Fifty Years Of Art In The Park In Stratford

The “Art in the Park” concept did not exist in North America before the late Fifties and early Sixties.

With the influx of baby boomer artists graduating from art schools there was a demand for exhibition space which could not be met by the existing art galleries. This prompted the need for alternate venues for artists and crafters to display their work. In Europe, the idea of informal exhibition had started as early as 1863 with the “salon des refuse” in Paris, France, which allowed more artists a chance to show their work to the people in an informal set up. In the United States, the Open Air Exhibitions started in Central Park, New York in the 50’s; and the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair in Michigan started at about the same time. In the summer of 1966 Bernard Taylor started The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, which is one of the oldest outside Art Shows in Canada along with the Windsor Art in the Park. All these exhibitions were created in order to provide alternate space for artists to exhibit their work.

In Stratford, Ontario, Art in the Park was the brainchild of Mrs. Yvonne Singer. Educated at McGill University, Mrs. Singer taught art in Ottawa before moving to Stratford to join her husband who was working as director of the Workshop Program at the Stratford Festival Theatre. Yvonne had seen Open Art Shows in England and before coming to Stratford Mrs. Singer had won the support of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to start an open air art exhibition there on the terraces of the Centre. She thought that Stratford was a perfect place for this type of project because of the beautiful parks, the abundance of artists and an elite captive audience, people from all over the world. She joined forces with the “Women’s Committee” of the Stratford Art Association, got support from Mr. Bob Ihrig, director of Rothman’s Gallery and obtained permission from the Parks Board to get the show going on a trial monthly basis. Thus Stratford Art in the Park was born!

The interest from artists was tremendous. There was response from most parts of Ontario, Detroit and Birmingham, Michigan. The aim of the show as explained to the Parks Board was to give exhibitors exposure to the public while at the same time being educational. It was important that the exhibitors demonstrate to the public how they do their work and to answer questions that would follow. While selling in the park was not forbidden, the Parks Board discouraged making the park a “commercial venue”. Exhibitors were not even allowed to have signs or pamphlets advertising their work. It was understood that this was going to be a non-profit show.

The first show opened in Queens Park just outside the Festival Theatre with about 25 exhibitors. The set up was very informal. Spaces were supposed to be assigned on a first come first serve basis but this never happened. Any artist would just show up any day any time and set up where they wanted and show whatever they had. There was no jury of any kind and no leadership whatsoever. Although the exhibitors were supposed to provide display equipment for their work nobody did. Instead they used park equipment like picnic benches and tables as displays without any regard for park visitors who wanted to have a picnic. Artwork was fixed to park trees and old tree branches were used as displays to prop up paintings. The idea of an outside exhibit was so new that not only did no one know what to do but some of the exhibitors were quite young and careless. Although the majority of the members were mature respectable family people a few bad apples would occasionally pop up and because the management was lax and inexperienced, solving problems was very difficult. For example; a young couple showed up one day, set up their paintings and decided to spend most of the time lying beside their display making out. It took a brave exhibitor to go over and order them to “cut it out”. On a different occasion Mr. John Riemann from New Jersey, U.S. commented that he liked the show but “what do you think of these girls walking around with these peekaboo dresses and braless styles?” In spite of all this, the show was very well received by the public. The theatre audience was all over the display before the theatre opened, during intermission and after the theatre closed and the exhibitors were ecstatic about the way their work was received. For most exhibitors, this was their very first opportunity to show their work to the public. Exhibitors were looking forward to doing the show again the following year but the Parks Board had had enough (to put it mildly). By the end of the 1970 showing season the Parks Board had decided to close Art in the Park altogether. They complained that the art exhibition had turned into “a monster that they had not anticipated”. Mr. Frank Leslie, chairperson of the Parks Board, then recommended that the Art in the Park application to exhibit in 1971 be turned down but the Parks Board decided that the exhibitors be given a hearing to defend themselves before any decision was made. The Board members argued that the artists would have to agree to make some changes before approval was given. Some of the Parks Board complaints were that:

1. The artists had made the park into a commercial venue. “Too much commercialism”.

2. That the exhibitors use and abuse park equipment.

3. That exhibitors are driving on the park grass.

4. Mr. Lyall Jariett, Parks Superintendent, complained that the exhibitors were damaging the grass. He recommended that the show be moved to the Pavilion! That little shed by the washrooms.

5. That there was no screening of exhibitors.

6. They recommended that the artists have an Executive body that would be responsible for enforcing some order and to govern who comes and who goes.

7. That the exhibitors have group liability insurance for the show.

The artists agreed to all the Parks Board demands with the exception of moving the show to the Pavilion. The Parks Board allowed the show to go on for the following year. These demands became the rules governing the show. The show was moved to an empty space beside “The Third Stage” which later became The Patterson Theatre. By that time Yvonne Singer, the founder, had moved to Toronto. The show would have died if it wasn’t for a few individuals who worked tirelessly for years to save it. These included Olive Coughlin, who later became Olive Walsh, the late Marjorie Eggert and the late Eileen Rothernel. These ladies, with help from a few other volunteers, formed the Executive and worked for the show for years and years. The artists did not like the new location and tried their best to be moved but the Parks Board would not budge. Artists had support from some members of the community, namely Alderman David Bradshaw, who argued that the Parks Board intended to “put the artists out of business” by putting them in a very poor location where nobody would see them and Mr. Bert Mennie of 281 Water Street who wrote several letters to the City in support of Art in the Park. Mr. Mennie also attended City Hall meetings concerning Art in the Park. He worked so hard for the show although he was not even an exhibitor. Art in the Park Association awarded him an honorary membership for life. He remained a friend of Art in the Park until his death in December 2016 at the age of 100.

Art in the Park got a break when a heavy rain forced some members of the Avion Travelcade from the Fairgrounds to be relocated to the parking lot near the Third Stage. Art in the Park was completely blocked from view. The Parks Board gave Art in the Park permission to move to a ‘temporary’ location at Front Street, North Street and Lakeside Drive. The members were very pleased with the location but Frank Leslie warned them not to be excited because this was only a temporary move.

The situation in the park remained tense. Permission to show continued to be granted on a month to month basis and at the end of each season there was an evaluation by the Parks Board as to whether to have the show the following year or not. Members of the Parks Board, City Councillors, members of the community and the merchants were all divided between those who wanted Art in the Park to continue and those who did not. It seemed like the majority wanted Art in the Park to stay but the minority was very vocal. For example; a resident who lived on Ballantyne Street ( I will not mention his name) used to drive around Art in the Park almost every show day checking what was going on and then send a complaint to City Hall. The new demands of the Parks Board and the community at large were added to the rules to govern Art in the Park Association. A good relationship with the City and the community was a must if Art in the Park was to survive. It was decided that Art in the Park had to find a way to get involved in the community and also to give back. Cash donations were made to the Stratford Theatre every season for several years. Donations of paintings to area hospitals were made and a competition for area schools was created awarding cash and scholarships to the winning students. One recipient of the 1996 award went on to study for a degree at York University, became an art teacher and later joined Art in the Park and served on the Executive Committee for several years.

The efforts of the members soon paid off and opposition to Art in the Park started to dwindle. A large guest commentary book was laid out which attracted very good comments from the public, proof that the show was good for the City. Other Art in the Park art fairs were not as lucky, namely the Niagara on the Lake Art Fair called Artistry by the Lake which started at about the same time as the Stratford show. But the merchants in Niagara on the Lake have always considered the show to be a threat to their business and have fought it through the years succeeding in weakening it to the point of irrelevancy.

Moving Art in the Park to another location was not mentioned again. The atmosphere between Art in the Park and the Parks Board became very cordial and approval was given to show on a permanent basis. All that was needed was to pay the rental fee for the park and liability insurance every season before opening. Art in the Park was allowed to put together money to buy trees for the park. In fact, they bought most of the trees for the present location.

A second art show in Stratford to rival Art in the Park? It happened but it never got off the ground. It was started by a Stratford artist whose application into our show was rejected by our independent jury. The artist in question complained to the City that Art in the Park is full of out of town artists who do not pay tax in Stratford and he wrongly accused our jury process of being self-serving, without realizing that our jurors are independent and are not members of Art in the Park. He also wanted us to give preference to Stratford artists. So he applied and received permission to start a second show. We felt threatened to say the least and the Executive selected a delegation of artists to appear at the City Council meeting and present our case. At the Council we argued that it was the city in the first place that ordered us to have a jury whose decision was final and we were not supposed to undermine the jury’s decisions. We also argued that we have to include out of town exhibitors in order to have a quality show. We told council that we are a non-profit association and that the $500 group fee which we were paying should be enough; that there was really no demand in Stratford for two shows. City Council did not buy the last two. They imposed a $100 transient fee on each exhibitor as well as allowing the other show to go ahead. A few days before opening for a new season we got a call from the organizer of the new show requesting a list of all the names and phone numbers of the artists that we rejected so he could provide them with a chance to exhibit. We replied that our list of the rejected consisted of only three applicants, he being one of them, and that we did not have the authority to disclose anybody’s name or phone number. That was the last time we heard of him – needless to say his show never even started.

Membership and Attendance

The Stratford Art in the Park is a unique show unlike all others in that we never get a huge attendance on any particular day. Since the visitors are scattered all over town throughout the summer we can only get a few visitors at a time. This has always confused the new exhibitors as to whether the show is worth it, only to find that they eventually do well if they give it a chance. Our visitors are quality not quantity. We started with two months of showing (July and August) Saturday and Sunday only. Then June was added but fickle weather made June very hard for most exhibitors. At one point the members tried to abandon June. The number of exhibitors per showing has proved hard to maintain. In the end the members decided to make it mandatory for each member to show a minimum of five times a season in order to remain a member. Meanwhile the month of September was added to make up for lost days during wet weather. Attendance days were increased from five days to fifteen days and Wednesdays were added to the show days. It was at times a struggle to have enough people showing particularly on Wednesdays. Sometimes we would have as few as five exhibitors on a show day. The general membership fluctuated between 40 and 60 members. Finally a decision to reduce showing days to ten days a season per member was reached. The ten days of attendance seems to be working. It provides enough exhibitors showing on any particular day making a presentable exhibition.

New Members

Throughout the last 50 years hundreds of exhibitors have come and gone. Nevertheless we have always managed to keep the show going. On average about ten members quit the show every year and there are always ten to fifteen people applying every year which is about the same number of exhibitors who leave. We have always found our new exhibitors by word of mouth. Members have always solicited at other shows, looking for potential exhibitors and explaining how our show works. During the last twenty years or so we have had advertising in the Ontario Craft Council publication for new members.


From the very beginning of Art in the Park the Parks Board wanted the exhibitors to show only original art. It took a great amount of effort from the members to demonstrate that a limited number of reproductions, for example ten per cent of the individual display, should be acceptable. Also the “commercialism” and “aggressive advertising” issues have never been resolved with the Parks Board. They rely on the members to use their discretion. According to the Parks Board, the park is a public place for recreation. It is not a business location. However when artists show their work there, they are providing the public with recreation. Limited remuneration on the part of the artists is expected, but big business is not. It has always been difficult to explain the nature of the relationship between Art in the Park members on one hand and the Parks Board on the other. The last confrontation between the two happened only about 8 or 9 years ago. The Parks Board politely requested that Art in the Park share the space with the Dragon Boat people for one weekend, after all this is why the park is there, recreation. But the president of Art in the Park at the time, without consulting the rest of the Executive members, declined the request of the Parks Board, the rationale being that we rented the park from the city. The next move from the Parks Board was predictable. They replied that this was an order and that from that time on the community will be able to use the park as they wish as long as they give Art in the Park a few days notice. We keep on learning that a little cooperation goes a long way towards the smooth running of the show.


At the time when Art in the Park moved to the present location the condominiums near the park had not been built yet. There was an old factory building on that location and an unpaved parking lot just adjacent to the park. This was used by the exhibitors as well as the public. Parking was not allowed anywhere on the streets that border the park. When the first condominium was built parking became a problem. Before long Lakeside Drive was widened to allow parking beside Art in the Park, but for the public only, not exhibitors. The members had to negotiate with the Parks Board to be allowed to park on Lakeside Drive particularly since it was the only place to load up and unload. Finally we were allowed to double-park with emergency flashers on to load and unload provided we left our wares at the curb before setting up or breaking down. The executive has always found it very difficult to enforce this and some other rules. The problem is that members come and go all the time throughout the years and human beings being what we are nobody wants to be told what to do. It is hard to explain details whenever new members join, making the job of the executive a little strenuous.

The Future of Art in the Park

As long as the Theatre is in Stratford the future of Art in the Park is bright. Unofficial statistics kept by some members, inaccurate as they may be indicate that the greatest majority of our visitors are people who come to the theatre. New plans to make use of social media will likely help increase or at least maintain the visibility of Art in the Park thus continuing to secure a good place for artists to expose their work. It is important to note that the whole community of the City of Stratford have contributed to the success of Art in the Park; right from residents who have displayed signs of Art in the Park on their lawns to Art Gallery owners who have mentioned Art in the Park to their guests. Bed and Breakfast owners have always recommended their guests to visit Art in the Park. Successive Parks Board officials and other City officials have offered invaluable advice about how to manage the show. The list goes on. Thanks for the support and enthusiasm of all concerned.

Mathias Muleme