Judith Livingston

The McKay Art Centre

The McKay Art Centre in The Historic Village of Unionville  

Formation of The McKay Art Centre

The McKay Art Centre and Gallery has been home to Judith Livingston's Woodlands Exhibitions each October since 1999. The reqMcKayuirement for an Art Centre and Gallery had long been recognized by our local Art Community and this requirement led to the formation of The Varley-McKay Art Committee in 1989. The vacant McKay House, now owned by The Town of Markham, was the ideal location. Plans for The Centre were presented to The Town and approval to proceed was granted. Volunteers, under the guidance of the Committee, undertook the task to turn the vacant McKay House into an Gallery for local Artists.

The Fred Varley Art Centre, as it was first known, officially opened for Art Exhibitions in 1993. When The Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery became a reality, The Fred Varley Art Centre name was changed to the Kathleen Gormley McKay Art Centre. 

Judith Livingston was Chairperson of the Varley-McKay Art Committee from 1991 to 1993 and Curator of Art Centre Exhibitions from 1993 to 1997. With the opening of The Varley Art Gallery in 1997, management of The McKay Art Centre was assumed by The Gallery.

McKay Art Centre History

The Salem Eckardt House at 197 Main Street was built ca. 1845 by Andrew and Salem Eckardt. They were sons of Philip Eckardt, one of the original "Berczy Settlers" who founded Markham in 1794. Philip and Anna Eckardt had 16 children, and by the mid-1800s their family farms occupied land up and down what is now Main Street, Unionville.

The Salem Eckardt House was also Kathy McKay's ancestral home. She was a descendant of Philip Eckardt, and when Kathy and her husband Donald McKay bought the house in 1957, they were committed to restoring and retaining its historic value. Frederick Horsman Varley, one of the founding members of the Group of Seven, moved with them and the basement became his studio until his death in 1969.

Kathy McKay understood the importance of honouring history, and the value of preserving it for future generations. She recognized that the art of Frederick Varley, one of the founding members of Canada's famed Group of Seven artists, played a significant role in Canada's cultural history. Her commitment led her to the donation of her personal art collection of works by Varley, David Milne, J.E.H. MacDonald and other major Canadian painters, and more than one million dollars to help build a legacy that would honour Fred Varley.

Recognizing the house's historical value to the community, in the early 1990s The Town of Markham purchased the Salem Eckardt-McKay House. Since then, the Kathleen McKay Art Centre at the Salem Eckardt House has hosted hundreds of exhibitions by local artists. The Varley Art Gallery's art classes for children and adults are conducted here in Fred Varley's basement studio.

The Town of Markham, the Varley Art Gallery of Markham, the Varley-McKay Art Foundation of Markham, the Ontario Heritage Foundation, and community contributors recently restored the McKay Art Centre to honour the legacy of the McKays and Fred Varley, and to acknowledge the important contributions of its original settlers.

The new gardens, opened in 2008, have been designed to reflect what the house looked like in 1895. The backyard gardens are more contemporary to correspond to gardens of the 1950's when Varley lived there. Kathy was a passionate amateur gardener, and while the plans "re-imagine" rather than recreate Kathy's garden, the design for the grounds is intended to capture the spirit and energy of both Kathy McKay and Fred Varley.

Underpinning all of the planning and structure of the garden is an expectation that the grounds will be well used for artists to be able to work and sketch, outdoor art classes, exhibitions, and special events. This will be a haven that welcomes many uses.