A patch of blue clay from a Laurentian beach and a woman whose creative hands shaped that clay into a bowl marks the casual but inspired beginnings of the Visual Arts Centre. The woman was Eileen Reid and she not only dug clay from the beach, she also sawed her own wood to keep the kiln fired. Upon her return to the city, Montreal, she acquainted herself with others equally fascinated with clay and the pleasure of making pottery. And thus, in 1946, The Potters’ Club was born.
The Potters Club was run by women artists, as an artist run space or collective in rented “flats” mostly along Victoria Avenue in Westmount. While the club was a creative haven for women potters, teaching was from the beginning an integral part of their activities. By 1951 the club was incorporated as a non profit organization and in 1969, after 23 years of developing a broader curriculum and growing clientele from all over the city, the club was officially renamed the Visual Arts Centre / Centre des arts visuels.
In 1974, with the generous financial support of the National Galleries, the J.W. McConnell and Zellers Family Foundation, the current building at 350 Victoria Avenue was purchased and re-designed to accommodate 1000 students and an exhibition program. Pottery continued as a core discipline but the Centre now offered an increasing number of fine and applied arts courses, a full youth program as well as a summer fine arts day camp. From 1980 to 1990 the Centre also temporarily housed one of Montreal’s Textile Cegep Programmes.
By the 1990’s the Centre was well established as a School of Art with an expanded fine and applied arts program, a fully equipped ceramics department, and a growing faculty of artists. The Centre’s reputation as an independent art school, combining accessibility with excellence in teaching, took on its own momentum.
By 1996 our Outreach Program was created to move art into the broader community with public art projects and specialized courses tailored to the unique needs of groups at risk, especially youth and teens with special needs. In 2001, the Independent Studies Program was introduced in response to a growing demand for individual critique and portfolio development; the program facilitates a disciplined and intensive period of studio work through one-on-one mentoring.
Along with the School of Art, and as a complement to it, the McClure Gallery gradually assumed a more prominent role at the Centre. While a portion of the ground floor already served as an exhibition space, in 1998 the gallery underwent significant renovations, nearly doubling its floor space. The McClure Gallery has earned a reputation as a discerning contemporary venue featuring the work of both emerging and established artists from Montreal with occasional exhibitions by artists from further afield.
In 2002 the gallery inaugurated its annual Curatorial Venue Program designed to support unique and innovative projects with invited guest curators; that same year, through grants from government art councils, we began to host touring exhibitions, publish exhibition catalogues and offer artists’ fees. The interface between our School of Art and gallery has enriched the learning process for both students and public.
In 2004, the VAC introduced a Publication Programme whose main objective is to provide accompanying catalogues for gallery exhibitions. We work closely with artists, curators as well as other galleries or institutions to provide a lasting documentation of the exhibition along with critical texts. All books/catalogues are bilingual and, when applicable, are distributed by ABC Art Books Canada.
Also in 2004, the Centre undertook renovations to install wheelchair accessibility to the ground floor studios and gallery and to convert the garage into another studio. The Centre now houses seven large well equipped professional studios with attractive hardwood floors and large windows.
Today, the Centre has become the largest bilingual independent art school in Canada. We look back on a history of continued, responsible growth and a commitment that has never wavered in its original impulse: to offer to anyone with a desire to learn, a warm and welcoming space to develop their artistic skills and engage in the challenge and joy of creating something from their own imagination and with their own hands. In 2022, the Centre committed to greater accessibility and in late 2023 was awarded funding towards this goal. We are excited to begin major renovations very shortly.