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history of the cleveland art association

Franny Taft
Cover of the 1895 Cleveland Art Association Catalogue
Cleveland Museum of Art thank you to carta

By Frances P. Taft

Over the years the Cleveland Art Association has been very closely associated with the Cleveland Institute of Art and with the Cleveland Museum of Art and so perhaps to understand a little bit about its early years it is important to very briefly describe the way the Cleveland Institute of Art came into being. It was founded in 1882 by Sarah Kimball as the Western Reserve School of Design for Women. Actually three men wished to attend the school and the first teacher, a Mrs. Kester, slipped them into class by listing them as the school janitor and the first and second assistant janitor. These boys really wished to attend that school.

In 1888 the school, having financial difficulties, became associated with the University and the name was temporarily changed to the School of Art of Western Reserve University. It had its own charter and board and the connection seemed rather weak. In fact, in 1891 that connection was disconnected and the Cleveland School of Art was born. This name remained until 1948 when Laurence Schmeckebier was director and it became the Cleveland Institute of Art. It had had several homes but had been in a fine Italian villa on Juniper Road where it had prospered and also had outgrown the facility. In 1954 the Cleveland Institute of Art found a new home on East Boulevard.


The very first Cleveland Art Association was founded in 1895. It was a group supporting the arts in Cleveland and held two exhibitions where prizes were given for artists affiliated with the Art School or the Art Club. The history of this organization is not well documented, but by 1900 it was no more.

The Cleveland Art Association, as we know it, was organized in 1915 by a man named Dr. Daniel Huebsch, to further interest in art and to provide support, both moral and financial, to artists and to art institutions. Early on the Association began giving one painting a year to the then brand new Cleveland Museum of Art. It appears that the initial money that made this possible came from a life membership which cost $1,000 from Agnes Gund, who was then an art student. The Art Association held an exhibition and sale of Cleveland artists and craftsmen at the downtown Lindner Coy store. This first show opened in October 1917 and was supposed to come down in January of 1918, but it was a huge success and the exhibition was carried over into February. Cleveland’s public seemed to be ready to see shows by local artists and also seemed enthusiastic about both the paintings and crafts. This Cleveland Art Association show functioned as a precursor to the May Show. The first May Show was held at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1919. But that first May Show was also organized under the auspices of the Cleveland Art Association.


This first May Show was to exhibit “works of all kinds produced in Cleveland by Cleveland artists and craftsmen.” It opened to the public following a reception for Cleveland Museum of Art members and members of the Art Association and exhibitors. The jury for that first year came from Boston, New Orleans, Chicago and Pittsburgh. In the show there was a full range of categories: painting of all kinds, sculpture, etching, photography, needlework, textiles, ceramics, furniture, commercial design, jewelry, metal work and enamel. There was also a category for lace work and weaving by a blind worker. There was a popular vote prize of $100 which was given to that work deemed the most interesting by the audience who did the voting.


In 1920 the second exhibition of local art was held, again at the Cleveland Museum of Art, from May 4th to June 2nd. The interesting thing was that there was an advisory committee for the exhibition and that committee was appointed by the Cleveland Art Association. It is interesting to note, in terms of Cleveland appearing on the art map, that this same year, 1920, the College Art Association, which is a nationwide association still in existence, met in Cleveland. By this time William Milliken is really in charge of the May Show, which he always considered his special baby, and in each of his May Show descriptions he expresses his gratitude to the committee appointed by the Cleveland Art Association under the chairmanship of Mrs. S. Livingstone Mather, who was a Museum trustee. He also always expressed his thanks to the President of the Cleveland Art Association, who in this period was Mrs. Harry L. Vail. In 1921, just for the record, there were 950 entries filed and the Museum account indicates that sales were vigorous. You can see that during this period the major function of the Cleveland Art Association was to be deeply involved in the May Show itself and the Advisory Committee seems primarily to have had the task of finding and encouraging young artists to send in their entry in whatever discipline they worked.


Cleveland was really doing an operation boot strap in terms of encouraging and patronizing the arts and William Milliken was tremendously important in this endeavor because he really felt that the May Show represented the Museum’s faith in artists and craftsmen of the Cleveland area. He had been extremely supportive of the Northern Ohio Water Color Society which had been founded in 1894 and during the 1920s he is determined to see that Cleveland is recognized as a place that has and supports its artists.


In 1921, in Cleveland there was also a special exhibition of contemporary American painting. There were outstanding nationally known American painters like Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, George Bellows and Arthur B. Davies, just to mention a few. Reading the Cleveland Museum bulletins we discover 30 Clevelanders who appeared in that show, among these were names closely linked to the Art School: Henry Keller, Frank Wilcox, Charles Burchfield and August Biehle. So Cleveland was making its way onto the art map.


In 1922 at the Fourth Annual May Show William Milliken once again thanks the committee appointed by the Cleveland Art Association and Mrs. Harry Vail is still the President, but it is noteworthy that Henry Keller, Frank Wilcox and Paul Travis were among the top winners and, of course, their works became part of the Cleveland Art Association collection. In that same year mention is made of the Penton Medals of Excellence. The rules seemed to have been determined by the Cleveland Art Association and they seemed to have been responsible for the prizes.

carta Curatorial Committee 2022

At about this same time in 1921 the Cleveland Art Association established a sales room in the Vixseboxse Galleries. Where this was is not indicated, but probably downtown. So the Art Association was already happily into sales supporting the May Show and maintaining a sales room of its own which was given up in the early 1930s. The importance of the Cleveland Art Association Advisory Committee continues through 1925, but after that, starting in 1926, there is no mention of a CAA-appointed committee, so apparently the Museum was really running its own show by this time and was in a way the primary patron.


1936 was the big year for the Art Association. Mrs. Benjamin P. Bole was the President and she suggested that the Art Association should purchase and maintain an art collection. This was the beginning of the function that the Association still plays. Objects would be loaned to members who paid a fee for a year at a time. At the end of that year they would have the option of buying the work they had borrowed. They used a kind of lottery system, as is done today, where members take two brass numbers and put one number in the brass bowl and wait for their number to be called in order to obtain a work of art. This arrangement was unique at this time because the Association bought the works from the artists outright, which, of course, was very beneficial for the individual artists. In other cities the works were on loan but also on consignment and the artist was only paid if they were sold.


This was the beginning of the system that is still in existence with the Cleveland Art Association. A few things changed. There is no longer a May Show, but until that show was abandoned in the early 1990s the Cleveland Art Association had the special privilege of going to view the May Show selections before the public was allowed to enter. During those years because there were very few commercial galleries and almost all the major artists did show in the May Show exhibition, the Cleveland Art Association visited very few other venues. If we were to generalize, we would say that once a year the Cleveland Art Association hangs a collection of some 200 paintings and by the year 1982 there were some 150 members. In that year it was indicated that the normal sales were about 20 works and also that the Art Association was providing scholarships for undergraduate art students.


Somewhere along the line the Cleveland Art Association also established the Horace Potter Memorial Scholarship for work in jewelry or metal smithing. What happened to the Penton Medals for Craftsmanship seems to be a mystery and perhaps that evolved back at the Art School into the Horace Potter. It should be mentioned that in the May Show for many years there was also a Horace Potter Award for Excellence in Craftsmanship, which was given until the Show was given up.

The Cleveland Art Association has endowed scholarship funds that are memorials to Roberta H. Bole (she was the founder), Grace H. Mather and Georgie Leighton Norton, who was head of the old art school from 1894 to 1919.


Today the system for loaning to members and allowing them to purchase works of art is much the same. The Curatorial Committee visits commercial galleries, visits exhibitions like the CIA Faculty Show and the Student Independent Show, visits artists’ studios and finds approximately 20 new works each year.

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