The Lacey Prize and Hamilton Artists Inc.

Catherine Blackburn, Narhî Wasagabiich, 2020. Installation on the exterior Cannon Project Wall as part of the National Billboard Exchange with AKA artist-run and PAVED Arts. Image: Mashal Khan.

In December 2019, Hamilton Artists Inc. was named the first recipient of the inaugural Lacey Prize. The biennial award, established last year by Canadian philanthropist John Lacey in association with the National Gallery of Canada, recognizes artist-run centres and other small arts organizations as critical supports for Canadian artists and as incubators of emerging art practices. Hamilton Artists Inc., known as “The Inc.,” has operated from Hamilton’s James Street North since 1975, making it one of the country's oldest artist-run centres. Over the past 45 years, it has established itself as an ambitiously programmed community space dedicated to creating opportunities for artists. With some 250 artist members, the not-for-profit centre fosters critical engagement and discourse, while supporting contemporary art.

So how has the Lacey Prize enabled the Inc. to further its work, especially in a year when every art institution has had to find ways of operating with their gallery doors closed? “I think a lot of what the Lacey Prize has helped us with is being able to sustain some of the things we had already been putting into place,” says Programming Director Abedar Kamgari. The Inc. began with some small facility improvements, such as accessible signage. It purchased resources for its reading library, with an eye on also expanding its children’s nook.

The centre made advancements in its labour practices, too. For the first time in its long history, the Inc. secured employee benefits for staff. In addition it has been able to guarantee part-time workers more hours, which is particularly meaningful given the economic impact of the pandemic on cultural institutions.

When the gallery space was forced to close in March due to lockdown restrictions, the Inc. was able to pay artist fees to the thirteen artists who had to have exhibitions postponed or cancelled. “Financial compensation for artists is already so precarious, and there were a lot of unknowns ahead,” says Executive Director Julie Dring. “We knew we had to be a leading example for other arts organizations and follow through with financial commitments for artists.” With a steep drop in revenue – donations down, the annual fundraiser cancelled and income from space rentals cut off – the Lacey Prize helped the Inc. make those payments, Dring says. 

The centre hardly went dark, however, by offering programs adapted for the Web. A letter-writing workshop, performance and intervention by artist Tee Kundu, for example, migrated to Zoom. Steacy Easton performed their Wechsler 2 via Instagram Live. Partnered with the Hamilton-based artist-run Factory Media Centre, the Inc. has been conducting online professional development workshops, including tutorials on grant writing, mental health as well as tenant and workers’ rights during COVID-19. A Hamilton tour stop for ImagineNATIVE’s The Future short film program became a virtual screening with a livestreamed artist talk featuring filmmaker Rebecca Thomassie. In lieu of scheduled in-person events for the centre’s ongoing Incoming! A project for refugee, newcomer and immigrant artists, the Inc. created a free pandemic colouring book with commissioned drawings by artists involved in the program. “It was a way to support artists financially while producing something that kids and adults can enjoy at home,” Kamgari explains. The Inc.’s efforts also take the form of outreach.

Through direct donations and other resources, the Inc. is also prioritizing support for the work of local Black-led organizations doing anti-racism work within the community, such as the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion. “We all have an obligation to uphold human rights in every aspect of the work we do. It’s as simple as that,” Kamgari says. “We do this work because it needs to be done,” adds Dring. “And it needs to be done by all arts spaces.” 

Although the doors of the artist-run centre will remain closed until November at the earliest, Hamilton Artists Inc. is very much open, active and hard at work. 


In December 2019 the National Gallery of Canada announced Hamilton Artists Inc. as the first recipient of the biennial Lacey Prize; nominations for the second biennial Lacey Prize open in Summer 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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