For years, business leaders have maintained that diverse talent brings fresh perspectives to project teams and boardrooms. That point was artfully reinforced at a recent event hosted by The Scotiabank Women Initiative®, where participants experienced a ground-breaking exhibit of 20th Century female artists who captured a vision of Canadian society in a very different way from their better-known male colleagues.

In fact, the eye-opening exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection – entitled Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment – reminds us how diverse viewpoints can spur progressive social, political and economic thought, or drive innovation in a growing business.

A curated experience

“This exclusive overview of the contributions of gifted Canadian women artists highlights the value of building diversity in all of our organizations,” observed Loretta Marcoccia, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, and Executive Champion of The Scotiabank Women Initiative for Global Banking and Markets. “It’s also a good way to celebrate the work we’ve done together to break down barriers and increase economic and professional opportunities for women to be successful.”

Indeed, the provocative “Uninvited” exhibit name hinted at the exclusion faced by talented female artists who worked in the shadows of male artists, particularly the all-men’s Group of Seven, a circle of landscape painters known for their unique wilderness painting style.

Women artists saw Canada with a unique lens

The unique perspective of Canada’s women artists came to life through the passionate narrative of Sarah Milroy, Chief Curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and a Member of the Order of Canada. She exquisitely described the trail-blazing approach taken by Canada’s female painters, photographers, weavers, bead workers and sculptors.

Milroy explained that, “The extraordinary popularity of the Group of Seven means that Canadian art is often judged as ‘men in the woods making art’.” In reality, she noted, “There was a legion of women artists who were never invited to join the Group. They didn’t just paint rocks, sky and lakes, but rather they were captivated by people and their ordinary lives, including Indigenous communities, immigrants and the working class.”

For example, in addition to painting bold landscapes that rivaled the Group of Seven in skill, Montreal-born Anne Savage carefully portrayed daily life in BC’s Indigenous communities. She is credited for humanizing the Indigenous people and accurately documenting their traditions, without ‘exoticizing them’ in the way most male artists did in the era.

Many women artists focused on the evolving Canadian society, from boom/bust mining towns to the people caught up in the young nation’s rapid urbanization, including soot-covered labourers and fiery social activists. Others trained their eye on the real-life, female experience, from sullen portraits of women’s domestic toil to brash scenes of free-spirited women flaunting modern lifestyles. 

“These women were highly trained in the top art schools, and produced unique masterpieces that captured 20th Century issues. However, they were dismissed as muses or proteges of their male peers, and most of us never heard their names,” lamented Milroy.

She added that even Canada’s widely known Emily Carr, the west coast painter who attained kinship with Group of Seven members, is often described as an eccentric. “She really deserves admiration as a monumental artist and thought leader who formed cross-cultural friendships with Indigenous people,” pointed out Milroy. She explained that Carr meticulously documented Indigenous culture, decried the horrors of the Residential school system, and revealed the destruction of BC rainforests from brutal lumber industry practices.

Inclusion tactics in women’s brushstrokes

Though the struggles of Canada’s women artists are sobering, Milroy points out how these women overcame their professional challenges. For instance, women artists formed social spaces in major cities where they could come together and support one another, including Toronto’s avant-garde Loring and Wyle’s Studio, which rivaled the male-dominated Arts & Letters Club. “These women all knew each other, and they bolstered each other’s’ efforts through their circles of friendships,” said Milroy.

Many women artists also formed constructive allyships with influential men of the artworld, including art teachers who empowered them, and several Group of Seven members who involved women artists in their gatherings, painting expeditions or in high-profile exhibits.

And, Milroy opined that, “Today, no women artists are held back from getting the attention they deserve in museums or among art dealers. While we still find that women are paid less for their work, there is definitely hope going forward for Canada’s women artists.”

At the end of the inspiring art tour, Scotiabank’s Marcoccia pointed to other successes to celebrate, in part through The Scotiabank Women Initiative: “We’re providing opportunities that help our women clients pursue their best professional futures, and support to the leaders and companies advancing an inclusive mandate.”

Celebrating our anniversary, painting things differently

In particular, Marcoccia noted that the Global Banking and Markets team has hosted more than 125 women clients at Learn, Engage, and Partner (LEAP) events and seminars this year. Since its launch in 2020, the group has guided 46 senior women leaders through its Good Corporate Governance Program. In addition, Scotiabank has successfully deployed $3.2 billion in capital to women-owned and led businesses “There is so much to be proud of, and we can’t wait to make an even greater impact through The Scotiabank Women Initiative in the year ahead.”

In recognition of The Scotiabank Women Initiative’s second anniversary in Global Banking and Markets, Michelle Khalili, Managing Director and Head, Global Equity Capital Markets at Scotiabank, summed up, “This anniversary event is a great way to thank the women leaders in our Good Corporate Governance Program who are focused on fostering the best, most diverse talent. This exhibit shows us how women painted things differently, and it demonstrates the importance of diverse thought and perspectives, especially at the boardroom table.”

Note: The McMichael is closed temporarily, effective Wednesday, January 5, 2022, as per the province-wide efforts to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Book your Virtual Tour of the exhibit now