Lifestyle & Family

Women’s art collections and initiatives in Ontario

Women artists have been historically under-represented in galleries and collections across Canada. 

Emily Carr is the most well-known woman painter in Canadian art history. But she is by no means the only woman artist to have made an impact in the creative community. These collections and initiatives strive to provide opportunities for women artists in Canada and shed light on their work.

Women’s Art Association of Canada

Women’s Art Association sketch room, 1890s

In 1887, a group of women in Toronto came together to form what was then called the Women’s Art Club. They painted and drew together in their studio in the Yonge Street Arcade. The club’s original annual fee was $2. 

Several years later, they rebranded as the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC). Mary Ella Dignam was the first president. Dignam was known as a painter and a teacher. Many of her art pieces still reside at WAAC today, showing off the beautiful fall foliage of Ontario. One of the rooms at the gallery is named after her.

Since 1948, WAAC has had scholarship programs awarding 17 scholarships to students at seven selected post-secondary schools. In 2020, they presented three new awards to exceptional BIPOC high school students in the arts.

The WAAC’s current location at 23 Prince Arthur Avenue features a patio and garden. There are two art galleries downstairs that have member shows and host art talks.

Upstairs, their library has hundreds of arts books and records of the history of WAAC. These resources are open to anyone who is a member of the association.

Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada

Dawn Setford founded the Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada (IACC) in 2012. The IACC’s mission is to “preserve and revitalize endangered Indigenous art forms and enrich lives through Indigenous arts and culture.” They are entirely woman-founded and woman-led.

One of the main goals is protection and safety for women. The organization “reaches at-risk women both on and off reserve and provides accessible, safe cultural activities.”

The IACC operates IndigenARTSY, an online Indigenous arts marketplace. 

IndigenARTSY is funded by the Ontario Arts Council and the Canadian Heritage Community Support, Multiculturalism, and Anti-Racism Initiatives Program.

 IACC also hosts an Indigenous Arts Conference in Ottawa. They host more than 20 art and culture workshops for Indigenous women. They also have an Indigenous Arts Marketplace that is open to everyone to support Indigenous women artists.

Native Women in the Arts

Photo by Jade Stephens

Native Women in the Arts (NWIA) was established as a non-profit in 1993. They support Indigenous women and gender-marginalized people “from diverse artistic disciplines who share a common interest in culture, art [and] community.”

The Barbara Laronde Award was created in honour of NWIA founder Sandra Laronde’s mother. The award provides assistance and acknowledgement to an emerging Indigenous artist in Northern Ontario. The award recognizes “the geographic and economic barriers that many Northern artists face,” according to the NWIA website.

 Initiatives at NWIA include The Kwe Performance Series, which hosts performances and workshops in Toronto. They also host them on-reserve and in under-serviced communities in Ontario.

The Inaabandam Symposium is a weekend conference in Toronto. Events include teachings with elders, panel events and art exhibitions hosted by Indigenous artists. 

Art Gallery of Ontario Women’s Art Initiative

Photo by Sean Driscoll

Michelle Koerner founded the Women’s Art Initiative (WAI) at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2017. 

WAI addresses the fact that women are given less major exhibitions than men. Their website states “An insufficient number of works by women artists are held in public art museums and collections.” Their collection aims to change this.

The initiative supports a woman artist with a major solo exhibition at the AGO. The last four years have featured Rita Letendre, Rebecca Belmore, Hito Steyerl, and Haegue Yang.

These artists’ works include sculpture, soundscape, videography, and painting. Each medium is as diverse as the story the work tells.

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