Reviewed August 2019
Sara Ellis, Art Librarian
University of British Columbia Music, Art & Architecture Library
sara.ellis@ubc.ca

The Canadian Women Artists History Initiative (CWAHI) provides several research tools, including two online databases of artists and exhibition reviews. These resources are freely available and no account, subscription, or software is required. The scope of the CWAHI’s online platform is extended by a physical documentation centre and library in the Department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal. Open to the public, its holdings include English- and French-language material in multiple formats. While other documentation centres address contemporary artists, the CWAHI provides documentary support of research on women’s historical contributions to Canadian visual and material culture, with a focus on artists born before 1925 and architects born before 1965. The CWAHI was founded by Dr. Janice Anderson, Dr. Kristina Huneault, and Arts Subject Librarian Melinda Reinhart.

Screenshot of Artist Database results screenThe Artist Database launched in 2008 and makes biographic and bibliographic information about historical Canadian women artists available online. The database’s pared-down layout has minimal graphics, making it easy for academics, students, and independent researchers to navigate. Top and side-navigation tabs outline sections and search options, though a search box for the entire website would be useful. While designed as a desktop website, the database works on mobile devices. Simple and advanced searches can be run by inputting biographical information: name, date, and place of birth or death. Artists can be browsed or lists of artists can be collated by selecting from the following parameters: media used, educational background, association membership, or institutions holding artist files or archival fonds. These criteria must be searched separately and functionality could be improved by allowing multiple parameters to be selected.

The “biographical information” search criteria links to artists’ records. Biographical synopses use clear and concise language, though references to art historical movements or groups could benefit from explanatory notes for non-scholars. The records have bibliographic citations and link to full-text PDFs of exhibition reviews. The “bibliographies” search criteria includes author, title, date, publisher, and document type. Results link back to the Artist Database by identifying all artists linked to the citation, though citations are not in chronological order.

While the Artist Database does not cover all physical files in the CWAHI centre’s holdings, new entries are being added. If the goal is to compile a collective written history of Canadian women artists, there is still work to be done. To address areas with less coverage, the website’s “About” section calls for scholarly contributions to include more artists who worked in craft, photography, and architecture; First Nations artists, and artists from Western Canada. These areas would benefit from stronger representation and the call should expand to Inuit, Métis, and POC artists. 

The Canadian Exhibition Reviews Database launched in 2009, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It provides full-text PDFs of reviews for exhibitions of the Royal Canadian Academy, the Art Association of Montreal, and the Ontario Society of Artists from 1873 to 1940. Searching by artist, exhibiting society, exhibition title or location, newspaper name, article title or author, and publication date retrieves results from thirty Canadian publications. Reviews are downloadable for offline use, but digital files are sourced from various newspapers (a format with preservation challenges) so quality ranges. Some text is clear and can be enlarged, while low-resolution scans are difficult to read and limit effective research. Optical character recognition (OCR) would improve functionality.

The CWAHI’s two databases are significant research tools, providing an essential sketch of eighteenth to twentieth century Canadian women artists by compiling information from print and electronic dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, periodicals, databases, and archival sources. They collate widely dispersed information and share unique print material online. Reach and scope is furthered when the two databases are used in tandem. Their form and function can be compared to free online sources such as the National Gallery of Canada Library’s Artists in Canada Database and Index to Art in Canada to 1930, and the Getty’s Union List of Artist Names, but the CWAHI databases stand out for their lengthier bio-bibliographic content and lists of institutional holdings with citations: a valuable entry point into further research.