By CONNIE ZEIGLER
In the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, Harriet G. Warkel, then curator of American art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, described that institution as “One of the oldest art museums in the United States.”
Time passed, Warkel left her curatorial position and the museum where she worked is now called Newfields. Many words have been written about the changes that transformed the museum of art into “A place for nature and the arts,” ala its recent rebranding.
Perhaps a look backward can give us a new field of vision from which to see how the museum got where it is today.
The Art Association of Indianapolis formed in October 1883 with a double goal of establishing an art school and an art museum. The first major donor to the association was real estate investor John Herron, whose bequest of $250,000 in 1895 set it on the forward path of purchasing property for a permanent home.
In May 1899 an Indianapolis News announcement invited artists to a meeting at the home of Mrs. Mary Robinson where T. C. Steele presided over the presentation of ideas for how to expend the Herron fund for a building, museum and school.
By the end of 1900, the 12 directors of the association had settled on buying the Talbott Place, which had previously housed T. C. Steele’s studio, at 16th, Pennsylvania and Talbott streets. A news article noted that the organization planned to offer $50,000 for the property with the stipulation that the city would vacate 17th Street and the owners of two lots north of 17th would donate their property to the school. The deal was brokered in 1901.
In 1905, to meet the art association’s stated goal “to cultivate and advance Art” [with a capital “A”], W. H. Fox became the director of the John Herron Art Institute – the umbrella name for both the museum and the school. The “Indianapolis Museum and the art school” were built under Fox’s watch, according to the Philadelphia Enquirer. According to The Indianapolis News it was Fox who made the “Herron Institute one of the most influential art institutes in the Middle West,” by 1912, the year that he left Indianapolis to become curator-in-chief of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
In 1914, Indianapolis Star contributor and “well-known art connoisseur,” Renee Tucker Kohlmann, wrote: “We appreciate the fact that some of the best offerings in the way of pictures that eastern exhibits can give us are being shown at the John Herron Art Institute.” But, she added, the museum needs a “well-directed plan for acquiring works of art.”
In a scolding article Kohlmann wrote that Indianapolis residents, especially wealthy businesspeople, should devote more time and money to adding to collections, but cautioned that “it should be borne in mind that the functions of an art museum are not necessarily those of a historical society, by which confusion an art museum is often weighed down by an accumulation of objects that are not rightfully classed as works of art.”
Who knows if Kohlmann shared the sentiments of the Indianapolis Star reporter who wrote three years later that one of the things that should instill pride in the city was that “. . . our Indianapolis Museum of Art possesses a large collection of textiles” that rivaled those found in the most famous museums, in fact “even the fourth largest [museum] in the United States has no textile collection.”
In 1923, J. Arthur MacLean, director of Herron, told the Art Students League of Muncie, that, “in the modern field of art it is so essential for every person who is at all interested in things cultural to know what is going on.” The things that were going on at the Indianapolis Museum of Art that year included a “very small, a very meager showing” of entries for the Indiana artists exhibition. But there was a more significant selection from the Chicago Art Exhibition of the best artists from around the country also on display. “This is another appeal to make us realize the opportunity offered by the Indianapolis Museum of Art,” the Muncie Star-Press reporter noted.
By 1929, the Indianapolis Star had a new art critic, Lucille E. Morehouse, who was happy to report, “The museum of the John Herron Art Institute has carried out its usual program for providing pleasure and enjoyment, as well as education along art lines for those who wish to take up a more serious study of the subject in the galleries and the library.” In July that year the museum hired Wilbur D. Peat as the new director.
Peat would hang onto his position for decades and raise the standing of the museum in the art world.
In 1937, in the middle of the Great Depression, Morehouse praised Peat’s exhibition of 17th Century Dutch Masters at the museum. “The entire upper floor of the John Herron Art Museum has been given over to a display of seventy-five representative pictures … assembled from art museums and galleries, private owners and dealers in different parts of the United States,” and from museums in Holland and Paris.
In 1943, in the middle of World War II, Morehouse noted that “The John Herron Art Museum is full to overflowing with art interest that ties up with the global war…. We are urged to hold fast our interests in things cultural during the war period – John Herron Art Museum should be considered one of the main sources of cultural supply for Hoosiers, also for soldiers who make frequent visits to Indianapolis,” she wrote. “All Indiana should be proud of the John Herron museum and the splendid work it does, under the able direction of Wilbur D. Peat.”
During these years, newspapers as far away as St. Louis, Santa Fe, Louisville, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Buffalo took note of exhibitions and works of art being shown at “the Indianapolis Museum of Art.”
In the 1960s, Wilbur Peat retired and the Art Association began looking for a new location for the museum. In 1966, the J. K. Lilly family donated its family estate, Oldfields, to the Art Association, with the condition that it become the site of the new museum. The Indianapolis Star called the property “spacious,” “park-like,” and “superbly landscaped.”
Some histories of the museum state that it was the move to Oldfields that brought about the name change to Indianapolis Museum of Art, but that name had been associated with the museum from its inception.
Now, 122 years later, we must all learn something New [with a capital “N”]. Now our Art begins with a small “a” and it’s “surrounded by nature.”
Connie Zeigler is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm. She’s currently jet-setting between the Indianapolis metropolitan area and a little cabin on the Flatrock River in Shelby County.