La Guilde “is about people, special people and their achievements.”—Virginia J. Watt, 1976
The Women’s Art Association
A few women founded the Montreal Branch of the Women's Art Association (W.A.A.M) in 1894, with Mrs. Alice J. Peck as the first president. They believed that the tradition of crafts was worth collecting, promoting, and encouraging. The W.A.A.M offered a wide range of activities: drawing class, lectures, workshops, and guided tours of exhibitions tailored to women with like-minded views. This organization was the predecessor of La Guilde.
Incorporation and Mission
La Guilde—known as The Canadian Handicrafts Guild from 1906 to 1966 and the Canadian Guild of Crafts from 1967 to 2017—was founded in Montreal by Mrs. Alice J. Peck and Miss Martha May Phillips in 1906 as a non-profit organization. It played a major role in the shaping and development of the cultural and artistic scene of Canada. In an era of industrial development, these two avant-garde women saw the vital importance to encourage, retain, revive, and develop Canadian Handicrafts and Art Industries throughout the country. Their passion and efforts led to numerous activities, including sales exhibitions sent far and wide, conferences, training, and prize competitions, which provided opportunities for artists and artisans to live from their artistic practice—particularly women, Indigenous, immigrants, and people with disabilities living in remote areas. La Guilde rapidly grew its activities by establishing branches and affiliated societies all across Canada as well as outside its border. Many other Canadian crafts organizations, some of which are well established today, can trace their roots to La Guilde.
Why a “Guild”
We often get asked this question: why a guild? A guild is, by definition, “an association of people with similar interests or pursuits”, which made perfect sense to the women who founded our organization as they wanted to revive, preserve, and stimulate handicraft work throughout Canada (Merriam-Webster.com; Bulletin 1911, CHG). Creating a guild meant offering a space for artists to present and market their work, but also creating a space to share and gain knowledge. It was to be a space for artists and amateurs alike. The rise of the Canadian Handicrafts Movement was stirred by the ideals awoken by our founders.
The Beginning of Inuit Art
In 1948, La Guilde started working with James Houston, who had just returned from Port Harrison (Inukjuak, Nunavik) in the fall and had been accepted and welcomed by those communities. Houston saw beauty in the pieces made out of stone the same way La Guilde did. Through an agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Houston went back to Puvirnituq and Akulivik (Cape Smith) to begin the project of purchasing Inuit art on behalf of La Guilde. Houston’s mandate also involved creating ports in different areas where handicrafts could be sold through the system already set by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Port officials would accept carvings on the behalf of La Guilde to keep the project going long after Houston left the area.
In the fall of 1949, Houston had returned from his trip with about one thousand articles. An exhibition was arranged for the end of November and was scheduled to last a full week. Much to everyone's surprise, all thousand articles sold in just three days. This marked the first exhibition exclusively dedicated to presenting and selling Inuit art. Although La Guilde was not the first to attempt such activities, it was the first to truly succeed.
Canadian Guild of Crafts
From Our Handicrafts Shop to The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, the organization evolved with the Canadian Handicrafts Movement and, in 1967, it was felt that the “[...] word ‘Handicraft’ as currently used, no longer fits the objectives of [the] organization, in fact, it detracts from the public’s understanding of [its] objectives” (Annual Meeting, 1965). It was moved to change the name to the Canadian Guild of Crafts and, in French (for the first time!), Guilde canadienne des métiers d’art. The shorter version “The Guild” remained in use. The term ‘Handicraft’ felt limiting as it more strongly related to the workmanship of a piece (the act of making) as opposed to the trade in a more general sense. It was a direct connection to the idea of the craftsmen or women, as opposed to the artists, a term that represents our current view. Letting go of ‘Handicraft’ also meant elevating the status of the work and the skills required to achieve it. It was a way for the organization to be more contemporary.
In 1936, the articles of the Constitution and by-laws were reorganized to ease cooperation and give branches more autonomy. This restructuration led to the distinction between the Provincial Branches and the national Headquarters. The Canadian Handicrafts Guild located in Montreal became the Quebec Provincial Branch, taking on all assets and liabilities, including the Canadian Handicrafts Shop and the space on 2025 Peel street, where it had its home for over 60 years. In 1967, all provincial Branches became autonomous craft organizations with their own charter from their respective territorial government and, in 1974, the national Headquarters of the Canadian Guild of Crafts became the Canadian Crafts Council–known today as the Canadian Crafts Federation.
La Guilde Today
A major turning point for La Guilde was when our current space at 1356 Sherbrooke Street West became available. Unlike any other space we occupied in the past, this space was on one level and every “gallery” could be connected to each other. It finally allowed us to present everything we do in a unified space. The openness of the layout allows us to create connections and conversations between the La Guilde’s permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, and gallery. The new space also meant that, for the first time, we could offer a completely different experience: the white cube. It underwent a lot of renovation to become the magical place that we love so much today.
Similarly to the name change of 1967 when “Handicrafts” no longer replied to our needs, the Canadian Guild of Crafts (both French and English) didn’t feel as accessible amidst the 21st century. The shorter version of “The Guild”, which was commonly used since its creation in 1906, felt like an easier and more memorable name. It was also felt that the name in French could reach a wider audience as it was easily pronounceable in both languages. Having one name also meant strengthening our identity, thus it was decided to use La Guilde as the new official name. The new logo proudly wears the year of our foundation, 1906, as a reminder of our history and evolution from The Canadian Handicrafts Guild to the Canadian Guild of Crafts to La Guilde. It embodies the origins of the organization—preserving crafts of all kinds, sharing knowledge, exchanging with each other, communicating with the public, creating connections and collaborations through our actions. La Guilde is, and will always be, a place to learn and share your experience.
IMAGESCover image: Photograph of Inside of 2019 Peel Street, 1933, C16 D3 008 1933.
(1) Portrait of Martha May Phillips, II-140198.1, Photograph, Ms. Phillips, Montreal, QC, 1901 | Portrait of Alice J. Peck, II-103449, Photographie, Mrs. James Peck, WM. Notman & Sons, Montreal, 1894. © McCord Museum.
(2) Pamphlet of Women’s Art Association of Canada, 1904, C11 D1 022 1904.
(3) Photograph of Trade Marks, 1905.
(4) Photograph of the W.A.A.M Textile Exhibition, 1905, C11 D1 024 1905.
(5) Photograph of The Canadian Handicrafts Exhibition, 1902, C4 D1 001 1902.
(6) James Houston’s selection, 1949, C10 D1 026 1949.
(7) Photograph of 598a Sainte-Catherine, 1927, C16 D3 002 1927.
(8) Photograph of Front of 2025 Peel Street, 1969, C16 D3 029 1969.
(9)Photograph of Front of 2019-2025 Peel Street, 1971, Published in Craft Dimension.
© La Guilde, La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.