooperation could be strengthened and extended if all Maritimes centers interested in art joined with us to establish a Maritime Art Association.” (5) They stressed that an association would not only increase the number of traveling exhibitions, but would reduce the costs of presentation and circulation. As well, such “joint action” would give more muscle to regional requests to the National Gallery of Canada “for loan exhibitions of Canadian art to be shown in the Maritimes;” and would also “enable us to organize significant exhibitions of our own.” (6) The Gallery’s Assistant Director, H. O. McCurry, who was also the Secretary of the Carnegie’s Canadian Committee headquartered at the National Gallery of Canada, assured them that he would support the project although his assent is somewhat archly stated in a 2 November 1934 letter to Abell: “I need hardly tell you that this is a scheme which the National Gallery has been anxious to foster for a number of years. Our loan exhibitions have been extensively distributed throughout Eastern Canada with marked effect, but the response…has been spasmodic and unsatisfactory.” Abell got his own back by informing him that some groups in the Maritimes were not enchanted with “the idea of National Gallery exhibitions” as they were “quite expensive, and…it was somewhat difficult to conclude definite arrangements as to dates of showing.” Although Abell knew that McCurry was a formidable ally, currents of tension between the Maritimes and Ottawa would mark the Association’s first decade.
Within a few months Abell and McLeod announced the official formation of the Maritime Art Association – the first Canadian regional alliance of art clubs and societies, public schools, universities, social organizations, service and civic groups, artists, art students and anyone else interested in art. The MAA’s constitution was ratified at the Association’s first annual meeting held in Saint John, N.B. at the end of March 1935, and Abell was easily elected its President. (7) The MAA’s objective was quite straightforward: “to promote a knowledge and appreciation of art; to foster art activities in the Maritime Provinces by uniting for cooperative effort, all interested groups and individuals, by securing and offering for circulation, exhibitions of fine and applied art,” as well as “arranging for lectures and for engaging in such other activities to promote these aims.” Despite the statement’s lack of lyricism, the MAA attracted an impressive membership of seventeen groups in fourteen centres within two years, and would continue to maintain these numbers for the coming decade. The creation of many local art societies, such as the Fredericton Art Club and another at Charlottetown, were the immediate result of the formation of the MAA. In a letter to Jack Humphrey (who seemed to look at all of Abell’s initiatives in terms of his own potential rewards), Abell insisted that the Association would be “ a constructive force by working in the right direction of promoting increased interest in art and educating public opinion to an understanding of the aims of the modern painter.” (8)
Abell’s ambitions for the MAA were pure Carnegie: to ensure a wider access to culture, to advocate the development of taste through aesthetic experience, and to constitute a form of public patronage or even philanthropy through art sales. But rather than depending on narrow elite in colleges and universities as happened with the Carnegie’s Art Equipment Sets of books and reproductions, Abell took a grass–roots approach to constructing a regional art community. He cast the net wide and obtained memberships from such disparate groups as the Art Society of Prince Edward Island to the Amherst, N.S. chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire. As the first organization of its type in Canada, the MAA offered Maritimers a more democratic and populist arena than art associations in the rest of the country, which tended to be city-based and only a few were province-wide. (9)
Abell’s desire for cultural advancement was first and foremost tested and proven through the MAA’s network of circulating exhibitions. The National Gallery of Canada, in view of its superior resources and experience as well as its ability to subsidize costs, loaned the majority of the exhibitions. However, there were no more shows borrowed directly from the United States as McCurry made it known that his support of the MAA exhibition circuit was not open to competition from other agencies. (10) While it goes without saying that the exhibitions provided by the Gallery allowed for efficient and regular regional art programming, it is also obvious that the National Gallery saw the MAA as a further site for determining its own hegemony as the art institution in Canada. Abell himself was fully aware of the advantages offered by Ottawa for the fortunes of the MAA as well as for his own career.
McCurry’s power over the activities of the MAA was further enhanced by changes in the Carnegie Corporation’s support of community (rather than university) art activities. In 1933, Carnegie arts funding within Canada was channeled through the advisory board of the newly-formed Canadian Museums Committee; it was centered in Ottawa with McCurry as its Secretary and its primary administrator. (11) The Canadian Committee would provide a small annual grant to the MAA for almost a decade, although on occasion additional funding came directly from New York. However, in the early years of the MAA, McCurry would make demands and attach strings to his purse that went beyond those ever exerted by the Carnegie. (12) Knowing that he was working for two masters, Abell regularly sent lengthy reports to New York, as well as visiting the Corporation in the summer so that Keppel was informed of the MAA’s activities from his perspective, rather than only through McCurry.
The MAA’s exhibition programme of about eight shows per year was its most effective instrument for aesthetic development. In the early materials publicizing its formation as well as the numerous newspaper and magazine articles heralding the organization, exhibitions are certainly given pride of place. Its lecture circuit of speakers from both within and outside the Maritimes was also highly promoted by the MAA, and radio talks and later a slide collection would also be part of its cultural mandate. The Carnegie Corporation also supported traveling exhibitions as a means of public art education. Keppel had stated in a 1932 American Federation of Art booklet that: “exhibitions, in their travels, and wherever they might be shown, prove that art has no boundaries or limitations.” Abell shared the Carnegie belief that the exhibition was also a venue for patronage by the public, as the artist had the right to make a living through exhibition sales. In the Dirty Thirties, any purchase of work from MAA shows or shows sponsored by member groups would be a validation of modern Canadian art and a basic source of income for the artist. Spreading the word beyond the Maritime Provinces, Abell lectured at the Art Association of Montreal in 1939 where he urged that: “A fine school of Canadian painting must depend in part, upon adequate Canadian patronage” to “assist artists who cannot live and work if they cannot sell their pictures.” (13)
The MAA annual exhibition, with its wide variety of regional artists and enthusiastic newspaper coverage, was perhaps the most successful strategy for constructing the identity of the regional art community. From the beginning, the annuals were accompanied by mimeographed information sheets that included an essay on the exhibition, as well as a list of participants. Several were written by Abell; and the first of these, his 1935 text “Paintings by Artists of the Maritime Provinces,” serves as an important indicator of his aesthetic approach and its application to Maritime art. Abell is strident in his emphasis of borderless aesthetics as exemplified by Maritime efforts. He makes no reference to Canadian painters outside the region; he makes no attempt to link trends in Maritime painting to those in the rest of the country. Nor does he make reference to the nationalist implications of any type of subject matter. More importantly, he does not position Maritime art within the usual self-deprecating narrative of regional isolation, although both he and the Carnegie Corporation were mindful of this position. Instead he discusses the work only within the context of international art history. He also stressed that art is a metaphor for the ideals of contemporary social democracy: “The ultimate aim is to help awaken the eye and the sense of beauty and to bring them together in relation to both the pictures and with life” – ideas that he expressed throughout his American and Canadian teaching career and in his texts for other annuals.
The reports of the Association’s annual meetings (sometimes running over twenty pages in length) suggest that despite the difficulties related to organizing and representing such a disparate community, the MAA’s diffusion of art knowledge was working successfully in the Maritimes. The membership remained steady and continued to include diverse types of organizations. The annual exhibitions, usually held in makeshift venues, certainly provided an opportunity for both professional and amateur Maritime artists to display their work in a regional forum that could only have been provided by the invention of the MAA. Oddly enough, one bone of contention was H.O. McCurry’s attitude to the Association. Despite constant invitations, McCurry never attended any of the Maritime Art Association meetings during its first decade, although he always led the executive to believe that his arrival was imminent. He also demonstrated little understanding of the problems and complexities encountered when organizing an exhibition circuit in a region with only one art museum and two permanent multidisciplinary museums. (14) For example, at the end of its first season Abell had to remind McCurry that unlike institutions in Montreal or Toronto, most centres did not have the resources – physical or human – to maintain a summer exhibition schedule and that whatever the MAA did accomplish, it was done entirely by volunteers and not by paid professionals. McCurry’s criticisms were based on obtaining greater exposure for Ottawa shows during the tourist season and only served to reinforce the Maritime’s own perception of its position on the periphery. Nevertheless, the National Gallery provided exhibitions that otherwise would not have been seen in the region, even if they were often displayed in halls, schools, libraries, gymnasia, department stores and hotels. (15)
The successes and failures of the MAA during its first decade are too lengthy to be discussed here. As would be expected in any communal project, however, local squabbles and regional jealousies abounded. For example, the tensions between Abell and his long-serving successor as president, John Meagher of Halifax (who resigned angrily in 1942) reflect Abell’s larger ambitions for the organization as much as they describe Meagher’s attempts to maintain the status quo. These differences came to the forefront over the Association’s performance during World War II. (16) As is obvious in Abell’s writings and lectures, he saw the period as an opportunity for increased commitment to art activity, and a reason to plan for the future. His evidence was the WPA in the United States and nearer to home, the formation of the Contemporary Arts Society of Montreal in 1939 and the Federation of Canadian Artists in 1941. (17) Meagher on the other hand, saw the period as one filled with imposed limitations and did little to sustain the circulating exhibition programme; he even went so far as to refuse funding from the Carnegie Canadian Committee although they sent the money anyway.
Other internal problems arose from the diverse resources of the member organizations; others were the result of ineptitude. Still others came from Martimers’ long suspicion of people “from away” who, like Abell, would never gain real acceptance. While the Maritimes had obvious social, economic and cultural ties to the United States, it also continued to privilege inherited British traditions and a reticence to step outside self-imposed boundaries. This situation was exemplified by Abell’s most vocal early critic of the MAA, Elizabeth Nutt, the British painter and Principal of NSCA. She repeatedly insisted with great exaggeration that “the College was the pioneer of all such efforts,” citing among other endeavors, her own “Citizen’s Society for Fostering an Appreciation for Fine Arts,” which was really a local public lecture series. Although their relationship could be seen as a clash of egos, it is perhaps more appropriate to view it in terms of the tensions between Nutt’s Canadian neocolonialism and Abell’s pragmatic American continentalism with its inherent threat to her Old World governance. Nevertheless the MAA created an infrastructure for the promotion and dissemination of art in the Maritimes – despite or perhaps in recognition of the difficulties imposed first by the Depression and then by the Second World War.
* Excerpt edited from Sandra Paikowsky, ” ‘ From Away ‘. The Cornegie Corporation, Walter Abell and American Strategies for Art in the Maritimes from the 1920s to the 1940s,” The Journal of Canadian Art History/Annals d’histoire de l’art canadien 27, (2006): 49 – 55.
1) “Acadia Art Department Active,”Acadia Bulletin, May 1935. Abell received $200 from the Carnegie for the Art Club; and his eleven-page report of the Club’s activities for 1934-35 for the Carnegie Corporation notes that one of the aims of the club was “to make increased use of the Carnegie art and music set.” Other university art activities organized by Abell are cited in the Acadia Athenaeum and the Acadia Bulletin.
2) He received $100 in April 1934 (in addition to funds for the Art Club) and another $100 in late November “to round out the project.”
3) Sir Henry Miers and S.F. Markham prepared A Report on the Museums of Canada for the Carnegie Corporation and appended it to their 1932 Directory of Museums and Art Galleries in Canada, Newfoundland. It recommended the creation of regional museum associations, which suggested the potential of community cooperation.
4) McLeod wrote: “a Maritime circuit for exhibitions is fine. I have thought that something of the kind should be arranged and am glad that you are doing it.” McLeod to Abell, 23 Oct.1934, Acadia University Archive, 1900.028, Walter Abell fonds. In a letter to Keppel, 10 Nov. 1934, Abell mentions the possible inclusion of the CAA and the AFA in the project.
5) Copies of this letter are found in various Maritime archives as well as the National Gallery and the Carnegie archives. The lengthy letter also discusses exhibition and membership fees. In general the response to their letter was positive although Clarence Webster, writing on behalf of the New Brunswick Museum, was unimpressed and the University of New Brunswick was among those who declined because of their lack of art activities.
6) Abell had informed McCurry of his plans on 20 Oct. 1934. See. National Gallery of Canada Archives, 5.11- M Maritime Art Association. for this and other relevant correspondence pertaining to the MAA. By early 1935 McCurry had agreed to arrange traveling exhibitions and lecture tours for the region. Other material on Walter Abell and the MAA is found in the Acadia University Archive, 1900.028 Walter Abell fonds. Further documentation on the MAA is at the Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown.
7) The Constitution of the MAA was written by Abell in consulation with McCurry. Abell intended to decline the presidency if he recieved a positive reply to his applications for American scholarships.
8) Abell to Humphrey, 24 May 1935, Jack Humphrey Papers, NGC Archives.
9) The MAA intentionally differed from the only provincial art association in the region, the Nova Scotia Society of Artists, which was mainly concerned with its own annual exhibitions. Abell had been elected an NSSA member in 1930, but never exhibited any work (he was a photographer), although he gave talks at their meetings and was on the jury of their 1937 Annual. See Mora Dianne O’Neill, Nova Scotia Society of Artists. Exhibitions and Members 1922-1972 (Halifax: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1997) and also Sandra Paikowsky, Nova Scotian Pictures: Art in Nova Scotia 1940-1966/Images néo-écossaises. L’art de la Nouvelle-Ecosse de 1940 a 1966 (Halifax: Dalhousie University Art Gallery, 1994).
10) It seems that the College Art Association was willing to help Abell with “special assistance” for MAA exhibitions, but “had no process in place;” see letter from Philip McMahon, President of the CAA to Keppel, and 14 Aug.1935. Carnegie Corporation of New York Archives, Grant Files, Acadia University. Because Carnegie funding went to the MAA through Acadia, some correspondence concerning the Association is found in the University’s file.
11) For information on the Committee, see Jeffrey D. Brison, Rockefeller, Carnegie and Canada. American Philanthropy and the Arts and Letters in Canada, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006): 125-35, as well as the CC Grant File, Canadian Museums Program, (Advisory Group on Canadian Museums) 1935-50, and the NGC Archives 7.4 c, Carnegie Corporation, Outside Activities/Organizations. The chair of the Ottawa committee was Dr. J. Clarence Webster. From 1934 to 1942, the MAA and its magazine would receive over $40,000 in Carnegie funding.
12) For example, Abell was interested in giving radio talks on international art but McCurry insisted that the content should directly relate to the National Gallery collection and be based on reproductions of its work. McCurry had asked President Patterson to use Acadia’s radio station, but because it was ill equipped for regional emission, the talks were broadcast by the CBC in Halifax. McCurry also exhorted Abell to involve Newfoundland within the MAA, although according to extant archival files in the province, this was not a concern in St. John’s.
13) See the Montreal Gazette, 18 Nov. 1939. According to the AAM Annual Report, 28 (which misspelled his name), Abell gave public talks on Nov. 13 and 17.
14) The Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts in Halifax existed in name only; its permanent collection was housed at the provincial archives and the Nova Scotia College of Art. Materials pertaining to the NSMFA are found at the Nova Scotia Archives & Records Management, Halifax.
15) See Garry Mainprize, The National Gallery of Canada. A Hundred years of Exhibitions (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1984) for a listing of exhibitions sent to the Maritimes.
16) In his January 1943 letter sent to the entire MAA membership, Abell also criticized Meagher’s executive and financial management skills as well as his questionable knowledge of art. He also cited the MAA members’ lack of involvement with other activities besides the association’s annual exhibition.
17) Abell had a good knowledge of modernist Montreal art and was a major player at the Carnegie-supported Kingston Conference in 1941. New Brunswick painters Miller Brittain, Ted Campbell, Julia Crawford, Jack Humphrey, and Lucy Jarvis were the only other Maritimers at the Conference.