THE Chicago World's Fair of 1893 brought a new realization to the nation of the potentialities of the arts of design and caused a general awakening of interest in art. Inspiration was given for the creation of art galleries and schools, art courses in universities and teachers' colleges and for a reappraisal of the function of art in education. Activities inspired or renewed in large centers were in the course of time followed by efforts in small communities, including Ann Arbor and other university centers; many of the local efforts were not isolated phenomena but part of the widespreading movement.
The Ann Arbor Art Association was formed early in 1909 to promote "the art interests of the city of Ann Arbor." Thus it was not strictly a faculty club. It was stated at the preliminary meeting that there was to be fostered a more general appreciation of art among citizens and students, and one of the objectives was the establishment of a chair of fine arts in the University; current art was to be reflected in exhibitions and lectures and local creative effort was to be encouraged. Dues were fixed at fifty cents per annum, with every walk of life represented in the membership.
Alumni Memorial Hall, with its galleries and other facilities, then in course of construction, was to be the center of activities. This building, however, was not available in 1909 and the first exhibition of the Art Association was held in the Ann Arbor High School, May 12 to 22. Screens were built in the school auditorium forming alcoves for showing a wide range of art objects loaned by residents and others. This first exhibition proved a success, and the receipts sufficed to pay all expenses; school children were admitted free.
For thirty-two years an unbroken series of exhibitions followed, one of the most unique of which was one held in connection with the dedication of Alumni Memorial Hall. This exhibition, composed of pictures by representative American artists, including a special group of works by Michigan painters, and Mr. Charles L. Freer's superb collection of painted Oriental screens not only attracted the general public but Page 420drew experts from distant cities. A beautifully illustrated catalogue was provided, the net income from which was presented to the Association by Mr. Freer, who also paid all the expenses of the exhibition, and at its close presented to the University a full-sized cast of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. No more important exhibition had ever been held in the state, and did much to establish and give art a place on the campus.
Other exhibitions of the first rank were the International Water Color Exhibit in 1924, and paintings from the Carnegie International Exhibition, Pittsburgh, in 1925; to the latter there were nearly 3,000 paid admissions. Nicholas Roerich, the Russian painter and founder of the Roerich Institute in New York, provided the first one-man exhibition in 1922; while Charles Herbert Woodbury, Birge Harrison, and other American painters were similarly featured. A retrospective exhibition of the state's most famous painter, Gari Melchers, was hung in 1934.
The Association's program was gradually extended until hardly a month passed without something of art interest on view. All phases of art have been represented in the more than 225 exhibitions at a cost of above $20,000. First-class art collections can rarely be brought to Ann Arbor, not only because they are very expensive — the Carnegie collection cost nearly $1,000 — but because of the paucity of sales. Yet in spite of these limitations the Association's exhibitions have included works illustrating the entire field of painting, during a time when artists were seeking new modes of expression, ranging from the ultraconservative to the other extreme.
The annual exhibition of works by local professional, amateur, and student artists has steadily improved in quality; the local group of exhibitors has grown so that it is now regularly represented in Detroit and other exhibition centers. Local public-school art teachers have been encouraged to bring their classes to the exhibitions, and for them studies by the gifted children in Professor Cizek's classes in Vienna, subsequently shown at the Chicago Exposition in 1933, were brought to Ann Arbor.
Receptions, teas, and gallery talks on the exhibits have been features of the program. The attendance at exhibitions, however, has consisted so largely of members and nonpaying students that receipts from admission fees have not bulked large in the annual budget of the Association. Experience in Ann Arbor as well as elsewhere indicates that art exhibitions, unlike certain other attractions, must in general be subsidized. Most of the income from all sources has been absorbed by expenses — exhibition rental fees, transportation, insurance, labor and printing costs, the University permitting use of the galleries without cost.
Partly through the initiative of the Association, the teaching of art history in the University became a reality in 1911, after the Association had been providing a lecture program for some years by professors from other universities.
The Association was incorporated in 1922, from which time until 1932 its modest income was augmented by an annual grant of $500 from the Board of Regents, since the exhibitions were considered of value to students, who enjoyed free admission. Moreover, the large lecture courses in art history were conducted in the west gallery, and therefore an admission charge was ordinarily impossible. The appreciation of the Ann Arbor School Board was also shown in 1925 by a gift of $100 to the Association.
A bequest of $1,000 by Miss Katherine H. Douglas was made in 1922 for the purchase of paintings. With a view to increasing income and starting an art collection, for which the University lacked Page 421funds, a campaign was conducted during the presidency of Dr. W. P. Lombard in 1926 for life members and patrons; the first made a single payment of $100, others contributed $10 or more annually. Payments by life members were to form an endowment fund the income from which could be used to purchase pictures; while expenditures for current expenses were to be limited to receipts from patrons and other annual members. From these sources a substantial sum was raised from which, together with the Douglas fund, a number of paintings and prints were purchased in 1932, which are now housed in Alumni Memorial Hall.
Among other early activities of the Association was the organizing of visits to art exhibits in near-by cities; notable was that to the distinguished inaugural exhibit of the Toledo Museum of Art in 1912 by 409 art lovers via special train. A lending service through which pictures could be rented to individuals was carried on for a time and a state federation of art associations was started for the circulation of exhibitions, which proved impractical. Affiliation with the American Federation of Art and the College Art Association, of more recent organization, has been maintained and has facilitated securing exhibits at reduced cost.
During recent years, and increasingly since the University withdrew its support in 1932, the Association's program has been limited necessarily. Exhibitions were continued, nevertheless, and some further purchases made, largely of prints, to encourage artists, who, like musicians, actors, and lecturers, must also eat. An article of the original bylaws in 1909 provided for the purchase of art works after current expenses have been met, and in the course of time some substantial purchases of desirable pictures were made with the aim of building an art collection. Financially, the status of the Association remains sound, with a substantial savings account, with part of its investments intact, and as owner of some valuable paintings and prints.
The experience of the Association reveals that all too few persons are sufficiently interested to pay for art exhibitions a fraction of the amount freely expended on other forms of entertainment. Yet many residents and many students who have left Ann Arbor have gained some knowledge of current art who without the Association's initiative would have had no opportunities for first-hand observation, which is all the more important because so many of the students come from communities where art exhibits cannot be seen.
The Ann Arbor Association has demonstrated the value of having a large group of individuals, University affiliates and Ann Arbor citizens, willing to contribute time and funds for a cultural interest. Its operation has to some extent shown the limitations imposed by dependence on largely volunteer work. However, the original and fundamental aims of the Association have been realized and the groundwork has been laid for development in Ann Arbor's art field. A constructive service has been rendered in a direction practically barren of effort before 1909, when the Association was born, and both the community and the University are the richer because of the devotion of a long line of enthusiasts who shared the belief that an essential part of a liberal education and of a well-rounded life is some appreciation of meaning and beauty as interpreted in the arts of design.