Artist William Blair Bruce, born and raised in Hamilton and successful internationally, died suddenly in 1906. In 1914, his family, including his widow, sculptor Caroline Benedicts-Bruce bequeathed 29 of his paintings to the city of Hamilton, with the understanding that a properly equipped art gallery be established to house and present the collection.
Today, the William Blair Bruce memorial donation is displayed in a dramatic salon-style hanging in what is the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s third home.
In December 1953, a new purpose-built gallery was opened at Forsyth Avenue and Main Street in west Hamilton. A little over a decade later, McMaster University unveiled plans to expropriate the lands on which the Gallery was built, halting plans to expand the Gallery in this location.
In 1977, the Gallery opened in its present location in the heart of the city as part of a downtown redevelopment project.
In 2005, a renovated Gallery reopened, with new gold-coloured steel cladding protecting the building, a glass-enclosed front entrance on King Street, a new multi-purpose pavilion, and larger and renovated exhibition spaces.
The AGH primary collection is based on Canadian historical, Canadian contemporary and European historical art. Each year, the Gallery organizes, hosts and/or circulates approximately 25-30 exhibitions throughout the world.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton’s collection of modern Canadian art is one of the strongest in the country, due, in no small part to the vision and efforts of Thomas Reid (T.R.) MacDonald (1908-1978), the Gallery’s first full-time director and curator.
MacDonald soon inaugurated the Annual Winter Exhibition at the Gallery; this yearly exhibition was held from 1948-1973. These juried exhibitions provided artists with an important exhibition venue and also brought works to Hamilton that might be acquired by the Gallery.
Usually about one hundred works were featured in each exhibition, with the purchase prize (generally donated by a local patron or business) entering the AGH permanent collection. In this way, such important works as A.J. Casson’s First Snow, Lilias Torrance Newton’s Keith MacIver, and the iconic Horse and Train by Alex Colville.
Selected as the purchase prize in 1954, Horse and Train was panned by The Hamilton Spectator art critic Mary Mason, who wrote: “There are undoubtedly some very fine paintings out at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in this year’s Winter Show, but the winner of the purchase prize is not, alas, one of them.”