The only Public Art Centre in St. Thomas and Elgin County, the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre (STEPAC) is a charitable non-profit corporation supported by it’s members, grants and fundraising. In operation since 1969, the Public Art Centre presents curated exhibitions by local, regional, national and international artists, maintains a permanent collection of over 1900 works, and presents innovative and diverse programming for children, youth, and adults. Since 1969, the Gallery has been located in 301 Talbot Street , and has evolved into a well-regarded professional contemporary art centre that was awarded the Impact Award -“Unsung Heroes” by the St. Thomas District Chamber of Commerce, in 2019.
The St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre is a highly valued and respected art centre that is a focal point for the St. Thomas and Elgin community. The Art Centre is dedicated to fostering a welcoming, enriching and engaging environment of art and creativity, inspire, challenge and educate its audiences.
The St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre is mandated to exhibit, preserve and promote visual arts and to provide exhibition related programming.
The mission of the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre is to encourage and promote an appreciation for and support the practice of the visual arts in St. Thomas and Elgin County through a variety of exhibitions and educational programs and through the preservation of a permanent collection.
Interest in the founding of a local gallery first developed in the fall of 1968, when the National Gallery of Canada sent requests across Canada for financial assistance to help them in renovating and extending their premises in Ottawa. When one such request was received by the University Women’s Club of St. Thomas, a creative arts committee was created on December 12, 1968. After considering the request of the National Gallery of Canada, Lois Farley informed the University Women’s Club at their next meeting that Elgin County needed its own Art Gallery. Within only a month of first considering the idea, she had convinced not only the University Women’s Club, the Creative Arts Committee, personal friends and neighbours, but also the “Green Spot Ladies” as they were fondly called: Bert McKay and Margaret Thorman. These two individuals, along with several other local persons, had been instrumental in acquiring the Rebecca Sisler sculpture called “The Family” for the M.F. Hepburn Park. This memorial park was considered the local “Green Spot” and the addition of a sculpture centered in a small reflecting pool and fountain has been a local controversial issue. Knowing that these two women were not only interested in art, but also tenacious, Mrs. Farley enlisted their support in a fund-raising project.
It was at this time that the idea for the first Art Auction of Elgin County was conceived. The Creative Arts Committee of the University Women’s Club elected officers, joined forces and ironed out the details for the first auction. Solicitation of donations began immediately with Mrs. McKay, Mrs. Thorman and Mrs. Farley visiting local artists of St. Thomas and Elgin County to ask for contributions of their own works of art for the auction. Well known local artists such as Carolyn Curtis, the late Clark McDougall, and the late D. Frank Poole, as well as many others, donated their works for the sale.
During the course of gathering art for the auction, the committee discovered that art was flourishing in Elgin County and that there was an immediate need for a gallery where exhibitions of all kinds might he held. Mrs. Farley and her committee were even more convinced than ever of their cause.
The Creative Arts Committee decided to also ask for the assistance of London and Middlesex artists. They traveled to H. B. Beal Technical School in London, where they made speeches to Herb Ariss, Head of the Art Department and senior art classes, asking them for donations of their art. The three women returned to St. Thomas with many now important works. Other London and area artists were approached; Greg Curnoe, Tony Urquhart, James Kemp, Herb Ariss, Bert Kloegeman and many others. No one
refused to give a helping hand to the group who so desperately wanted an art gallery for Elgin. In fact, the response from artists and other donors was so overwhelming that the cataloging had to be closed several days before the auction.
Dr. George Sloan kindly lent his newly acquired building, located opposite the County Court House, to the group as a place to work from. The building became a depot for art donations where they were sorted and tabulated. The entire University Women’s Club, as well as the original Creative Arts Committee, husbands and friends swung into action. Art was picked up, recorded and the details of the upcoming auction, scheduled to take place in April, were finalized. Except for a small space heater, it was thick sweaters and many a glass of good Canadian Sherry that saw the enthusiastic group through the cold afternoons of February, March and most of April, in the unheated building.
Enthusiasm for “ART FOR ELGIN” was reaching a feverish peak. Friends old and new were telephoned and asked to assist the day of the auction to attend this giant night of art; something very new for a baseball oriented populace. Penny post cards were mailed and those who supported our scheme purchased a ticket, for the sum of $1.00, which was redeemable the night of the auction upon purchase of a picture. If not redeemed, it was considered a contribution towards “ART FOR ELGIN”. A preview was organized for the daylight hours of April 21, 1969, at the St. Thomas Memorial arena.
In spite of a miserable cold and rainy night, the arena was jammed as the auction commenced. After opening remarks by Mayor Fanjoy, colourful “Smokey Meeks”, a local auctioneer, started the auction. Smokey insulted seasoned and novice art collectors alike into parting with over five thousand dollars in little over one hour; something unheard of in Elgin.
The first goal of the University Women’s Club had been met. They had raised enough money at the art auction to start a collection of paintings that would form the nucleus of a Permanent Collection for Elgin. What had begun as just a dream of art for Elgin was now an exciting reality.
As originally planned, the University Women’s Club used money from the auction to purchase the first piece of art for the future gallery’s collection; local artist, Clark McDougall’s painting entitled “Talbot Street”. The work was stored at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Farley until it went on exhibition. It is of interest to note that the works of Clark McDougall, today an important and internationally respected artist, were not selected for purchasing in 1967, Centennial Year, by the Elgin County Board of Education because “He outlines in black”.
In order to get broad based support for a gallery, Lois Farley asked 400 respected and influential St. Thomas and Elgin County residents to form a large directorate with the object that they would meet and form a smaller executive gallery board and eventually to establish a gallery for the area. May 1st, had been set as Revolution Day in the cultural life of St. Thomas-Elgin. So it was, on that evening in 1969, that the Creative Arts Committee and all those who could attend of the directorate, met at another cultural centre of Elgin; The Elgin County Pioneer Museum.
Mr. Don Anderson, of Anderson’s Ltd., himself an ardent collector of fine art, maps and books, was elected as the first president of St. Thomas and Elgin Art Gallery. Bert McKay, Marg Thorman and Lois Farley, the three women who were the real driving force behind the foundation of the gallery, were named to the executive “to keep an eye on things”. Also appointed to the first executive of the gallery was Mr. George Copeland; Mr. Wm. F. M. Haight, Mr Dana Porter, Mr Baillie Stephenson and Mrs. Sharon Little, a total of 9 persons.
The first executive meeting of the Foundation was held on May 8th, at the office of Mr. Frank Sanders, legal advisor for the group. The main purpose of this meeting was to agree on the broad objectives of the Foundation, to sign an application for incorporating, and to establish and define the duties of the working committees. It was on June 26, 1969, that the By-Laws were completed, the charter came through and the Gallery became an important cultural centre for the residents of St. Thomas and Elgin.
The first public exhibition of the Art Gallery Foundation opened Sunday, September 1, 1969, at the YWCA in St. Thomas. The show was on loan from the AGO, sponsored y the YWCA in cooperation with the Gallery Foundation. It was at this exhibition that the Directorate met Mr. Wm. Forsey of the AGO who later assisted the gallery in many ways; one of which was the personal supervision of the refurbishing of the walls with burlap at 301 Talbot Street.
Their first exhibition was such a great success; the Directorate quickly planned another for November 30th, at Parkside Collegiate of Notman Photographs. Refreshments were served at the opening by the formed Women’s Committee which then numbered 56 members.
After having put up exhibitions and operating without a building for the Fall of 1969, the Directorate of the Foundation decided to establish a Building Committee on which Don Anderson and Lois Farley served. At the same time, a membership Committee, headed by Mr. WMF. M. Haight and Mr. Dana Porter, was also created. More persons were later added to the Building Committee to form a Fund-Raising Committee, with George Copeland, chairman. In less that two months, these two committees acquired over five hundred memberships, some of which were family memberships, and an amazing total of $45, 000 to purchase a building.
The Fund-raising Committee enlisted persons in St. Thomas and Elgin who were experienced in raising money locally, as well as members of the University Women’s Club, to assist in this crash project to raise money. Later that spring, March 1970, a building was purchased at the West end of Talbot Street. The former Imperial Bank of Commerce. The purchase occurred just one year to the week form the launching of the art project by the Creative Arts Committee of the University Women’s Club. Many persons may take credit for the birth of the gallery. Donations from 50 cents to $5000 were received from area residents, individuals, organizations and foundations which made the purchase of the gallery building possible.
Briefs for financial operative support were presented by members of the executive to local City and County Councils, Federal and Provincial bodies. Some requests were ignored, others refused. When a brief was presented by Lois Farley to the Provincial Arts Council in Toronto, she was told to operate the gallery for one year and then to ask the Council again.
The Art Gallery Foundation was discouraged but not beaten. Premier Wm. Davis, then Minister of Education, had occasion to visit St. Thomas in the company of MPP for Elgin, Ron McNeil. Prior to his political meeting, a small reception was held at he home of Dr. and Mrs. Farley at which time Mrs. Farley took the opportunity to present Mr. Davis with the Foundations’ brief and to explain their plans. The presentation resulted in a Provincial grant of $5000! The Province of Ontario Council for the Arts based their reversal of decision upon the fact that “if the area had wanted a gallery bad enough to raised $45,000 in such a short time for capital expenditures, then surely it was a viable local project deserving of Provincial support from the start.”
By the fall of 1970, membership had risen to 900, the gallery was being renovated and advertisements had been placed in local and area newspapers for a Director. Mr. Wm. Forsey, of the AGO, again came from Toronto to act as professional advisor, and on April 13, Mr. David Morris of Toronto, and former Director of the Chatham Art Gallery was hired; his duties to commence May 15, 1970.
On June 10, 1970, the gallery had finally become a reality with an official opening. Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, was invited to officially open the gallery. Miss Boggs, during her address, stated that “it is a terribly exciting thing in this county and in this province to see the springing up of an art gallery, but what seems more exciting is the speed with which this one has sprung up. The people of the community should be very proud of their gallery”. Miss Boggs also commended the founders of the gallery for their successful efforts in stimulating so much community involvement in the project and selecting a very impressive collection with which to officially open the gallery.
The gallery officially opened as the Art Gallery St. Thomas-Elgin. Since then, the art Gallery has played an important role in developing the visual arts and artist in Elgin County, in collecting and preserving the artistic heritage of the region , and cultivating the artistic awareness of the community.
Its’ role as a cultural centre steadily grew to the point of outgrowing the physical limitations of the building. In 1984 “Project Renewal” was formed to raise money for a building fund. On September 12, 1986 the sod was officially turned for a renovation and expansion project which doubled the existing space of the Art Gallery. The continued support and enthusiasm of the community enable the Art Gallery to officially reopened May 1987.
The growth of the Art Gallery continued and a successful “Millennium Project” campaign again created much needed funds for renovations. In the summer of 2000, the art gallery reopened. Alongside the building project was the opportunity to change the Art Gallery name to the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre. The new name provided a more perceptible representation of the general purpose of the Art Centre that included not only a gallery of art exhibitions, but an extensive art education program as well as a permanent collection of important local artworks.
The Art Centre has accomplished a remarkable amount in its short history. It has amassed a collection of over 1700 works of art representing a diverse number of 19th and 20thcentury Canadian artists. It has assembled an equally rich assortment of exhibitions ranging from works created by our own young “artists” in the Elgin County school system to works of 19thCentury artists. It has hosted an equally rich assortment of art classes, special programs and lectures. The Art Centre has the distinction of being ranked as grade A-1 museum facility capable of housing works of almost any shape, size or description from around the world. All of this illustrates a commitment to a mission to collect, preserve and promote our visual heritage, to educate all interested residents in St. Thomas and Elgin County so that they may come to more fully appreciate it, as laid out at that first meeting of the Foundation May 8th , 1969.
With a past history of community commitment and support serving as an example, we can expect the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre to remain an important part of the cultural fabric of our community well into the next century.