Pelham Art Festival is proud to be celebrating its 37th Anniversary in 2024!

How it Started

The Pelham Art Festival began with a dream and with action. In 1985, a group known as the Friends of the Fonthill Library produced the idea of holding a backyard art show and sale to raise funds in support of the local library. Pelham Art Club member Lois Schonewille, and her husband, offered their comfortable backyard as the venue for the first show. Thus, a small beginning was made in June 1985. In June of 1986, on a sunny Sunday afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m., visitors enjoyed a fabulous backyard art show with artwork hung on easels and on the fence surrounding the pool, and this was considered the first show. Most of the artists were from the Niagara area including members of the Pelham Art Club, the Welland Art Club, and the Port Colborne Art Club.

The success of the initial backyard art shows spurred The Friends of the Library on to raise funds for the new library that was still in the early planning stages. In 1986 Dorothy Higgins, who was a member of the Friends of the Fonthill Library and of the Pelham Art Club, now known as Pelham Art Association, suggested that a more ambitious venture be embarked upon, suggesting that the Friends of the Fonthill Library in association with the Pelham Art Club could hold a larger art show in the Pelham arena to help raise funds for the proposed new library. For the first show in the arena, which initially had the title of Artmart Niagara, Barbara Simpson was named convener of the show. Marilyn Casson, who was also a member of both groups, agreed to recruit artists for the show, ably assisted by Sylvia Blackmore and Dorothy Higgins. Margaret Rosinski took on the job of gathering properties and Barbara Culliford agreed to look after the food and beverages. In addition to the local artists, commercial art galleries were invited to set up their wares in the arena. The arena was dotted with beige and brown art easels, supplied by the local art clubs and private individuals. For the first few years, Gordon Stephenson contacted Rice Road Nursery who provided many plants for the transformation of the arena into a partial green belt. 

For the first arena show in 1987, thanks to Barbara and Vern Simpson, there was an exceptionally effective drawing card in that Vern arranged to have one of his company’s helicopters provide rides over the area including a flight over Niagara Falls. People from far and wide followed the helicopter to its landing pad near the arena. Needless to say, that once on the arena site, they were invited to come inside to view the show. The money raised by the helicopter rides augmented the funds raised through Artmart Niagara.

In 1987, after years of community discussion, the Pelham Town Council voted to build a new library building to expand the Town’s office facilities. The Town needed to take over the space occupied by the existing library, which was housed in the lower level of the same building as the Council offices.

The Pelham Art Festival Committee was formally established in conjunction with the first large arena show in 1987. Despite little “glitches” that cropped up from time to time, the learning opportunities provided by each successive year led to ongoing growth. None of the people involved in the show would have imagined that this annual Festival would continue to grow for more than three decades and counting! The seed of an idea planted around a backyard swimming pool has continued to grow with vigour.

The second year brought several changes to the organization. The date was moved to Mother’s Day weekend and the name of the event was changed to the Pelham Art Festival, a name that has gained respect in the art world, putting Pelham on the map of juried arts festivals in Ontario. Thanks to Hugh Molson (Chief Librarian), a Province of Ontario grant was secured to help in the building of proper art display boards for the show. Barbara and Vern Simpson were instrumental in getting a group of craftsmen to build the boards at a price that allowed all that was needed to be built. These boards have survived to benefit the show ever since due to the diligent care volunteers have taken to maintain, repair and paint the boards over the years.

Changes in responsibilities were implemented as well. Barbara Simpson stepped down from chairing the event to devote more time to properties.

Food, Beverages & Music at the festival

Over the years, Margaret Rosinski and the Friends of Maple Acre Library branch took on the responsibility for the food and beverages, followed by Els Swart, and later by Sandee Matthews with the Friends of Maple Acre who continued to serve freshly prepared foods. In keeping with the nature of the show, they named the food service facility “Salvador Deli” with apologies for Mr. Dali’s memory.

For many years, the food was catered by Churchhill Natural Meats in Fonthill and Nature’s Corner Bakery and Cafe in Ridgeville and in 2021, Nature's Corner Bakery and  Cafe prepared all the food for Saturday and Sunday. Barbara (Culliford) Lanneval, who was on the Library Board and a member of the Friends of Fonthill Library took on the role of chairing the committee for the Pelham Art Festival and that of show Convener for the next twenty years from 1988 to 2008. In 2008 Heidi TeBrake, formerly of the Pelham Art Association, took on the role of Chair and Convener of the show. Over the Festival years, music has been an important part of the show. Marilyn Casson’s son, Jim Casson, who is well-connected to the music world, continues to arrange professional live music for the Festival.

Festival and Artists' Contributions to Fundraisers

For many years, one or more artists donated original art for a fundraising raffle, often setting the theme for the Festival. Over the years, Vermeer’s Garden Centre, Willowbrook Nurseries, Gilbert’s Flowers and other local greenhouses, businesses and volunteers have provided ambiance with plants, lighting, colour, and surprising features for a tradition that has continued every Mother’s Day weekend. In the “old Pelham Arena,” tables and chairs filled the west end of the arena turning it into a food court dining area where art lovers could mingle, have a glass of wine and refreshments, listen to music, and recharge as they wandered through and enjoyed the aisles of original art by over 65 artists from near and far. Now in the new Fonthill Meridian Community Centre Accipiter Arena, the tradition continues with a new floor plan and a bright fresh new look. As of 2019, the number of participating artists has grown to 81 artists in 87 booths! The Pelham Art Festival organization has matured over the years and is regularly rejuvenated by the input of energetic new volunteers who are warmly welcomed. The Festival continues to grow and develop.

Artists continue to be important to the annual juried festival. Two artists, Beverly Sneath and Anne Reimer have participated in every show for the past 35 years! In 2019, given the extra space now available, 81 talented artists and artisans rent booths to sell their original fine art. Every year artists who are new to the Festival and returning artists are juried to exhibit at the Festival. As a result, a revolving cross-section of talented work is on display for art lovers to admire and purchase.

Same Festival, New Venues

The 33rd year, 2019, provided a new beginning in the newly built Fonthill Meridian Community Centre. Artists, volunteers, contributors, and sponsors together helped the Pelham Art Festival to contribute about $445,000 to enhance the services provided by the two libraries in Pelham. About $36,000 has been provided for arts scholarships. An annual scholarship, currently valued at $1000.00 per year, is given to a deserving Pelham student of E.L. Crossley Secondary School who plans to proceed to a post-secondary program to study fine art. Since 2016, the Committee has been pleased to provide a similar scholarship to a Pelham student of Notre Dame College School, and from 2017 to 2021, a $1000.00 scholarship per year was provided for a Pelham student of the Art and Design Program at Niagara College. In addition, the Pelham Art Festival supports programs that promote the arts and culture in public schools, and in the community for groups that provide exceptional arts or cultural contributions to youth, or for those who make a successful application.
In honour of the 25th year, the Festival Committee made an extra donation of $25,000 to the building fund for the proposed new Maple Acre Branch of the Pelham Library in addition to $10,000 contributed annually towards special library programs or projects. Extra donations had also been made for the Fonthill Library when it was newly built. In 2016, the 30th year of the Festival, the new Maple Acre Library branch became a reality.

Beautiful new works of art, energetic creative artists, live music, good food and a friendly ambience keep people coming back to enjoy the show year after year. Changes in venue from the backyard to the Pelham arena and now to the Meridian Community Centre, show exciting, continued growth. Talented Artists, ambitious advertising, a new e-commerce website, social media and regular committee brainstorming keep the show vibrant as one of the longest-running spring art Festivals in the Province! In 2019, we celebrated thirty-three years of history and enjoyed our first year in the new Meridian Community Centre. We look to the future as we welcomed everyone to the festival, where the show experienced much success with room for more than 80 artists and even greater attendance. 

COVID-19 shocked everyone in the spring of 2020, and to our regret, the 2020 in-person Pelham Art Festival needed to be cancelled. In 2021 concurrent plans were made for the 34th Pelham Art Festival in-person or an Online Festival. By January 2021, it was clear that it would not be possible to safely hold an in-person show so the first Pelham Art Festival Online was launched with a new interactive website on a new e-commerce shopping platform. The artworks were beautiful, and the experience was successful for artists and for purchasers from a much wider geographical area beyond Pelham! 

As a result, for 2021 the Pelham Art Festival was pleased to again make donations to the Pelham Library System, for art scholarships to Pelham fine art students at E.L. Crossley Secondary School and Notre Dame College School. One of the extra benefits of the new website was the ability to show fine art year-round in a Pelham Summer Gallery Online, a Pelham Winter Gallery Online, and the ability to host Pelham Holiday Artfest Online from November 19 to December 15, 2021, encouraging people to shop for fine art as gifts, or just because they see another piece of original fine art that they love and wish to purchase.

In 2022, the Pelham Library system amalgamated with the Lincoln Library so now we are pleased to continue to support the two Pelham Library Branches as part of the Lincoln Pelham Public Library. In 2022, the 35th Pelham Art Festival welcomed artists and art lovers by once again meeting in person with a concurrent Online show presented to supplement this show.

As of May 2023, about $475,000 has been donated back to the community for the Pelham Libraries, art scholarships and community art projects.

The Tradition Lives On… May 2024

In May 2024, the In-person 37th Annual Pelham Art Festival is scheduled to be presented on Mother’s Day weekend from May 10-12, with concurrent plans being made for a Pelham Art Festival Online Show and Sale from May 1-31. Pelham Art Festival continues to be promoted and presented in an exciting, safe format for artists, art lovers and collectors so fundraising efforts to support the Lincoln Pelham Public Library, art scholarships and community art projects can continue.