The Owens Art Gallery was opened in 1895 on the campus of Mount Allison University. The Gallery is located in a historically significant, 19th-century building designed by Toronto architect Edmund Burke, one of Canada’s most important and influential architects, to accommodate the teaching of fine arts at the Mount Allison Ladies’ College, and to house a collection of approximately 300 works of art and statuary acquired by Mount Allison in 1893. The Gallery has a long association with the education of women artists, and continues today to explore this important history through its exhibitions, research, publishing, education and community outreach , and the development of the Permanent Collection.
The original Owens Art Institution was founded in Saint John by John Owens, a Shipbuilder who specified in his will that money be set aside “for the purpose of establishing a gallery or school of art.” Before his death, John Owens had provided funding for the construction and operation of a church in Saint John. This church was later converted by Owens’ executors into the Owens Art Institution. In 1884, Owens’ executor, Robert Reed, hired Canadian artist, John Hammond, to assist with purchasing and assembling an art collection and to teach art classes at the Institution. From May 1884 to September 1885, John Hammond traveled in Britain and Europe, buying works of art and shipping them back to Saint John where Robert Reed organized them for display in the new gallery. Robert Reed’s interest and knowledge of art is reflected in many of the artworks which he purchased and contributed to the collection. At least one third of the original collection was work selected by Robert Reed.
Although the Owens Art Institution flourished in Saint John for many years, in 1893, the collection was transferred to Mount Allison University and the Owens Art Gallery was established in Sackville, New Brunswick. John Hammond was transferred to Sackville with the Owens collection and continued to conduct art classes at the Mount Allison Ladies’ College as he had done in Saint John. The collection of artworks and statuary was permanently displayed at the gallery for teaching purposes. Several of the original paintings in the Owens collection are marked with brushstrokes of paint from students trying to match their palettes with those of the original painting which they were copying.
The Owens was administered by the Head of the Fine Arts Department: John Hammond from 1893–1916; Elizabeth McLeod (1930–1935); Stanley Royle (1935–1945); and Lawren P. Harris (1945–1973). In 1965, the Gairdner Fine Arts Building was constructed next door to the Owens to house the Department of Fine Arts. Through grants from the estates of Dr. J.A. Gairdner and Marjorie Young Bell, the Owens Museum underwent extensive interior renovations to serve the sole functions of an art gallery with expanded exhibition space and the construction of a Conservation Laboratory. On October 20, 1972 the building was reopened as the Owens Art Gallery. With the change in function from an art school to an art gallery exclusively, the Owens hired its first full-time Director, Luke Rombout, who served from 1967 to 1970. Directors who followed were: Christopher Youngs (1970–1976); Keillor Bentley (1976–1988); Virgil Hammock, Acting Curator (1988–1989) and Gemey Kelly (1989–present).
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