Montreal, June 21, 2022
For the eighth article of Did You Know…, we looked at the beginnings of our permanent collection. We wanted to know how the collection came to be and how it evolved over time. In addition, we looked into a few objects currently in the collection to see which ones were acquired in those early days. Without further ado, let us present our findings.
Then and Now: 116 Years of Conservation, Preservation, and Promotion of the Permanent Collection
The history of La Guilde's permanent collection began in the early 20th century. The executive committee meeting started this new adventure on June 11, 1908. One of our founders, Mrs Alice J. Peck, proposed the creation of a fund—allowing the establishment of a permanent collection—to "preserve certain irreplaceable things already in stock" (Phillips 1908). This, after all, is the basis of any collecting journey.
This desire to create a permanent collection stemmed from the fact that it was already important for La Guilde to preserve the crafts throughout the Dominion (Canada). It was deemed essential to preserve Indigenous traditions and culture, which remains our prime mission to this day. Thus, efforts were made to start a permanent collection that would promote local art. However, to achieve this goal, the committee had to quickly acquire new and unique pieces. Although there were already some works in the museum's collection, new acquisitions needed to be made in order for La Guilde to have an actual permanent collection. We have not been able to find images of the collection storage before 1965 (fig. 1-2), but except for the works that may have been different, we presume that it was similar to the image below. Since this task required a lot of work, the Permanent Collection Committee was created with Mrs Helene Savage in charge (Tait 1908).
It was only a few years later, in the 1940s, that La Guilde set up the "Indian and Eskimo Committee". Since its beginnings, its role had been to promote First Nations arts, as it had been since the creation of The Handicraft Canadian Guild. From that point on, Inuit art was also included in the committee’s mandate (Lighthall 1939, 26). It was not until the 1950s, with the arrival of James Houston who helped export Inuit sculptures and works on paper—mainly from Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU)—that the interest in this art form grew. This fascination and excitement for Inuit art, which still makes up 60% of our current permanent collection, is still very much alive today. For more information on the opening of the Inuit art market and the work achieved by James Houston, see Going North: A Beautiful Endeavour and Saumik (James Houston): The Qallunaaq Who Changed Inuit Art.
A Journey into Acquiring and Preserving
As the person in charge of the collection, Mrs Savage was charged with raising $40 [approximately $1,257 today], to acquire a rare collection of quillwork (Tait 1908). Quillwork is a form of textile ornamentation that uses the quills of porcupines as an aesthetic addition. According to the information found in our archives, in the 1908-1909 annual reports, and in the book Micmac Quillwork: Micmac Indian Techniques of Porcupine Quill Decoration: 1600-1950 by Ruth Holmes Whitehead (which you can find in our Documentation Centre), we are almost certain that this is the first piece that was ever acquired by La Guilde (Hibbert 1908, 61; Keenan 1908). We are happy to say that It is still a part of our permanent collection (see the image in A Love Letter To Our Founders: The Beginning).
It is important to distinguish the origins of La Guilde’s permanent collection from the founders’ efforts at the boutique—known as Our Handicraft Shop at the time. The two grew simultaneously while remaining separate. When a work of art—initially acquired from an artist or an indigenous community for the shop—distinguishes itself by its exceptional significance, it was acquired for the permanent collection. As such, the permanent collection was built with acquisitions and purchased from the boutique with the fund raised by Mrs Savage. In the following years, several new pieces were acquired. Among these was the donation, in 1912, of Chair Back in cloth, embroidered in dyed moose hair (Finniss 1912, 10). According to the description found in our archives, this piece is still in our permanent collection to this day.
In 1914, the contents of the permanent collection became so extensive that committees met to create an inventory and catalogue for the works. Throughout that year, five new acquisitions were added to the seventy existing works. For years, the acquisitions had been increasing. We believe that many works had to be donated, notably to the Montreal Art Association [now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts]. This can be explained by the fact that the permanent collection had outgrown the available space and difficult choices had to be made to reorganize the storage to continue receiving new works. Thus, the permanent collection went from being made of 75 artworks in 1914 to 57 in 1931 (Savage 1914, 12; Judah 1931, 16). A rather unfortunate development if you ask us!
Despite the loss of many pieces, the collection continued to grow, and a registry eventually had to be set up (Judah 1931, 16). The registry contained information such as the title of the work, its description, the date and place of acquisition, and its cost. This information, which is still collected today for all of the works, is essential to keep track of the collection. However, given the many changes that the permanent collection went through, the introduction of this registry does not provide a complete history of the works that have been acquired by La Guilde. For example, it is uncertain if all donations have been recorded. This type of oversight makes it impossible to track the overall history of the permanent collection.
It is also important to address the preservation and conservation aspects of the collection. One cannot speak of a permanent collection without mentioning the monitoring work to ensure its protection as well as any other work required to preserve it. With this in mind, in 1914, La Guilde had works restored for the first time. The pieces in question were two indigenous pipes. It was done by restorer Dr Barnes (Savage 1914, 12). To ensure their preservation, a member of La Guilde donated boxes to protect them from dust and moths.
In the following years, several donations and purchases were made to ensure the conservation and preservation of the permanent collection. Amongst them, boxes were purchased to carry the works to exhibitions held throughout Montreal and the rest of Canada. However, around the 1930s, this practice was discontinued for financial reasons (Dunford 1932, 25).
The Promotion of a Collection
Having a permanent collection is of no interest if the ultimate goal is not its promotion. For this reason, in 1915, La Guilde purchased a travel crate to carry the works of the permanent collection for future exhibitions (Ryde 1915). The purchase of this valuable piece of equipment allowed La Guilde to securely present its permanent collection throughout Canada. This was quite a modern investment for the time.
"It is most essential that La Guilde find a place in which the collection can remain on permanent exhibition, while as yet the collection is small, the material is excellent, and it is well worthy of being placed permanently” (Judah 1933, 26). Such was the resolution of the permanent collection committee. In the annual report of 1933, it was deemed important to present the collection in a permanent location after having presented it in many different places since its creation. This change in thinking can be explained by a desire to protect and preserve the permanent collection of unique works. As a result, La Guilde moved to its new location at 2019 Peel Street, allowing the collection to be displayed permanently on its premises (Bovey 1933, 1-2).
In 1918, La Guilde assisted the Montreal Art Association in developing its own permanent collection, which also allowed for the display of La Guilde’s permanent collection, who agreed to provide the Association with a selection of suitable works for display. These works, which had been previously inspected by La Guilde, were to be displayed for one year at the Montreal Art Association (Minutes 1918). The assistance provided by La Guilde demonstrates their considerable effort in building its collection, which would serve as a model for other institutions. In addition, between 1922 and 1927, La Guilde donated several works to the Association–we believe that this was partly due to the aforementioned lack of space.
New travel crates, agreements with the Montreal Art Association, and a new location on Peel Street allowed La Guilde's collection to be displayed both in its own exhibition space and beyond its walls. After all, " [...] the foremost intent of La Guilde's collection is to provide excellent examples for artisans to study" (Easton McLeod, 201).
The Canadian Handicraft Guild (La Guilde), in partnership with the Handicraft Association of Canada, represented Canadian Crafts at the 1937’s Exposition internationale sur l’art, l’artisanat et les sciences de 1937 à Paris (Marriot 1937, 6). This overseas exhibition (fig. 12) displayed Canadian crafts and works. In addition, it presented the temporality between the old and the new, whether in technique or in the works themselves. Several other exhibitions have followed to present the permanent collection throughout the years. Notably, our current permanent exhibition entitled Material Trilogy: One Collection.
La Guilde continues to promote its permanent collection. Its content is presented not only through its permanent exhibition but also during temporary exhibitions around specific themes. It allows the presentation of contemporary artists working in Fine Crafts and Indigenous art, as well as works from La Guilde’s acquisitions over the years. Despite the great diversity of the permanent collection, a large number of works that once belonged to La Guilde can now be found in the major collections and institutions across Canada. It is why the remaining works from those early years are a precious and invaluable legacy that we most cherish at all costs. We strongly believe in the richness and beauty of La Guilde's collection, which never ceases to amaze us.
Amel Goussem Mesrati
With the collaboration of Genevieve Duval, Sydney Guy, Colin Jobidon-Lavergne.
- Bovey, Wilfrid. « The Guild in 1933. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal 1933, 1-2. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Dunford, A.T.Galt. « Work of the Educational and Technical Committee in 1932. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal 1933, 25. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Easton McLeod, Ellen. Entre bonnes mains. La Guilde : Un siècle de savoir-faire canadien. Montréal : Carte Blanche, 2016.
- Finniss, C.M. de R. « Report of Hon. Recording Secretary. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal 1912, 10. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Hibbert, C. Franklin. « Treasurer’s Statement: December 31 1908. » In Annual Reports of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal, 61. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Judah, E.L. « Report of Permanent Collection Committee for 1931. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal 1931, 16. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Judah, E.L. « The Permanent Collection. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal 1933, 26. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Keenan, Winifred et Philipps, Mary M. « Minutes of Shop Committee Meeting. » Held on June 18, 1908. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Lighthall, Alice. « Report of the Indian Committee. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal 1939, 26. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Marriott, Adelaide. « Paris Exhibition, 1937: Canadian Handicraft Exhibit. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montréal 1938, 6. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- « Minutes of the General Committee Meeting. » Held on April 12, 1918. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Philipps, Mary M. « Minutes of Meeting of Executive Committee of June 11 1908. » Held on June 11, 1908. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Ryde, E.S. « Minutes of Executive Committee Meeting of March 3, 1915. » Held on March 3, 1915. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Savage, Helen L. « Report of Technical Committee. » In Annual Report of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Montreal 1914, 12. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Tait, M.M. « Minutes of General Committee Meeting of October 29 1908. » Held on October 29, 1908. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. Micmac Quillwork: Micmac Indian Techniques of Porcupine Quill Decoration, 1600-1950. Halifax : Nova Scotia Museum, 1982.
IMAGES(1-2) Photo of the reserve on Peel Street, 1965. C16 D3 033 1905-78.
(3) Photo of an exhibition including works from the collection, 1939. C4 D1 050 1939.
(4) Photo of Material Trilogy: One Collection including the same works from 1939, 2022.
(5) Photo of an exhibition at the Montreal Art Association in 1934. C11 D3 214 1934.
(6) Photo of Material Trilogy: One Collection including the same works from 1934, 2022.
(7) Photo of an exhibition of the collection in 1953. C4 D1 099-A 1953.
(8) Photo of a selection of works from the permanent collection included in the exhibition from 1953, 2022.
(9) (9) Photo of Material Trilogy: One Collection including the same works from 1953, 2022.
(10) Photo of an exhibition of the collection in 1953. C4 D1 099-A 1953.
(11) Pamphlet from the Exposition internationale sur l’art, l’artisanat et les sciences of 1937 in Paris. C14 D1 015 1937.
(12) Photo of the Exposition internationale sur l’art, l’artisanat et les sciences of 1937 in Paris. C11 D3 229 1937.
© La Guilde, La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.