The Cleveland Museum of Art

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Records of the Director's Office: William Mathewson Milliken, 1930-1958

Background Information

Early History of the Museum and the Director's Office

The founding of The Cleveland Museum of Art was truly a collaborative effort. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, wealthy Cleveland businessmen John Huntington, Horace Kelley, and Hinman Hurlbut left substantial bequests in their wills to establish an art museum. In 1892 Jeptha Wade II gave eight acres of land to the city of Cleveland "for the construction and maintenance of an art gallery and school." Over the next two decades the trustees of the Huntington, Kelley, and Hurlbut estates worked towards reconciling the legal stipulations of the wills to finance the construction of a single art museum on the land that Wade donated.

In June 1905 the trustees reached a preliminary agreement. Encouraged by the progress of the negotiations, E.R. Perkins, president of the Huntington trust, appointed a six-man building committee to select an architect and review prospective building plans. The committee subsequently chose the local firm of Hubbell & Benes to design the new museum, but it also retained Edmund Wheelwright, consulting architect for Boston's newly completed Museum of Fine Arts, as an advisor to the project.

In July 1910, their assigned task completed, members of the first building committee wrote a final report to the three trusts in which they recommended that a new committee be formed to hire contractors and oversee actual construction. They further urged that the committee be given the authority to hire a director for the museum as soon as possible. The director would be responsible for giving his "undivided attention" to the building of the museum, fostering the community's interest in the project, and securing donations of art and funding for art purchases. "In brief," the report concluded, "we need a man both to help us in the building of the Museum itself, and in the meantime, to prepare the way for the Museum."

The position of director was first offered to Henry Watson Kent, who was then secretary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kent turned the position down but nonetheless played a very prominent role in the museum's design and construction, acting as consultant to the building project and serving as secretary of the new building committee until a director was hired. In addition, in 1913 the board of trustees of the newly incorporated museum voted to give Kent $25,000 for four years "for the purpose of bringing together a nucleus for collections." It was also Henry W. Kent who recommended Frederic Allen Whiting as a viable candidate for the position of director of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

William Mathewson Milliken

Whereas Whiting helped to build a museum, William Mathewson Milliken laid the foundations for its world-class art collection. Born in 1889 in Stamford, Connecticut, of Scotch-American parents, Milliken graduated from Princeton in 1912. After two unsatisfactory years in the business world, he accepted an unpaid position in the cataloguing department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and subsequently became an assistant and then assistant curator in the decorative arts department. One of his responsibilities at the Met was to catalogue the vast J. Pierpont Morgan collection, an experience that fostered his love for and expertise in small art objects, especially those of the medieval and Renaissance periods. After serving as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps during World War I, he joined The Cleveland Museum of Art in 1919 as curator of decorative arts. In 1925 he assumed the additional position of curator of paintings.

Not long after his arrival in Cleveland, Milliken became known for his brilliant acquisitions in medieval art, which set a new, high standard for the types of works that the museum would collect. In 1922 he acquired a remarkable group of German ivory reliefs from a portable altar, in 1923 the Spitzer enamel cross, in 1925 the Strogonoff ivory plaque, and in 1926 an enamel reliquary. This facet of Milliken's collecting activities culminated in 1930 with the purchase of the Guelph Treasure. Milliken also made some astute decisions about paintings--arranging the purchase of Bellow's Stag at Sharkey's, Eakins's Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, and other important contemporary American works--although his interest in paintings seems always to have been secondary to his affection for the decorative arts.

The Board's decision to choose Milliken as Whiting's successor was no doubt influenced by his collecting prowess as well as his outgoing, energetic personality. Appointed director in August 1930, William Milliken continued many of the programs initiated under his predecessor. In 1931, he demonstrated his commitment to education by hiring educational pioneer Thomas Munro to succeed Rossiter Howard as curator of education. In addition to broadening the museum's roster of activities for children, Thomas Munro developed a rich adult education program that emphasized non-representational art, non-Western art forms, and all of the visual arts. He also served on the faculty of Western Reserve University, thus cementing more tightly an already existing relationship between the two institutions.

Other notable employees served under Milliken, many of whom remained at the museum for a very long time. Walter Blodgett revitalized and expanded the museum's program of musical performances as curator of musical arts from 1942 to 1974; Dorothy Shepherd worked in the textiles department--as assistant curator and later as curator--for a total of 34 years; Lillian Kern, hired by Whiting, became registrar in 1937 and eventually retired in 1973; and in 1949 Albert Grossman began his 37-year career in the museum's business office, first as cashier, then as comptroller, and finally as operations administrator. Most auspiciously, in 1952 Milliken appointed Sherman Emery Lee as curator of oriental art and in charge of Egyptian and classical art. Six years later, Lee was chosen to be Milliken's successor as director, a position he held until 1983.

Under Milliken the May Show also became firmly entrenched as a Cleveland tradition. Assigned to organize the first show in 1919 as a fledgling curator, Milliken nourished its growth during his long tenure as director, providing a highly visible venue and means of monetary support to local painters and sculptors as well as those working in the more traditional "crafts." The international reputations of some Cleveland potters, silver- and goldsmiths, enamelists, and weavers are in great part the result of William Milliken's sustained patronage of these then-neglected arts.

In recognition of his knowledge of the local arts community, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Milliken regional director of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), one of numerous programs established under the New Deal to provide work for destitute artists. Milliken served as an advisor to the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), as Ohio chief for national WPA-sponsored Art Weeks, as commissioning agent and local representative for the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and as chairman of many regional juries supervising competitions for post office murals across Ohio under the aegis of the Section of Painting and Sculpture.

Milliken was involved in other cultural organizations, both local and national. He served as a trustee of Karamu House and the Cleveland Art Association and as an advisor of the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He was also president of the Association of Art Museum Directors as well as the American Association of Museums, and first vice president of the International Council of Museums and the Academie International de la Ceramique. In recognition of his myriad contributions to the arts, he was decorated by the Hungarian, Italian, Swedish, French, and Spanish governments, and received many honorary degrees.

Retirement was not a time of inactivity for Milliken. Succeeded by Sherman Emery Lee on 1 April 1958, in 1959 Milliken helped plan Australia's National Gallery building in Melbourne, and in 1960 he completed a 20-lecture tour of Canada. He organized the Masterpieces of Art exhibition at the Seattle World's Fair of 1962 and in 1963 served as Regent Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Even in his eighties, William Milliken was an avid skier, making annual month-long ski trips to Sun Valley, Idaho. He died at the age of 88 on March 14, 1978.

More detailed information about the early history of the museum and its directors can be found in the resources listed in the bibliography at the end of this guide.