Since 1887

Since 1887

In September 1887, an enthusiastic group of young women artists organized an art club based on the Art Student’s League of New York. In a studio in the Yonge Street Arcade building they met to work together in painting, drawing, modeling and sketching from still life and living models.

An early studio session

An early studio session

No instruction was given, the objective was to provide an incentive and help towards self-development, to draw out (independent of the instructor) personal resources, which are necessary to individual effort.

By 1890 the informal club had became a “women’s art club” for the purpose of creating general interest in art and encouragement of women’s work, through the exchange of ideas and cooperation among its members, as well as the holding of art exhibitions and lectures.

In 1893 the Association became affiliated with the National Council of Women, founded by the wife of the Governor General, Lady Aberdeen. In the late 1880’s Lady Aberdeen had invited Mary Ella Dignam to Government House to discuss the possibility of continuing to organize groups of women artists and “handicrafters” in order to assist them and promote interest in their work.

In 1907 the association was incorporated by a bill passed in the House of Commons, Ottawa incorporating it officially as the Women’s Art Association of Canada.
Bill No.30 An Act To Incorporate The Women’s Art Association of Canada

“The objects of the Association shall be the creating of a general interest in art and the encouragement of women’s work for the purpose of mutual help and co-operation of its members, the establishment of art lectures and reading clubs, the holding of exhibitions of painting, designs, sculpture, engraving and the industrial arts, and the encouragement and development of the art handicrafts and home industries of Canada.”

The motto chosen was that of the old Plantin Printers of Antwerp “Labore et Constantia” meaning “By Work and Perseverance”. The crest with the motto is still commonly used, the colours of the Association are red and white and the emblem the wild rose.

In April 1930, the Association was affiliated with the Lyceum Club of London, England, and became known as the Lyceum Club and Women’s Art Association of Canada until after the Second World War when the name was changed back to its original title.

You can access the WAAC fonds at the City of Toronto Archives here.



Mary Ella Dignam, was the founder and first president of the Women’s Art Association of Canada, was a pioneer in this country’s arts and crafts movement. She was a versatile artist who studied in London Ontario, New York and Paris in 1886. Upon return to Toronto she founded the Women’s Art Club, later renamed the Women’s Art Association of Canada. She established and maintained close friendships with The Group of Seven, who included 15 WAAC artists in their 1923-30 shows.

Mary Dignam

The Arcade Building (left) was one of a number of venues that the Women’s Art Association occupied before settling on its current premises at 21/23 Prince Arthur Av. For a short video of its history, please click on the arrow.