Before SAIT, ACAD and the AFA: A brief history of arts organizations in Alberta

“The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”

-Jackson Pollock

Modern art is unhappy with the current society; it’s a reflection of reality that’s unabashedly unrealistic. To anyone with a general knowledge and interest in art, you might not think Alberta owes a great deal of its early artistic development to modernist creation. But, modern art indeed played an early role in establishing the foundation for the funding and encouragement of artistic expression in our province. It would be two artists who, tired of the rigid hand of colonial Britain influencing what art “should” be in Alberta, would help other artists, painters and printmakers express themselves in whatever way they saw fit.

Bente Roed Cochran, author of Printmaking in Alberta 1945-1985, writes that, “Alberta’s print scene has emerged from, and reacted to, aesthetic and technical concerns outside of the province. Albertan artists have followed national developments and learned from their peers in other Canadian provinces…and it is through these opportunities that Albertan print artists learned of national issues and developed techniques and styles that they could use in their own art endeavors.”

While the infrastructure and support systems for a flourishing art scene didn’t quite exist at the turn of the 20th century, there was nonetheless an arts scene bubbling up. One of the first formal ways printmaking, and art creation in general, was supported was through the creation of an art department within the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (PITA) in Calgary in 1926. Decades later, PITA would become the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), while the art department broke off to eventually become the renowned Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD).

Two artists enmeshed in the world of modernism were Maxwell Bates and William Leroy Stevenson. Bates and Stevenson were born around the time Alberta joined confederation, and in the 1920s began their journey from self-taught artists to renegade abstract creators. In Nancy Townshend’s A History of Art in Alberta 1905-1970, she recalls the reaction to Bates’ abstract painting Male and Female Forms (which he described as possibly the first abstract painting to be exhibited in Calgary): “Both Calgary newspapers printed letters to the Editor recommending that I be confined to an asylum,” Bates recalled. And although his colleague Stevenson’s oil paintings were somewhat more palatable, both artists were expelled from the art club they belonged to.

Winter Landscape by William Stevenson (undated). Oil painting. Source: Alberta Foundation for the Arts collection
Winter Landscape by William Stevenson (undated). Oil painting. Source: Alberta Foundation for the Arts collection

Around 1930, as Bates and Stevenson began to gain national and international attention (both were featured in exhibitions at New York’s Opportunity Gallery), an equally influential figure emerged who would thrust Alberta artists and Alberta arts organizations in a more traditional, less controversial trajectory.

The influence of colonialism on art in Alberta would soon become quite apparent: along with artists taking influence from traditional British watercolour (sometimes even importing British art supplies), even the naming of art businesses brought on colonial expectations. For example, the “British and Colonial Photographic Company” documented Lethbridge and southwestern Alberta life around the time of confederation.

Alfred Crocker (A.C.) Leighton, originally from Britain, came to Calgary in 1929 to head the PITA art department. A student of British watercolour tradition, Leighton at 17-years-old became the youngest Associate of the Royal British Academy. He arrived in Alberta in 1925, and at that time was the chief commercial artist for Canadian Pacific (CP). He would produce promotional materials for CP, a precursor to the style he would embrace as the head of a brand new arts organization in Alberta.

On March 21, 1931, Leighton secured a charter from the Alberta government to form the Alberta Society of Artists (ASA), Alberta’s first society of juried professional artists in the province. As president, Leighton autocratically weeded out any artist who didn’t follow his strict interpretation of British watercolour and tonalism. As Townshend said, “The formation of the ASA is Alberta’s first story of exclusion – tragically, the exclusion of some important early career Alberta artists from the province’s first society of artists and its exhibitions, based on outside aesthetic essentially defined over two centuries before.”

Moraine Lake by A.C. Leighton (Undated). Watercolour. Source: Alberta Foundation for the Arts collection.
Moraine Lake by A.C. Leighton (Undated). Watercolour. Source: Alberta Foundation for the Arts collection.

Canada’s colonial history aside, it makes a certain amount of sense for Leighton and other artists, through the ASA, to embrace a style that relies heavily on colour, tone and landscape. The prairies, forests, foothills and majestic Rocky Mountains provide boundless artistic inspiration. Leighton hosted western Canada’s first outdoor summer school for painters, and helped bring renown to the newly-formed Banff School of Fine Arts when he moved those outdoor painting classes there. He and other British adherents left an indelible mark on printmaking and the arts in general in Alberta. As is with other aspects of Canadian culture, it can sometimes seem difficult to escape monarchical influence and find a unique voice.


Today, the ASA’s vision is to stimulate growth, inspiration and passion for excellence in Alberta visual arts. The organization supports artists across disciplines, and hosts exhibits that are equally diverse and compelling. They even work with the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to help coordinate the Travelling Exhibition Program (TREX) in southwest Alberta.

Written By: Jared Majeski, Web Assist, Heritage Division


Further Reading

Alberta Society of Artists:

Cochran, Bente Roed, “Printmaking in Alberta 1945-1985”, University of Alberta Press, pages 11-30.

Townshend, Nancy, “The History of Art in Alberta, 1905-1970”, Bayeux, pages 1-25.

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