The Owens Museum of Fine Arts, located at 61 York Street in Sackville, opened in 1895 on the Mount Allison University campus. This 19th-century building, designed by influential Canadian architect Edmund Burke, was intended for teaching fine arts at Mount Allison Ladies’ College and housing a collection of approximately 300 art pieces and statues acquired by the university in 1893. The Gallery has a rich history of educating women artists and continues to explore this legacy through exhibitions, research, publishing, educational and community outreach programs, and the development of its Permanent Collection.
The original Owens Art Institution was founded in Saint John by shipbuilder John Owens, who bequeathed money in his will for establishing an art gallery or school. Before his death, Owens funded the construction and operation of a church in Saint John, which was later converted by his executors into the Owens Art Institution. In 1884, Owens’ executor Robert Reed hired Canadian artist John Hammond to assist in purchasing and assembling an art collection and teaching art classes at the Institution. Between May 1884 and September 1885, Hammond traveled throughout Britain and Europe, acquiring art pieces that were shipped to Saint John and organized by Reed for display in the new gallery. Reed’s interest and knowledge of art are evident in many of the artworks he purchased and contributed to the collection.
Although the Owens Art Institution thrived in Saint John, the collection was transferred to Mount Allison University in 1893, establishing the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville. John Hammond accompanied the Owens collection to Sackville, where he continued teaching art classes at the Mount Allison Ladies’ College. The collection of artworks and statues was displayed permanently at the gallery for instructional purposes.
In 1965, the Gairdner Fine Arts Building was built adjacent to the Owens to accommodate the Department of Fine Arts. The Owens Museum underwent extensive interior renovations, funded by grants from the estates of Dr. J.A. Gairdner and Marjorie Young Bell, to exclusively function as an art gallery with expanded exhibition space and the addition of a Conservation Laboratory. The building reopened as the Owens Art Gallery on October 20, 1972. The first full-time director, Luke Rombout, was hired during this transition, serving from 1967 to 1970.
The Gallery’s collection now comprises 3,200 works of art, including paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, and multimedia pieces by renowned Canadian and international artists. The initial collection, acquired in 1885, mainly featured European paintings, prints, and drawings as teaching tools for art students to study and emulate. While a few significant gifts were made to the Owens’ collection in the 1940s, the active development of the Gallery’s collection began in earnest in the late 1960s when art classes were relocated from the Gallery to the adjacent building.