Music at the Cleveland Museum of Art has a history nearly as long as the institution itself. In 1918, only two years after the museum’s dedication, the board of trustees decided to include music programs among museum activities, possibly the first inclusion of a performance department, equal in status to the visual arts departments, in any of America’s great museums. In 1921, the McMyler Endowment made possible the installation of a pipe organ, the purchase of a grand piano, and the payment of part of the salary for a curator of musical arts. Thomas W. Surrette, the noted educator and author, was the first to hold this position; he instituted classes in music literature and appreciation, and arranged lectures by such prominent musicians as Béla Bartók, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel, and Ottorino Respighi. Frequent organ recitals and occasional chamber music concerts were presented. Surrette was succeeded by composer Douglas Moore (Pulitzer prize–winning composer of The Ballad of Baby Doe and other chamber operas and works) and Arthur Quimby.
By the time Walter Blodgett became curator in 1942, classroom work had been largely abandoned since music education was being taken over by other Cleveland institutions. Blodgett therefore switched the department’s emphasis to performance, experimenting with programming during the ensuing years. He played regular organ recitals and brought in a wide range of musicians who performed in a 300-seat lecture hall. Some of them were “big-name” artists and others were new, young talents whose careers were furthered by appearing in an internationally known concert series. All were encouraged to play new music whenever possible to help stimulate the appreciation of contemporary composition among local music-lovers. This philosophy naturally grew into the May Festival of Contemporary Music (a parallel to the museum’s annual juried May Show of local artists), featuring performances of new music by local and guest soloists and ensembles from many area institutions. These concerts were all presented free of charge.