Jeff A. Webb  on “The Cause of Art: Professionalizing the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador”

The Cause of Art reveals how curators and visual artists fought for control of a provincial art gallery during a cultural revival. Read the full blog post by Jeff A. Webb, here:

The Cause of Art is a companion to my earlier Observing the Outports, in which I recounted collaborations among scholars who documented Newfoundland’s oral culture. For this book I focused upon a group of people who devoted themselves to creating a visual culture where there had not been one before. The Newfoundland Studies Movement, of the last book, overlapped with what the journalist Sandra Gwyn called the Newfoundland Cultural Renaissance. Examining that folk revival in music, literature, and theater seemed the next logical step in my understanding the cultural history of 20th century Newfoundland and Labrador. The practical question in my mind was “Where do I start?” Gwyn had called the Memorial University Art Gallery “the command post of the cultural revolution,” and thus the gallery seemed ripe for examination. 

I am attracted to recent history, documenting the past as it recedes over the horizon of people’s memory. Unlike my earlier books, for The Cause of Art, I wanted to write something like a non-fiction novel; I remembered visiting the gallery as a young man, so the setting is clear in my imagination. The archival record revealed colourful personalities, as they worked to advance Newfoundland art, and more interestingly, behaving badly. Oral interviews also gave a sense of some of the characters, and a candid unpublished autobiography of one of the curators bared his psychology.  

The Cause of Art Jeff A. Webb

The book was also very much shaped by the times in which it was written. Knowing that the archivist/historian in the Memorial University’s President’s Office was about to take early retirement, and that once he retired access to the archival records would become impossible, I prioritized photographing a large swath of documents. I also started interviewing key people, knowing that the preservation of their stories had urgency. When COVID-19 struck, and the archives and library closed, I had on hand a substantial collection of evidence to work through. Unfortunately, my oral interviews had to be cut short before I had spoken to everyone I had hoped, and some of them died before things opened up again.  

My first thought was to examine the curators’ ideologies as they selected art to exhibit. I hoped that I might reconstruct something of the artistic judgement of the five curators, Christopher Pratt, Peter Bell, Frank Lapointe, Edythe Goodridge, and Pat Grattan, but I soon found a remarkable degree of continuity in their aesthetic choices. It also became apparent that the strong-willed personalities fought for control over the gallery itself. Everyone favoured “the cause” of improving the quality and quantity of Newfoundland art, but they differed on how to achieve their goal. The curators who promoted artistic excellence thought that excluding recreational painters from exhibiting in the gallery was essential to improving the quality of the art. The recreational painters, who had lobbied for a provincial gallery in the first place, felt they deserved wall space, and thought that all painters would benefit from being part of an artistic conversation regardless of whether they had critical approval. 

While Memorial University played a central role in social and economic changes in the province between 1949 and 2000, its relationship with the provincial government has not received the attention it deserved. While art may seem ephemeral, and not partisan, the gallery was a flash point of conflict between the government and the university. Those who struggled to gain control of the gallery, and pursued the cause of art, fought as if it were a hill to die on.  

Learn more about The Cause of Art: Professionalizing the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador by Jeff A. Webb.

Follow us on Social Media!


Subscribe to our newsletter to find out about new and forthcoming releases in your field, books for courses, and special discounts and promotions.

Featured Posts