The Cleveland Museum of Art

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Records of the Director's Office: Frederic Allen Whiting, 1913-1930

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.

Frederic Allen Whiting

By the time he was offered the position of director of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Frederic Allen Whiting was nationally recognized as an educator, social worker, and leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. Born in 1873 in Oakdale, Tennessee, when his father was president of the Oakdale Iron Company, Whiting was raised and received his early education in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. He worked in his father's business after finishing grammar school, studying with tutors in the evenings. By his own account he developed his interest in social work--and even considered studying for the ministry--as a teenager working with his father in the manufacturing town of Lowell, where he belonged to clubs also attended by boys from the mills.

Whiting left a promising business career in 1900 to become secretary and treasurer of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston, "preferring less financial success to the satisfaction of helping Craftsmen develop their independence." The Arts and Crafts movement had originated in Britain during the nineteenth century as a response to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Rooted in social and moral concerns, it was dedicated to instilling a sense of pride in craftsmanship and promoting education among the working classes. During his tenure at the Society, Whiting founded the magazine Handicraft, organized the National League of Handicraft Societies, and worked to increase sales of crafts from the Society's showroom. He also traveled throughout New England and as far west as St. Louis, speaking about the Arts and Crafts movement and assisting smaller handicraft organizations.

In 1904, on a leave of absence from the Society, Whiting organized the Division of Applied Arts at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, for which both he and his wife Olive Cook Whiting earned bronze medals. Concerned about making enough to support his wife and young son, Whiting resigned his position with the Arts and Crafts Society in 1912 to become director of the John Herron Art Institute of Indianapolis. There Whiting established what was essentially a permanent version of the Arts and Crafts Hall at the St. Louis Exposition, augmented with far-reaching educational programs. In fact, Whiting tended to emphasize education rather than the collection, an approach that he would take with him to Cleveland.

A year later in May 1913 Whiting was officially appointed director of The Cleveland Museum of Art and secretary of its building committee. As director, Whiting brought to the museum the values that he had espoused most of his life. In his first report to the Board of Trustees, written in January 1914, Writing wrote, "The Museum of today is primarily an Educational institution…closely allied to the Educational function of the Museum is what may be called its social responsibility." The museum that Whiting envisioned and which he described in the report would have varied educational activities for children, lectures, performances, and an informative publication.

Whiting wasted little time making his vision a reality. Although the museum did not open its doors until June 1916, in January 1915 Whiting hired Emily G. Gibson--one of the museum's first employees--to organize an array of educational activities. By the end of the year, Gibson was investigating cooperative programs with local schools and taking small exhibitions of Assyrian and Babylonian tablets, Egyptian objects, and laces to branch libraries. Later employees who carried on Emily Gibson's pioneering educational work under Whiting include Katharine Gibson (Emily's daughter), Gertrude Underhill, Louise Dunn, Ann V. Horton, Ruth Field Ruggles, Marguerite Bloomberg, and Rossiter Howard, who was appointed the first curator of education in 1921.

Two other elements of Whiting's vision were inaugurated in 1914. The first Bulletin was published in April, consisting mostly of announcements of important acquisitions, new employees, and the work of newly formed departments. It grew to include calendars of events, lists of officers and employees, descriptions of exhibitions and art works, and short articles exploring art-related subjects. Also, in November 1914 Whiting invited Laurence Binyon of The British Museum to deliver a lecture on Asian art, thereby initiating the museum's ongoing, richly varied program of lectures, films, and musical and theatrical performances.

The growth of the museum's art collection itself reflected Whiting's goals of education and outreach as well as his Arts and Crafts background. Shortly after he was hired, Whiting became interested in acquiring an armor collection, believing that it would show the city's steel- and autoworkers that, rather than working in factories of the "dehumanized" Industrial Age, they were heirs to the great medieval and Renaissance artisans. He was aware, too, that for many visitors the museum's armor would be an introduction to the visual arts, a subject of study worthy in its own right but also a potential springboard to other artistic media such as sculpture and painting. Similarly, Whiting believed that the museum's sixteenth-century cabinetmakers' tools and furniture would inspire Cleveland's woodworkers "toward a keener and more personal attitude toward their work," and the textiles collection was equally important to those toiling in the city's garment industry and mills.

The armor collection was purchased for the museum by John L. Severance, one of several prominent Clevelanders who championed the new museum. Others included Liberty and Delia Bulkley Holden, who donated to the museum a remarkable collection of Italian paintings; local businessman and early collector of Asian art Worcester Warner; Jeptha Wade II, who augmented his original gift of land with 2,855 works of art and a $1.3 million art purchase trust fund; Elisabeth Severance Allen (later Prentiss), who gave the armor court's Flemish tapestries as a memoriam to her first husband Dr. Dudley Allen; and Ralph King, the museum's vice-president who was such a print enthusiast that he not only founded the Print Club but also served as the print department's first, volunteer curator. To supplement such generous gifts, Whiting commissioned agents to travel and find rare antiquities in various locations, including Howard Carter in Egypt, Langdon Warner in the Far East, and Harold Woodbury Parsons in Europe.

Whiting assembled a small but dedicated staff to administer the museum and care for its growing collection. Whiting's wife Olive, an active partner throughout his career, worked as his administrative assistant until 1927. J. Arthur MacLean, Lawrence Park, William Milliken, Theodore Sizer, Henry Sayles Francis, Howard Hollis, and Rossiter Howard all served as curators under Whiting, often holding more than one position at a time. For example, Rossiter Howard, hired as curator of education, also became curator of classical art in 1924 and assistant director in 1925; William Milliken was first appointed curator of decorative arts but also served for a time as curator of paintings. In addition, Frank Jean Pool and Eleanor Sackett successively served as the museum's registrar, Nell G. Sill was the museum's librarian beginning in 1922, Ihna T. Frary was appointed publicity secretary in 1921 and membership and publicity secretary in 1922, Frank Croley managed business and financial transactions as the museum's first cashier, and Leona Prasse began her 42-year association with the museum in 1925 when she was hired as an assistant in the Print Department.

Finally, under Whiting's leadership, the museum was a patron and promoter of Cleveland's artistic and cultural community. In 1919 the museum hosted the first Exhibitions of Works by Cleveland Artists and Craftsmen--more commonly known as the May Show--which immediately became a hugely popular community event. Whiting also extended the influence of the museum outward, organizing the Cleveland Conference on Education to encourage the growth of Wade Park as the city's cultural center. This early cooperative effort between Cleveland's cultural and educational institutions was an important prototype for today's University Circle Incorporated.

Frederic Allen Whiting resigned as director of The Cleveland Museum of Art on 1 May 1930, 17 years to the day after he was hired, to become the president of the American Federation of Arts in Washington, D.C. He was succeeded by William Mathewson Milliken. After his retirement in 1936, Whiting divided his time between homes in Mt. Dora, Florida, and Ogonquit, Maine. He died in 1959 in Framingham, Massachusetts.