By Jenn Watt
Published Jan. 29 2019
Sales have been down at Haliburton’s Ethel Curry Gallery dropping substantially each year since the 2008 recession. Last year it got to the point that owner Wayne Hooks decided to close shop for the month of February – open on Saturdays only.
“Sales are really bad. I have to close for February. I’ll be open Saturdays for February. It’s just having trouble paying salaries” Hooks said during a presentation to the Canadian Federation of University Women in Haliburton on Jan. 17.
He said he hoped the measure would avoid going the route other businesses have had to take: closing for the winter.
“From fall 2008 sales have done nothing but decline. They declined slowly until they reached a level of about 50 per cent of what we sold in 2007/2008 gross sales. Last year – the reason I’m trying this February closure thing – last year we were down to 30 per cent of 2007/2008 sales. I don’t know why. Don’t know why. Lots of reasons speculation. But our artists are talented. They really support us” he said.
He praised the staff who keep the gallery looking good.
The gallery is private Hooks explained which means no grant funding comes in to get them through the slower time of year.
“We get no money except when we sell a painting. So we have to sell to keep the doors open. Public galleries get support maybe not a lot depending where they are” he said.
In the summer the gallery is open seven days a week and in the past has reduced to Friday Saturday Sunday Monday during the slower times of year.
He encouraged shoppers to come by and see the range of work which includes items for $5 and others for $8000. All artwork is by Canadian artists with many local artists represented.
Hooks spoke to the Haliburton chapter of CFUW on the topic of Ethel Curry the Haliburton artist after whom the gallery is named. He also gave background on the gallery’s history and his arrival in Haliburton following a career in international development.
In the early 1970s Hooks worked with Cuso International teaching in Guyana. He later worked for UNICEF in Sudan for six years Bangladesh for four then to Geneva before coming home to Canada in 1986.
He found once he was home again he had lost his appetite for development work.
Hooks came to Haliburton when a friend asked him to help clear a lot on Drag Lake which led him to spy a real estate listing which led to a showing which led to a purchase.
He moved to the Highlands in 1993 and by 1996 had decided to go into business with Pete Curry and Jody Curry at the Ethel Curry Gallery. He bought the business outright in 2008.
Local painter Gary Chapman who has since passed away originally suggested that the gallery be named for Ethel Curry who grew up in Haliburton and became an accomplished painter and instructor.
Curry was born in Haliburton in 1902 and studied at the Ontario College of Art learning from and painting with Group of Seven greats such as Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald.
“She brought some of them up here to paint. That would probably be in the ’20s and ’30s” Hooks said.
While in Toronto she met and befriended artist Doris McCarthy who frequented the Highlands.
“They were lifelong friends. They met at OCA in the ’20s. They both taught at high schools in Toronto” Hooks said.
After retiring in 1965 Curry returned to Haliburton where she continued painting. He met her only once when she was living in Extendicare.
Hooks said Curry gave her permission to have the gallery named in her honour but was never well enough to visit. He heard that she was driven up to the sidewalk outside the building and was able to look at the exterior.
“She wondered why anyone would want to name a gallery after her” he said.
The purpose behind naming the gallery after Ethel Curry was to raise the profile of an artist that many believe has been unjustly overlooked likely in part because of her gender and also because she wasn’t good at self-promotion.
“If you ask Canadians to name a female artist they’d probably only be able to say Emily Carr if they could say Emily Carr. In Ontario they might be able to say Doris McCarthy” Hooks said “Doris is much better known than Ethel. Doris was a very outgoing person. Ethel was fairly withdrawn. I doubt anyone outside of Haliburton County or the art world of Canada has ever heard of Ethel Curry and that’s wrong.”
While McCarthy was gregarious and high energy Curry was more reserved. She painted for the love of it not for the accolades. It could be that she didn’t achieve acclaim because she didn’t push as hard as McCarthy did Hooks suggested.
“In the ’20s both Ethel and Doris submitted work to a juried show at OCA and I would guess the jury was full of old men. Probably Group of Seven people and others. Ethel was rejected twice. She said I’m never going to do that again. … [M]any many people say Ethel was so withdrawn but so good. She’s worth talking about and raising her profile in the art world.”
Over time there has been more interest in Curry’s work though her paintings still don’t fetch the price Hooks thinks they warrant.
“When we started [at the gallery] you could get an original for easily $300 sometimes $500. And we have gotten now up to $15000 for an original but they sell for between $3000 and $5000 now. Not that it’s just price but when you’re looking at [Lawren] Harris or [Arthur] Lismer getting half a million … there’s no reason except Ethel was withdrawn that her work isn’t better known.”