In its 100th year, The Art Gallery of Hamilton plans to show the city and the entire country what it has been working towards for the last 99 years. The AGH which first opened in 1914 has just recently unveiled its plans to host major exhibitions during the 2014 year as a part of its 100 year anniversary. It is also kicking off a $30 million fundraising campaign to fund new ambitious renovation plans which includes a two story addition. The Art Gallery of Hamilton President and CEO, Louise Dompierre did not want the AGH’s centennial to just pass by. She wanted to celebrate art and what it means to Hamilton. “For us, we began 5 years ago saying, ‘What does it mean to turn 100?’ Everyone wanted to build a vital art gallery. One that is really part of the community.” Through hard work and dedication with Dompierre’s leadership, the AGH was able to secure major exhibitions for the centennial. “The Cèzanne exhibition for example, this is a dream come true because it is not every day you get to mount a show of a great master.” Paul Cèzanne was a French Post–Impressionist painter. His work reportedly was admired by Matisse and Picasso.
Arguably the most important exhibition will be of William Blair Bruce’s artwork. Many Hamiltonians may not know but Blair Bruce was a Hamilton born artist whose paintings were the foundation of the AGH. In 1881 at the age of 21, he left Hamilton and ended up travelling throughout Europe. He eventually settled in Sweden with his wife Caroline, a sculptor. He lived on the Swedish Island of Gotland from 1900 to his death in 1906 at the age of 47. Before that, he lived in the towns of Barbizon and Giverny in France and although there is no definitive proof, it is strongly believed that he may have shared company with Claude Monet. Bruce lived down the street from the French Impressionist painter and according to Senior Curator of Canadian Historical Art at the AGH, Tobi Bruce (no known relation), Blair Bruce received a calling card from Monet’s wife during his time at Giverny inviting Bruce to the house. Bruce also wrote to his wife Caroline describing his proximity to Monet’s home as a “stone’s throw away.” Upon his death, his widow in Sweden and his father and sister back in Hamilton decided to donate 29 of Bruce’s paintings to the City of Hamilton, known as The Bruce Memorial. It was not until 1914 that the city was able to provide a space to showcase his work which included his haunting masterpiece, “The Phantom Hunter.”
Tobi Bruce has been working on the new William Blair Bruce exhibition for the centennial celebration for 3 years. In those 3 years, she has secured over 100 of Bruce’s pieces; 25 from Sweden and works including never before seen paintings. This will be the largest Blair Bruce exhibition ever seen. “I’ve been to Sweden twice and to France once this spring. The trip essentially followed his footsteps.” Tobi would show each village’s resident historian pictures of Bruce’s paintings on her iPad and would be taken to the spot that Bruce had painted each specific piece. Tobi also spent time at William and his wife Caroline’s home on the island of Gotland which is now a seasonal museum for both of their artwork. She was also able to read from a huge cache of letters that were sent between Bruce and his family back in Canada. William Blair Bruce still has family in Hamilton some whom allowed the AGH to borrow their own personal paintings by their famous descendant.
Hamilton Centre MPP and Leader of Ontario’s NDP, Andrea Horwath, was on–hand at the AGH Centennial Community Launch to lend her support for the Gallery having previously spent time on the board when she was a city councillor. “It’s thrilling for me to be here. When I was familiarized with the gallery back then it became a part of who I am and so to have been invited to the preview of the centennial.” Horwath says she has seen firsthand how the arts have affected her city and continues to support the government funding of arts programs. “Yes private donors donate to the arts. The private sector in many ways is a major participant in the arts but so is the public purse if you will. Because it takes all of those entities to ensure that we have a vibrant arts and cultural community and that is key to the soul of the city. I always say Hamilton is a city with a soul. I don’t think I would be able to say that if we didn’t have a vibrant arts community.” Although she believes in arts funding, Horwath says that Hamilton is getting a return on their investment in terms of economic growth. “We (NDP) have always been very much supportive of the arts; not only the arts as they are kind of reflected in the formal galleries but also the arts in terms of how cultural industries animate economies and we’ve seen that happening in Hamilton. It’s extremely important that we recognize how arts and culture can really be the catalyst for great positive change for Hamilton.” V