Youth and Beauty: The Cleveland Museum of Art and the 1920s

At the dawn of the 20th century the city of Cleveland was famous throughout the nation and world as the quintessential example of the American dream in action. During the 1920s the Cleveland Museum of Art demonstrated the vitality and energy of a recently founded city landmark. Clevelanders flocked to the many exhibits, programs, and classes held both at the museum and throughout the city. The museum provided many outlets for local artistic and musical exuberance. Frederick Allen Whitingserved as the museum’s first director. An authority on handicrafts, he strongly believed in the museum as an educational institution. This fervent belief led to the early establishment of the education department and a wide variety of programs for children and adults. Saturday morning classes literally burst at the seams. The Children’s Museum bustled with activity. The education art collection was exhibited in libraries and schools. Teachers from local school systems came to the museum for conferences and training on incorporating art education into the schools.

Children in class room

Musical arts were an important component of the museum’s educational mission and CMA was the first museum to elevate performing arts to equal status with the visual arts. The installation of a pipe organ in 1922 allowed for weekly organ recitals which were broadcast to the community through the new medium of radio. The musical arts department also held classes in music literature and appreciation, adult and children’s singing events, and lectures by such prominent musicians as Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, Ottorino Respighi, and Nadia Boulanger.


Organ in Garden Court

The museum was constructed on land donated by Jeptha Homer Wade II. Prior to construction of the museum the park was a popular recreation area that included a lake for boating and skating, walking paths, and picnic facilities. However, construction of the museum decimated the landscape surrounding the building. For several years after the museum opened in 1916 the park was minimally maintained by the city. The unsightly bit of land between the museum and Euclid Avenue was the subject of much criticism. In 1923 the Garden Club of Cleveland, whose library was housed at the art museum, appointed a committee to study the problem of beautifying the area. Through various fund raisers garden club members were able to hire the firm of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City, to design the Fine Arts Garden. In addition, benefactors donated funds to commission artist Chest! er Beach to sculpt the “Fountain of Waters” and signs of the zodiac statues. Funds also were donated for the purchase of marble benches, terraces, and other pieces of statuary. All of the funds to establish the garden came from private donations. The garden was formally presented to the city of Cleveland by the Garden club at a dedication ceremony on July 23, 1928.

Garden dedication dance

One of the first annual regional exhibitions in the country, the May Show emerged as one of the largest and most successful. The entire spectrum of fine and applied arts were represented by both individual artists and businesses. Many well known Cleveland School artists including George Adomeit, William Sommer, Paul Travis, August Biehle, and Viktor Schreckengost exhibited annually. Throughout the decade of the twenties most entries were traditional, reflecting the local community (and its enthusiasm for crafts) and the techniques and skills taught in local art schools.

--- Leslie Cade Archivist and Records Manager

Blog Archive