Emery May Holden Norweb, Grande Dame

Submitted by Kaitlin Schulz on

Emery May Holden Norweb, who was known as a grande dame of Cleveland, was one of the most influential women in the history of the Cleveland Museum of Art. She was born on November 30, 1895 in Salt Lake City. Her grandfather, Liberty Holden, was the owner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and her father was Albert Holden, a successful mining engineer. At the start of the First World War, Emery was driving ambulances and working in hospitals in France, and it was during this time that she married R. Henry Norweb. R. Henry Norweb was a United States diplomat, so throughout the couple’s marriage they lived in numerous places around the world, including Tokyo, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Portugal, and Cuba.

It was through all of these travels that Emery May was able to build her collection of art. While living in South America in the 1930s, she had an eye for collecting Pre-Columbian art even though it was a field of little interest at that time. Even though Emery had an impressive collection of art, she was known for having one of the best coin collections in the United States. She was the first woman to serve on the council of the American Numismatic Society, and she also served on the Assay Commission in 1955. Throughout her life, Emery gifted many objects to the Cleveland Museum of Art, including Pre-Columbian art, coins, Asian art, as well as this Serpent Headdress, late 1800s-early 1900s, on view in the African Art galleries.

Besides donating art to the museum, Emery May also served on the Board of Trustees and was a member of the museum’s accessions committee. On January 30, 1962 Emery was elected as the President of the Board of Trustees. She was the first woman to serve in this role at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the second woman in America to be a president of an art museum. In this role she was involved in the museum’s expansion which included opening the new Oriental and print galleries and a new education wing. The museum celebrated its 50th Anniversary under her presidency, and she helped with the planning of the two anniversary celebration exhibitions Fifty Years of Modern Art and Treasures of Medieval France. After she left her position in 1971, Emery was elected as an honorary trustee for life.

Although Emery May Holden Norweb was part of many changes in the Cleveland Museum of Art, she still believed that there were still opportunities for the museum to grow. In a letter written to Harold T. Clark, she stated that “we have come a long way towards the embodiment of Fred Whiting’s dream, but as has always been true, the nearer one comes to this horizon...newer horizons appear.”