Anonymous, Beaded Wall Hanging, c. 1920-40. Collection of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.
In 1972, the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society included a small public art gallery in its newly renovated facility. The Crawford C. McCullough Gallery, named in honour of a local physician, exhibited local and touring exhibitions. The Gallery was very popular and soon outgrew its new quarters.
Dr. John Augustine and his wife Annette Augustine, as well as other members of the Board of Directors for the Society, applied for capital funding from the Museum Assistance Program. In February, 1974, approval was given to begin construction in Thunder Bay of a National Exhibition Centre at a site by Confederation College. This was one of twenty-six Exhibition Centres established across Canada.
The 4,000 square foot facility, officially opened on February 6, 1976, was designed to meet environmental standards for the proper display and interpretation of traveling and local exhibitions.
The Centre was so successful that it became obvious in the late 1970′s that a larger facility would be needed. At the same time the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, desperately pressed for proper display and storage space, agreed to offer on long-term loan over 400 works from its collection of contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art. This quickly led to the concept of expanding the Centre in Thunder Bay.
Crucial to the success of the campaign was support from First Nations people themselves. The National Native Arts and Crafts Corporation endorsed the project and provided a generous donation and a Native Advisory Committee was formed to act as consultants in the development of a Centre for Native Art. This active group, which undertook its own fundraising campaign as well, represented the Ontario Native Women’s Association, Fort William Indian Band, Ontario Native Arts and Crafts Corporation, Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre and the Native Community Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Culture.
The expanded facility called the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art was opened to the public in the summer of 1982. The Centre continued to bring to Thunder Bay exhibitions and artists usually only available in larger cities, and it began to originate exhibitions of work by Native artists from Northwestern Ontario and across Canada. In 1983 a major collection of work by the late Benjamin Chee Chee was purchased. Other significant acquisitions during these formative years included works by Leo Yerxa, the Waabanda-Iwewin Collection, a significant number of paintings and works on paper by Norval Morrisseau and the gifting of the ‘From Our Hands’ collection by the Province of Ontario. By 1986 the collection had grown to include 562 works. On February 6, 1986, the public name of the institution was changed to the ‘Thunder Bay Art Gallery’.
In 1992 Charles Peacock gifted 77 works of Northwest Coast art, ranging from button blankets, to bentwood boxes, to masks, and other contemporary works and in 1994 the Gallery received a donation of 138 works by First Nations artists from the estate of Helen E. Band. This collection includes early work by Norval Morrisseau, portraits by Arthur Shilling, paintings by Carl Ray, Joshim and Goyce Kakegamic, Saul Williams, Roy Thomas, and the work of other significant artists.
Individual donors have contributed and enriched the collection immeasurably. Artist Allen Sapp gifted 14 of his large paintings in 1993. Rebecca Baird, Rick Rivet, and Ahmoo Angeconeb have also donated work. The Art Gallery has a representative selection of work by the late Robert Markle, the late Carl Beam, the late Roy Thomas, and the late Bob Boyer.
In the late 1990’s the Gallery broadened the collecting mandate and began acquiring works by artists from Northwestern Ontario, as well as work by other artists that represents the region. Just prior to her death in 2006, Thunder Bay artist Susan Ross donated 166 drawings and prints to the Gallery. Ontario artist John Hartman gifted a series of drawings and prints depicting life in Collins, Ontario created during his time in that community. Other regional artists represented in the collection include John Books, Ruth Tye McKenzie, Christian Chapman, Catherine Kozyra, Chris Stones, and Sarah Link among others.