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By 1874 membership in the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) had risen to 40 artists, engravers and architects. The exhibition for that year was held in June at the Music Hall on Toronto’s Church Street. Although the provincial government would continue to give the OSA a $500 grant towards the Art Union over the next few years, the records of which artworks might have been purchased are inconsistent.
How and by whom the works were chosen, especially in the early years, is also not clear. In the lead-up to the 1875 annual exhibition, the minutes of the OSA’s regular February meeting reveal consideration of the issue:
“After a lengthy and full discussion as to the best mode of selecting pictures for the government so as to secure such as would be a credit to the Society and at the same time give equal chance to the artists it was moved . . . and resolved that the Society request that the Government selection be confined to pictures of not less than $75 and that they be selected from the best pictures in the Exhibition . . .”
Whatever the final arrangement entailed, at least two watercolours are known to have been acquired by the government from the OSA’s third annual exhibition: Summer has Come Again by Daniel Fowler and Lords of the Forest by Lucius R. O’Brien.
In addition to the annual search for a suitable space for the exhibition, the Society continued to be concerned with the lack of art education in the province. Schools like the Mechanics Institute could provide basic classes in technical subjects, while art instruction tended to be limited to private lessons in the homes or studios of the city’s more established artists.
Following deputations from the Society to lobby then Minister of Education, the Honourable Adam Crooks, a grant of $1,000 was made available in1876. The grant allowed the renovation of leased premises at 14 King Street West big enough to be used as both art school classrooms and gallery space. Long-time secretary of the Society, R. F. Gagen would later comment about the first exhibition held there:
“This was much in advance of the previous ones, there being a greater variety of subjects, the lighting of the new rooms also showing them off to best advantage. It introduced to the Toronto public no less than ten new members . . .”
The government purchased Daniel Fowler’s Water Mill, Berncastle on the Moselle from this exhibition.
It is also possible that a watercolour by George Harlow White, now in the collection and listed in the OSA catalogue for 1876, was acquired at the same time.
On October 30, 1876 the modest classrooms were opened as the Ontario School of Art, with 25 students enrolled. The instructors were drawn from the OSA membership and included Lucius O’Brien, Charlotte Schreiber, John A. Fraser, R. Baigent, Henri Perré, and Marmaduke Matthews. Thomas Mower Martin was appointed the school’s first director. Daytime and evening classes were offered for which the teachers were paid $4 per lesson.
While the school would continue to grow, its financial situation remained tenuous. The OSA relied on continuous lobbying efforts in order to secure a commitment of long-term funding from the provincial government.
While the OSA was pressing for the establishment of a publicly-funded permanent art school, it continued to hold its annual exhibitions. In 1877 it once again used the facilities at its King Street gallery.
Although no records detail the government purchases for this year, a grant in aid of the Art Union for $500 was made in addition to the $1,100 allocated for the art school. The OSA’s own accounts record $520 as being spent on paintings for the Ontario Collection. The only work listed in the exhibition catalogue and found in the collection today, however, is George Harlow White’s, The Market Place, Quebec, offered for sale at $25.
The cost of the works as well as the method of selection for the government purchases would vary over the ensuing years. As the price of the work tended to be equated with quality, F. M. Bell Smith proposed at the June 16 meeting in 1876 that the $500 government grant be used to purchase pictures valued at $100 each.
However, this motion was not carried and instead it was approved that no restriction be put on price but that works “shall be chosen first, and be of the best quality.”
In order to make the selection based on these criteria, each exhibiting member was instructed to vote for works up to the amount of the grant. After review by the committee responsible for vetting the selections, the paintings with the highest number of votes would then be purchased on the government’s behalf.
The OSA’s sixth annual exhibition was held in May of 1878 again at the group’s gallery on King Street West. Although the government provided the $500 grant to the Art Union, no records of any purchases have been located and none of the 218 works listed in the catalogue can be found in the collection today.
After 1878, the OSA’s minutes often included a listing of the works purchased from subsequent exhibitions. From the two exhibitions held in 1879 and 1880, the government purchased a total of 20 paintings valued at $930. However, none of these works are still in the collection.
One painting, The Newsboy by Robert Harris, was later recorded as belonging to the OSA’s own collection - from which it was gifted to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1947.
Although the government continued to give the Society the $500 grant, it is unclear if the money was allocated in its entirety to purchase works for the province or if a second collection belonging to the OSA was also being formed.
It is not known what direction was given by the government as to how the annual grant should be used and the society's minutes and annual reports often reveal a certain ambivalence towards it. According to Vice-President Robert Harris’s report for the year ending May 1, 1881, although in receipt of the $500 grant, the OSA spent only $250 on the “Ontario Collection of Pictures Purchased.” At a meeting held on May 3, 1881, the Executive decided that the $500 grant would be better left in the bank for an indefinite period.
Between 1881 and 1895 the records make little mention of works purchased for the government and it’s possible there were none. This situation is not surprising given the frustration expressed by the OSA over the lack of funding for the school of art.
“I beg to resign my position as member of the Council of the Ontario School of Art. The teachers are hampered and the teaching impaired by injudicious arrangements and restrictions, and finding every attempt at improvement thwarted by the representative of the Government on the board, or through his influence, I decline to be held responsible for the injury to the school which has accrued and must continue to accrue from such a course.”