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Women's Art Society of Montreal Fonds (P125)

Monologue by Phoebe E. Hyde to mark the 90th anniversary of the Women's Art Society of Montreal (detail), 1984. Gift of the Women's Art Society of Montreal, Women's Art Society of Montreal Fonds P125, P125/A2,1.1 © McCord Museum

The spirit of the times

    "I am Mrs. James Peck, at least, that's who I think I am. I [seem] to have been propelled from somewhere into this large gathering. ... Did I hear someone say a meeting of the Womens' [sic] Art Society...? Womens' Art...? That rings a bell: I remember the Womens' Art Association.

    But I don't recognize anyone, and they were all my friends. And this place is so different from where we usually meet. How strange your clothes are. You are all showing your legs!!

    Can this be the year 1894? Did someone say 'No. 1984.' 1984. ... But that's ninety years after the founding of the Womens' Art.

    I must be a ghost!"

This monologue, delivered on February 7, 1984, to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM), did not express true horror and fear, despite its suggestion of the supernatural. Playing the role of the organization's first president, Mary Alice Skelton Peck, Phoebe E. Hyde shared stories about the early years of the WASM with its current members.

Her monologue wistfully describes the first locale occupied by the group in the early 20th century, the studio on Phillips Square that is hard to recognize without the trees that used to flank it and the once imposing façade of Christ Church Cathedral now surrounded by towering buildings. It also highlights the intelligence of the visionary women who pooled their talents to carve out a place for themselves in early 20th century society by recognizing the transformative potential of art.

The text is an example of the creativity and diverse interests that characterize the WASM. The technique of using a narrator from another time is a nod to works of science fiction and fantasy, popular in the 1980s, by Canadian authors like Élisabeth Vonarburg and Margaret Atwood, who enjoyed great renown provincially, nationally and internationally.

P125 Women's Art Society of Montreal Fonds. - 1891-2014. - 237.5 cm of textual records. - 281 photographs.

Administrative History

The Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM) was founded in 1894 by Mrs. James H. Peck (née Mary Alice Skelton) and Mary Martha (May) Phillips as the Montreal branch of the Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC), which was incorporated in Toronto in 1892. Its aim was to bring women into the world of art and enable them to pursue art as a profession, at a time when women rarely had the opportunity to find fulfilment outside the domestic sphere. It offered female artists, both professionals and amateurs, a meeting room and studio where they could produce art and discuss ideas.

The organization's founders were influential figures in Montreal's arts and crafts scene at the turn of the 20th century. Mrs. James H. Peck, a recognized expert in the field of handicrafts, was the first president of the WAAC Montreal Branch, holding the position from 1894 to 1896. A talented painter and teacher, Mary Martha Phillips was principal of the School of Art and Applied Design in the mid-1890s. She succeeded Peck as president of the WAAC Montreal Branch, staying until 1906. From 1905 to 1908, she was also the first president of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, now known as the Canadian Guild of Crafts.

By the end of its first year, the WAAC Montreal Branch had signed up approximately 200 members. It offered studio drawing classes, reading classes, lectures on a variety of topics by eminent speakers like artist William Brymer and architect Percy Nobbs, and ran sketch and design competitions for various products. It organized two annual exhibitions in Montreal and also presented some works in other branches of the WAAC.

In 1900, the WAAC Montreal Branch launched the crafts movement to promote, preserve and carry on the tradition of handcrafted objects among native-born Canadians and immigrants. This movement also aimed to encourage the development of home industry and promote national unity. In 1902, the year of the Exhibition of Home Arts devoted to handicrafts made by Canadians, the organization formed the Handicrafts Committee to organize local and travelling exhibitions and open a store called Our Handicrafts Shop. By 1904, although the WAAC Montreal Branch continued to champion the movement, it had to withdraw financial support as it had grown increasingly onerous due to rapid growth. The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, a non-profit organization founded in 1905, carried on the movement according to the same philanthropic principles.

In 1907, the WAAC Montreal Branch broke away from the parent body following a disagreement over a new charter that gave the Toronto-based association greater control over the Montreal branch's finances. The independent Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM) was then created, maintaining the same objectives, characteristics and programs as before.

In the years that followed, the WASM reached the height of popularity. In 1910, the Keramic Department was founded to teach the art of porcelain painting. The WASM also developed activities focussed on the literary and dramatic arts while maintaining its art studio production. It presented lectures covering a variety of topics, notably architecture, painting, sculpture, engraving, goldsmithing, ceramics, literature and travel.

During the First World War, the WASM supported the war effort by establishing the Home Relief Fund. This later became known as the Artists' War Fund, which provided financial assistance to Montreal artists and musicians in need. After the war, the WASM's philanthropic work continued with the creation of the Soldiers' Fund, which provided assistance to disabled veterans. Mrs. James H. Peck helped set up programs to teach veterans how to make crafts, thus playing a key role in the development of occupational therapy in Montreal. The WASM also fostered close relationships with organizations like the Montreal Children's Library (by giving grants) and the Montreal Council of Women.

In the period following the Great War, the WASM gradually extended its activities to other branches of the arts, while continuing to pursue its founding goals of promoting the literary, musical and visual arts. A drama group was formed in the 1920s and music recitals featuring young Montreal performers were organized. However, when Mrs. W. D. Lighthall was president of the WASM from 1921 to 1924, she refocussed the organization's interests on studio activities. In addition to taking part in the WASM's annual exhibitions, members exhibited their work in other Montreal art shows.

The WASM also worked to promote peace during the 1930-1931 season by holding a national competition for the best poem about peace, subsequently publishing the most interesting works. It also instituted Members' Day, an annual event at which members present original works of art and literature.

On April 11, 1968, the WASM was incorporated under the authority of the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec. Throughout the 1970s, its programming had to be adjusted to respond to its fluctuating popularity and membership, a result of the transformation sweeping Montreal's cultural scene. The WASM's activities remained focussed on the Literary Group and the Studio Group, while the annual exhibition was a landmark social and cultural event in its programming.

In 1981, to comply with Bill 101, the WASM officially adopted a French name: the Association culturelle des femmes de Montréal. However, it remains an essentially English organization. In the late 1990s, it began admitting men as members. At that time, the Society included the studio, literary and art appreciation groups. Nowadays, the organization has about 150 members and is more social and educational in nature than professional.

Scope and Content

The fonds chronicles the founding of the Montreal branch of the WAAC (Women's Art Association of Canada) as well as the principles, intentions and objectives that have guided its existence. It also provides information on the Montreal branch's relations with its parent body (the WAAC), notably the reasons that led it to break away and form the Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM). In addition, it documents the organization's role in founding the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. There is extensive information covering the entire existence of the WASM, with regard to its administrative structure and the primary activities involved in its governance, financial management and decision-making processes.

The fonds also describes the organization's membership, member services and special events.

It chronicles its cultural and artistic intentions and how they have evolved over time, notably as seen in its programming and various cultural and artistic activities. Finally, it documents the WASM's relations with the media, its members, outside organizations and the public.

The fonds contains governing documents and historic texts, as well as numerous meeting minutes and administrative reports that help illustrate the organization's administrative structure and management. Financial documents, primarily in the form of accounting records, dues books and financial statements, chronicle the WASM's sources of funding and overall financial situation over the years.

In addition, there are lists of members, library books and users, and documents related to its annual events. The WASM's artistic activities are documented in official programs along with exhibition catalogues and photographs, as well as in works produced by the Studio Group and the Literary Group. Scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings, photographs and letters make up the bulk of the files devoted to the WASM's communications activities.

Source of title proper: Based on the creator of the fonds.

Language: The documents are in English and French, but primarily in English.

Related records in other fonds: The Sarah Gersovitz fonds (R8304) at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) contains a file about the WASM.

Related groups of records: The McCord Museum's Armstrong, Deligny and Phillips Families Fonds (P009) and Mary Alice Skelton Peck Fonds (P543) contain documents about the two founding members of the WAAC Montreal Branch.

General note: Two books recount the history of the organization: The Women's Art Society of Montreal: A Century of Commitment to the Arts, by Elaine Holowach-Amiot (McCord Museum, 1994); and The Women's Art Society of Montreal and its place in history, 1894-2019, by Cathy Keays, published in 2019.

The fonds is divided into the following series, subseries, sub-subseries and files:

  • P125/A Administrative Management
    • P125/A1 Founding
    • P125/A2 History
        • P125/A2,1 Accounts written by members. - 1902-1984. - 1 cm of textual records.
        • Digitized document
        • Scope and Content: The file focusses on the history of the WASM from 1902 to 1984. It contains typed and handwritten texts written primarily by eminent members, including founders Mary Martha Phillips and Mary Alice Skelton Peck, to be read aloud at commemorative events and annual meetings. The file also includes a letter from Frances Scofield and Alice Lighthall addressed to the Montreal Council of Women Archives Committee. The documents record the organization's evolution, the various locales it occupied, its intentions, its goals, its position in Montreal's artistic community and its ties with prominent figures in the art world.

          Source of supplied title: Based on the contents of the file.

          Language: The documents are in English.

    • P125/A3 Committees and reports
      • P125/A3.1 Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC)
      • P125/A3.2 Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM)
    • P125/A4 Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC) and Canadian Handicrafts Guild (CHG)
    • P125/A5 Legal affairs
    • P125/A6 Administrative documents from the first vice-president

  • P125/B Financial Management
    • P125/B1 Accounting
      • P125/B1.1 Accounting records
      • P125/B1.2 Revenues and expenditures
    • P125/B2 Financial statements

  • P125/C Membership and Member Services
    • P125/C1 Membership
    • P125/C2 Library
    • P125/C3 Celebrations
        • P125/C3,1 Member's Day
        • P125/C3,2 Annual dinner
        • P125/C3,3 New Members Luncheon

  • P125/D Artistic Activities
    • P125/D1 Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC)
        • P125/D1,1 Programming
        • P125/D1,2 Exhibitions
        • P125/D1,3 Correspondence
    • P125/D2 Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM)
        • P125/D2,1 Programming
        • P125/D2,2 Exhibitions
        • P125/D2,3 Studio Group
        • P125/D2,4 Literary Group
        • P125/D2,5 Lectures
        • P125/D2,6 Works by members
        • P125/D2,7 Miscellaneous events

  • P125/E Communications
    • P125/E1 Media coverage
          • P125/E1.1 Women's Art Society of Montreal scrapbook. - November 3, 1921-February 1928. - 2.5 cm of textual records.
          • Digitized document
          • Scope and Content: The scrapbook focusses on media coverage of the Women's Art Society of Montreal between 1921 and 1928. It is composed of press clippings taken primarily from the newspapers The Gazette and The Montreal Daily Star. There is information about events organized by the WASM, most of which are shows and lectures on literature, painting, architecture, music, theatre and sculpture. The articles document the interests of the WASM's members and the organization's position in Montreal's artistic community.

            Two photographs of a ceramics exhibition are also glued into the scrapbook's inside front cover.

            Source of supplied title: Based on the nature of the document.

            Physical description: 43 pages.

            Language: The documents in the scrapbook are in English.

          • P125/E1.2 Women's Art Society of Montreal scrapbook. - October 1948-March 1952. - 2 cm of textual records.
          • Digitized document
          • Scope and Content: The scrapbook focusses on media coverage of the Women's Art Society of Montreal between 1948 and 1952. It primarily contains clippings from the newspapers The Montreal Daily Star and The Gazette, along with show programs and activity calendars from the organization. It documents events organized by the WASM, notably music recitals and lectures, the composition of its Executive Committee, and how the organization was perceived by the Montreal community. Among other things, the clippings reveal that WASM members could attend lectures on existentialism, the role of women in the workplace, the importance of art in defining national identity, and various topics associated with the fields of music, architecture, decorative arts, painting, dance and literature.

            Source of supplied title: Based on the nature of the document.

            Physical description: 61 pages.

            Language: The documents in the scrapbook are in English.

          • M2015.15.1.1 Women's Art Society of Montreal scrapbook. - 1978-1986. - 2.5 cm of textual records.
          • Digitized document
          • Scope and Content: The scrapbook focusses on media coverage of the Women's Art Society of Montreal between 1978 and 1986. It documents events planned by the organization, like its exhibitions and shows, the composition of its Executive Committee, and how the organization was perceived by the Montreal community.

            The scrapbook contains press clippings, annual programs of the WASM's activities, invitations to some of its events and a photograph of Lea Simand, who was president from 1980 to 1982. The clippings are taken primarily from the following newspapers: The Westmount Examiner, The Senior Scene, The Mount Royal Weekly Post, The Gazette, The Monitor and The Côte St. Luc Suburban.

            Source of supplied title: Based on the nature of the document.

            Physical description: 55 pages.

            Language: The documents in the scrapbook are in English.

    • P125/E2 Correspondence from famous people
        • P125/E2,1 Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC)
        • P125/E2,2 Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM)
    • P125/E3 General correspondence
    • P125/E4 Tributes
    • P125/E5 Petition

  • P125/F Photographs


Authors: Éléonore Aubut-Robitaille, Philippe-Olivier Boulay-Scott
Editor: Mathieu Lapointe
Last modified: July 23, 2019