In 1922 when the Walkerville Library moved into Willistead Manor, the Elizabethan-style mansion built for Edward Chandler Walker, it set the stage to secure a public art gallery in the Windsor area. Before there was physical place dedicated to displaying art in the area, residents of the Border Cities (Windsor, Sandwich, Walkerville and East Windsor) who visited the Willistead Library were able to enjoy occasional art exhibitions arranged by the library board or other arts organizations.
These arts organizations include the Art Committee of the Associated Service Clubs, the Zonta Club, the Fakir Art Club and the Education Committee of the Local Council of Women. The Windsor Art Association was formed in 1936 and pulled the years of work and many members of these earlier groups together and continued to cooperate with the Windsor Public Library Board to promote an interest in the arts by providing art exhibitions and regular art activities, including classes and lectures.
Anne Hume, a Windsor public librarian, is largely credited for promoting the idea of exhibiting art and initiating and arranging the loan of exhibitions to be shown at Willistead Library in the early 1920s. Pictures or other artwork from esteemed collections such as the Royal Ontario Museum and later the National Gallery, and other regional art galleries would be hung as a complementary extension of library services. Willistead Manor also held the administrative offices and council chambers for the Town of Walkerville. When the Border Cities amalgamated in 1935, the administrative offices and council chambers for the town vacated the Manor site and the Windsor Public Library Board gradually took over Willistead. The library was enlarged, and in 1943, a space on the second floor was renovated and donated to the Windsor Art Association. The Windsor Art Association, for its part, sponsored exhibitions, and held art demonstrations, classes and lectures at Willistead. These activities were supported by the City of Windsor and the Windsor Public Library Board.
The first pieces of the permanent collection were donated by Windsor residents and art collectors, Dr. and Mrs. Sanborn during the opening ceremonies of the new Willistead Art Gallery, October 1, 1943. The bronze sculptures by noted French-Canadian sculptor and painter Suzor-Coté, The Old Pioneer and The Old Pioneer’s Companion are still a part of the Art Gallery of Windsor’s collection today.
Incorporated in 1944, the gallery received enormous community support and soon began building on the collection, presenting regular exhibitions and developing education programs to stimulate Windsor residents in the arts and encourage local artists. In 1946 a full time director, Kenneth Saltmarche, was hired.
By the mid 1950s, the gallery’s membership had increased, art activities expanded and the collection had grown. The art gallery had outgrown its space at Willistead. Talks to rectify the situation began, with the Windsor Art Association asking for independence from the Windsor Public Library board. When negotiations came to a standstill, the Windsor Art Association halted art programs, removed the art from Willistead and the Director resigned in protest. When negotiations resumed, the Willistead Art Gallery of Windsor became an autonomous organization with its own board of directors. In 1969, the gallery’s name was changed to the Art Gallery of Windsor.
It is the mandate of the Art Gallery of Windsor to collect, conserve, interpret and present Canadian art. It is a place to view significant works of art by local, regional and national artists; a place to see what Canadians have been making and thinking about for longer than Canada has been a country. The AGW is a valuable cultural resource for the Windsor area, providing the special service of showcasing Canadian art in a city that has the busiest border crossing between Canada and the United States.