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  • "Splendid and Remarkable Progress" in the MidwestAssessing the Emergence and Social Impact of Regional Art Museums, 1875–1925
  • Christa Adams (bio)

In the late afternoon on June 6, 1916, a large group assembled in the lecture hall at the new Cleveland Museum of Art, in Cleveland, Ohio. The atmosphere was festive; this was, after all, a celebration of the completion of Cleveland's new art museum. Judge William B. Sanders, president of the museum, served as the museum's inauguration offi ciant. after thanking the local notables whose donations made construction of the museum possible, Sanders reflected upon the mission of Cleveland's Museum of Art, stating that while the museum was "founded by private beneficence, it is, in a literal sense a public undertaking, to be forever maintained for the benefit of the public."1 The museum should thus serve the public, providing a "safe retreat" for the "tired soul, harassed in the struggle for things."2 Charles L. Hutchinson, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, echoed Sanders's ideas, speaking on the "democracy of art," suggesting that "art is not destined for a small and privileged class. Art is democratic. It is of the people and for the people."3 John R. VanDerlip, representing the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, held similar views, congratulating Clevelanders for harnessing the power of their "progressive community life," to build the museum.4 VanDerlip indicated that this spirit was unique to populations of cities located in "the West."5 Evans Woollen, president of the John Herron Art Institute of Indianapolis, lauded the founders of Cleveland's museum for succeeding in "peopleizing the museum," suggesting that the true function of an art museum was to inspire and educate members of the visiting public.6 The director of Cleveland's museum, Frederic Allen Whiting, spoke last. Whiting, a tireless proponent of the transformative power of art and [End Page 85] craft, thanked members of Cleveland's community for their support of the new museum, which he stated was an "institution of the people, for the people, and by the people."7 The speakers' collective focus on the spirit of egalitarian philanthropy, along with their promotion of the museum as a space for public edification and enjoyment, were clearly discernable to those audience members in attendance on that summer afternoon in 1916. However, these concepts were hardly unique to Cleveland; similar ideas began to circulate as early as the 1870s, when activists and donors in other midwestern cities endeavored to build their own art museums to edify and attract members of the public. Cleveland, as a relative latecomer in terms of midwestern museum construction, was the beneficiary of vetted and accepted ideals about the role of the art museum in the context of the urban Middle West. These ideals, which stressed the democratic and fluid nature of art and the aesthetic value of craft, were cultivated in prior decades in the region's first urban art museums.

The Midwest's "museum moment," a period of construction and collection that peaked between the years of 1875 and 1895, was one facet of a broader process of regional identity formation that coalesced in the late nineteenth century. This "midwestern moment" resulted in the construction of a distinct sense of regionality for states previously identified by their locations "west" of East Coast urban centers.8 As the territorial scope of the nation expanded ever westward, this new region, both rural and urban, populated by citizens and immigrants, gained a new moniker—the "Middle West." Urban centers in this region, making use of their proximity to valuable natural resources and agricultural production centers, rapidly expanded as a result of the extension of rail lines in the years following the Civil War.9 As accessibility increased, so did industry, which drew migrants from other American regions and immigrants from abroad; this led to swelling populations and the creation of new domestic markets.10 Regionally, Midwesterners were poised to articulate their "resistance to the coastal dominance of politics and culture."11

After suffering its devastating fire in 1871, Chicago was reconstructed with a grid of streets radiating out from the rebuilt urban center.12 With construction, expansion, and economic success...

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