Agnes Etherington, a longstanding patron of the arts in Kingston and member of the suffragette movement, planted the seeds for Agnes Etherington Art Centre as early as the 1920s and 1930s when she created a summer school for artists at Queen’s. But it was with her invitation to André Biéler to come to Kingston as an artist-in-residence that her plans grew. Upon her death in 1954, she bequeathed her house to Queen’s University in order to “further the cause of art and community.” Officially, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre opened its doors to the public in 1957 and since has grown to be a gallery of national and international importance—affectionately known early on as The Agnes. Bieler became the first director of the Art Centre (1957-1962) and Frances K. Smith was hired as Agnes’s first curator. To fulfill the gallery’s expanding role as a public art gallery and as collections, exhibitions, and programs grew, extensions to the building were made in 1962, 1975, 1978 and 2000. Since, Agnes has developed superb collections and staff expertise while expanding to encompass nine elegant galleries totaling 9,600 square feet, with additional accessible spaces for learning and creation, and museum-grade vaults. Strategic development and sector leadership of Agnes’s public profile has steadily advanced through the work of visionary women Directors: Janet M. Brooke (2002–2012) and Jan Allen (2014–2019).
With over 17,000+ works with strengths in Canadian contemporary and historical art in all media, Indigenous art, European paintings and works on paper from the 16th to the 20th century, historical African art, and Canadian decorative arts, quilts, and historical dress, Agnes is one of the largest and most significant university-affiliated galleries in Canada. Agnes is unique in this regard: it is one of the few museums in Canada where we can take up the idea of history while working in the present. This is because we have all the trappings of a public museum, but because we are university-affiliated we are nimble enough to change: we are artistic catalysts charged with the responsibility toward artistic experimentation and curatorial risk-taking.
Over the years, Agnes has emerged as a platform for artists, researchers, curators, scholars and community members to experience and participate in art and its societal importance. Agnes’s success as an experiential research site for visual and media artists, curators, and diverse communities near and far is reflected in its on-site programs and robust online profile as well as its active exchange and partnerships locally, nationally and internationally and its capacity to nurture artistic production. Since 2013, Agnes has developed artist residencies as a powerful tool of intersectional engagement and in 2017, Agnes founded the Stonecroft Foundation Artist-in-Residence program. Agnes has always worked along a continuum, with artists shaping its future-oriented work.
In 2020, with an announcement of a $40 Million (US) lead gift from Bader Philanthropies, Inc., and the appointment its new Director and Curator, Emelie Chhangur, Agnes has entered an intensive planning phase for a transformative facility expansion and a renewed commitment to the art centre’s social role, civic function, and pedagogical impact, bringing it back to its roots, “to further the cause of art in the community,” and coming full circle: reinvesting in the origins of the art centre as a home by committing to forms of hospitality as a guiding institutional ethos. Strategically, eliminating the “the” in front of Agnes, we personify this forward-thinking museum poised to enact important change as a 21st Century museum. Agnes will emerge as the largest public, university-affiliated gallery in the country and a leading champion of museological change by asking: what do we need to do now to ensure that the museums of Canada’s future no longer look like those of Canada’s colonial past? What better place to do this than the original capital of Canada … and who better to do this than a space named after a powerful and visionary woman: Agnes!
Who was Agnes Etherington?