Unique database launched 

By Karen Herland

Mary Ann Geneace, detail of Mi’kmaq cape, late 19th c. new Brunswick Museum Collection. Magnifying glass

Mary Ann Geneace, detail of Mi’kmaq cape, late 19th c. new Brunswick Museum Collection.

Nobody has systematically collected data on the women who historically contributed to Canadian art, architecture and craft.

Until now.

Early this month Concordia’s Canadian Women Artists History Initiative (CWAHI) held a symposium called Connections. The event launched the first ever online database of Canadian women artists born before 1925.

Janice Anderson, Visual Arts Curator at the Fine Arts slide library, said the idea developed when her colleague, visual arts librarian Melinda Reinhart, was working on her master’s thesis. Initially the two of them worked on the project “in our spare time,” but more recently a number of graduate students have made contributions.

So far, 200 bio-bibliographic entries on artists, architects, designers, photographers and craftspeople, representing some 4 000 hours of research work, can be accessed in the database. Each entry includes a short biography of the subject, as well as a list of texts relating to their work. Several hundred more files exist in CWAHI’s documentation centre to be meticulously researched and translated into the online database.

The project gained momentum when they approached Kristina Huneault who holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Art History. She was immediately enthusiastic about the project “especially if we could do something with the information collected. I wanted more interpretation and analysis around Canadian women artists” said Huneault.

Hannah Maynard, <em>Self-Portrait</em>, trick photography, c. 1893. Magnifying glass

Hannah Maynard, Self-Portrait, trick photography, c. 1893.

So CWAHI was developed with a resource centre, an online database and the potential for publications, symposia and conferences. “We wanted the inaugural event to really address all aspects of the CWAHI mandate.”

The project covers a lot of firsts, although artist-run projects like La Centrale, Studio XX and Artexte do collect material on contemporary women artists, no one else is looking specifically at the era and range of work that CWAHI has focused on.

The CWAHI project hopes to become the national hub for information on historical Canadian women artists, bringing together information that is often scattered amongst a variety of institutions. Concordia's place as one of the first institutions to offer graduate-level courses in Canadian and Aboriginal art history, as well as being the home of the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art and the Journal of Canadian Art History, supports this position.

Melinda Reinhart created this vitrine display in the EV building to mark the launch of CWAHI’s database. Magnifying glass

Melinda Reinhart created this vitrine display in the EV building to mark the launch of CWAHI’s database.

Huneault admits she had some doubts when she first began work on the project: “In the back of my mind, I was asking myself if collecting information on women artists (from quilt-makers to doll-makers to painters to decorators) was not really passé, it seemed really ’70s or ’80s.”

Huneault said when she approached colleagues with the idea she feared they might just wish her well and forget about the idea almost as soon as they heard about it.

Instead, she was greeted with enthusiasm and it became clear that there was great interest in the project. That was confirmed when places at the inaugural conference were immediately filled up and a larger venue was required for the keynote session. The conference brought together 164 researchers from across the country, addressing the contributions women have made to architecture, craft, photography and exhibitions over the years.

Anderson agrees, saying five years ago, students did not seem that concerned about gender issues in art, but that has changed recently. The recent relaunch of La Centrale’s mandate with the Gender Alarm show (part of which was organized at Concordia, with Huneault chairing one panel discussion) and the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibit opening in Vancouver after touring several museums attest to that.

Huneault also acknowledges a shift in attitudes amongst her students. “But this project stands in a slightly different position in relation to feminism,” she stresses. Although many of the papers at Connections addressed the subject, it was by no means a criterion for selection or participation.

For Huneault, one of the most exciting things to emerge from the conference was collegial enthusiasm for the idea of a major scholarly reference work on historical Canadian women artists. “I had been thinking about a collaboratively written book already” said Huneault, “but now I am thinking differently and more ambitiously. What’s inspiring about the idea of a reference work is the amount of expertise and information that it could bring together in one place.”


Concordia University