Public Release: 

How Canadian women make art history

Book by Concordia researchers delves into professional female artists' varied careers

Concordia University

Montreal, May 2, 2012 - Is it time for a new history of women and art in Canada? If so, what might such a history, or set of histories, look like?

These questions are at the heart of a new book co-edited by Concordia's Kristina Huneault, titled Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970. The book, co-edited by fellow Concordian Janice Anderson and published by McGill-Queen's University Press, is a collection of essays by scholars from across the country who explore the complex fit between Canadian women, art and professionalism.

For Huneault, who holds a Concordia University Research Chair in art history, "there is something unsettling about the role that professionalism has played in attempts to reinscribe women into Canadian art history. Because the issue of who and what has been deemed a professional in the art world has typically been decided by those with the highest social standing, an unquestioning acceptance of the division between amateur and professional robs us of opportunities to understand some of the most significant aspects of women's art production."

Rethinking Professionalism looks to address this imbalance by embarking upon a series of detailed narratives about the varied careers of women in the art profession. Huneault and her colleagues unpack the existences of Canadian female painters, sculptors, art teachers, photographers, architects, designers, educators, curators and gallery directors in order to position them in relation to the standard model of art-world professionalism that emerged in the second half of the 19th century and that, to a large extent, continues to dominate scholarship on women's art history today.

Regardless of whether she was a professional oil painter in 1950s Montreal, or a weaver of fine Haida baskets and hats in the late 1890s, the woman artist in Canada has long represented a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Yet, consideration of this artistic diversity through the lens of professionalism has focused discussion towards those in the centre. "A mainstream celebration of how Canadian women artists slowly claimed their place as professionals is just not well suited to discussion of those on the margins, whether economically, geographically or ethnically," explains Huneault.

In calling attention to this fact, Rethinking Professionalism aims to not entirely do away with the term "professionalism" but to make readers aware of the ways in which pre-existing conceptual categories shape our ways of thinking. In so doing, Huneault says she hopes "we will help ensure that present and future retellings of history do not perpetuate the injustices and exclusions of the past."

While Rethinking Professionalism, which will be officially launched at Concordia on May 4, goes a long way toward rethinking the focus of Canadian women's art history, many questions remain. What are the strengths of this scholarship, and what remains to be achieved? What stories are still to be told? What gaps and omissions would frame such a history from its margins?

These questions will be the theme of the upcoming conference of the Canadian Women Art History Initiative, held at Concordia May 3-5. The conference, which is open to the public, brings together art historians from across the country, to definitively decide whether it is indeed time for a new history of women and art in Canada.


Rethinking Professionalism features essay by Annmarie Adams, Alena Buis, Cynthia Imogen Hammond, Kristina Huneault, Loren Lerner, Lianne McTavish, Kirk Niergarth, Mary O'Connor, Sandra Paikowsky, Ruth Phillips, Sherry Farrell Racette, Jennifer Salahub and Anne Whitelaw.

Related links:

Rethinking Professionalism

Canadian Women Artists History Initiative

Concordia's Faculty of Fine Arts

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