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Old art centre now new gallery

There’s a lot of history attached to the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, but it’s hard to argue with the clarity that will come from renaming it the Art Gallery of Guelph. The new name will instantly communicate the facility’s purpose. And, at the same time, the building’s history will continue to be explained and celebrated by a plaque that’s found near the front entrance.
A fascinating history it is, too – one that was laid out in detail by the facility’s longtime director, Judith Nasby, back in 1980 when it opened.
The building, which was renovated in the late 1970s to make it an art centre, started out in 1904 as the first consolidated school in Ontario. It was part of a movement financed by Montreal tobacco manufacturer and philanthropist Sir William Macdonald to address a need to upgrade rural schools. Rural pupils attending Macdonald Consolidated were transported to school in six horse-drawn vans, while those in town came by streetcar.
Despite an innovative curriculum, though, the school’s costs were higher than the old system, and the push to consolidate nearby school districts didn’t pan out. Within a few years, the Guelph project was abandoned and the school was absorbed by the Guelph Township School Board. In 1972, the Wellington County Board of Education closed the school to the public, except for a special education clinic that was maintained on the first floor.
At the same time as the building was being abandoned as a public school, “the need for proper cultural facilities in the Guelph area was becoming more and more evident,” Nasby wrote. The result was the creation of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre with four sponsors ­– the city, the county, the U of G and the public school board.
The facility houses the U of G’s 1,000-piece art collection – and a whole lot more added since 1980.
It merits a bright future as a leading cultural institution of Guelph, as it has been, but just under a new name.

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