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Art Gets Its Due

The Great Lakes Exposition in 1936 coincided with the museum's 20th anniversary and inspired a blockbuster exhibition
July 26, 2016

John Vacha History Day Coordinator, Western Reserve Historical Society


At The Expo the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition and a pavilion along the lakeshore behind the old Cleveland stadium


Early in 1936, William Milliken looked up from plans for the Great Lakes Exposition and asked, in effect, “Where’s the art?” As director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Milliken not only had the right to ask but the clout to do something about it. Since 1936 would also mark the museum’s 20th anniversary, the obvious thing to do would be to mount a special exhibition.

Prompted by Milliken, museum trustees met with exposition officials in February to plan a major loan exhibition by the Cleveland Museum of Art in conjunction with the Great Lakes Exposition. They pledged a $25,000 guarantee against loss, although a 25‑cent admission fee was expected to cover costs. Due to the value of the objects included, it would necessarily be housed in the museum’s classical‑style home in University Circle. The entire main floor would be placed at the disposal of the exhibition, with most of the permanent collection relegated to the ground floor for the duration.

Now Milliken had just four months to get his act together. He was only the second director in the museum’s two decades, having succeeded Frederic Allen Whiting in 1930. Described by Time magazine as “suave, dapper, erudite,” the 46‑year‑old bachelor began calling in his chits from neighboring museums and local collectors.


The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834 1835. Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851). Oil on canvas; 92 x 123.2 cm. Bequest of John L. Severance 1942.647


From Detroit came Saint Jerome in His Study by Christus; Chicago sent Toulouse Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge and five others. Sixteen paintings, including Turner’s dramatic Burning of the Houses of Parliament, came from the estate of the late Cleveland philanthropist John Long Severance. Leonard Hanna lent his early Picasso, Figures (Pink), now known as The Harem.

Milliken’s net quickly expanded from coast to coast and even beyond. From New York, Mrs. John W. Simpson sent Chardin’s Soap Bubbles and the Adolph Lewisohn Collection parted temporarily with Van Gogh’s L’Arlesienne. Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection contributed its prize attraction, Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir; Walter C. Arensberg of Hollywood offered the sensation of New York’s 1913 Armory Show, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

One of Milliken’s biggest coups was the promise of four items from the Rockefellers in New York, who made an exception for him to their rule against lending art works. Especially symbolic was the inclusion of
Sargent’s portrait of the oil baron and family patriarch, John D. Rockefeller Sr. It was interpreted by some as a sign of renewed affection by the nonagenerian for the city where he had begun his fortune. His son sent a pair of altarpiece panels by the Siennese Duccio, which Milliken considered “the prize catch of the show.”

One of Milliken’s early fishing expeditions had been on Washington’s Embassy Row in hopes of catching some European loans. It paid off in the form of contributions from collections in London, Paris, Bologna, Florence, Milan, Rome, and Venice. Overall, the CMA director reported a 98 percent success rate in getting what he wanted.

A total of 385 works of art were deployed in the show, of which somewhat under half, 160, came from the museum’s own collection. Accorded the place of honor in the catalogue was the museum’s medieval Guelph Treasure, Milliken’s first and ultimately his most significant purchase as director. Also on view was the museum’s most recent acquisition, Cézanne’s Pigeon Tower at Montbriand.

Touted as a $12 million review of six centuries of Western art, the Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition of the Cleveland Museum of Art was unveiled on June 26, the eve of the opening of the Great Lakes Exposition. Comparisons with Chicago’s Century of Progress art exhibition were inevitable, and there seemed to be a consensus of critical opinion that, while smaller in quantity, the Cleveland show excelled in quality.

“The Cleveland Museum of Art has tried to build its permanent collection on quality alone, and it has never stressed the quantitative,” Milliken explained in the New York Times. “The Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition expresses this same philosophy—a philosophy which has animated not only the museum but Cleveland collectors as well.”

“Director Milliken’s unique achievement was to get all his masters into one museum without letting them fight,” said Time magazine. “So natural was the progression of pictures and schools, so considerately was each of the 385 paintings displayed in its place, that visitors were last week amazed to feel no museum fatigue after making the rounds.”

There were two empty spaces on those rounds for the first week of the show. Then, on July 3, police met a Railway Express Agency shipment in Union Terminal and escorted two paintings from the Louvre down Euclid Avenue to University Circle. One was The Holy Family by Titian; the other, Raphael’s Portrait of Two Men. They had been sent by the Paris museum as a special tribute to the late Myron T. Herrick, former Clevelander who had twice served as ambassador to France. They had been delayed, in typical French fashion, by changes of government and strikes in Paris.

A potential handicap for the “Official Art Exhibit of the Great Lakes Exposition” was its physical separation by some three miles from the grounds downtown. “It is worth a trip to Europe,” stated the exposition guidebook, “and all that is necessary is to take the Euclid Avenue street car from the Public Square to East Boulevard or Adelbert Road, or a Hough Avenue trolley bus to the end of the line. The Museum is just a few minutes’ walk from either stop.”

Both Clevelanders and visitors made the trip in gratifying numbers. From one thousand on opening day, considered a favorable augury, crowds swelled to more than five thousand daily in the closing weekend. Some waited in line for hours for the galleries to clear. On Sundays Milliken was giving four talks a day to capacity audiences in the museum’s 500‑seat auditorium, reclining backstage in exhaustion between lectures.

One distinguished visitor even came back from the dead, in a manner of speaking, to view the exhibition. This was the French modernist Marcel Duchamp, listed erroneously in the catalogue over the dates 1887–1933. Said to have been “immensely entertained” when informed of his reported demise, the artist stopped off in Cleveland on his way back from the West Coast to France, both to see the CMA show and to demonstrate, à la Mark Twain, that rumors of his death had been “greatly exaggerated.”

Duchamp may also have been amused to learn that his Nude Descending a Staircase was the best‑selling reproduction of the show. It couldn’t have been the result of prurient interest, since his cubist rendering had been famously described as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Most of the purchases, according to the lady at the sales desk, were “from the standpoint of levity.”


Stag at Sharkey’s

Stag at Sharkey’s 1909. George Bellows (American, 1882–1925). Oil on canvas; 92 x  122.6 cm. Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection 1133.1922


In a more serious frame of mind, visitors voted for Whistler’s White Girl as their favorite in the show, followed by Hals’s The Merry Lute Player. In third place, reputedly propelled by the votes of young schoolboys, was the museum’s own Stag at Sharkey’s by Bellows. Like the exposition itself, the art exhibition was extended an extra week in October, in part to give more local schoolchildren a chance to see it. Milliken later claimed a total attendance in excess of 180,000. 

Not all the borrowed artworks had to be given up by the museum. During the exhibition it was announced that the 16 works from the Severance estate had been left to the Cleveland museum. They included not only the Turner but paintings by Gainsborough, Hobbema, Lawrence, Rembrandt, and Reynolds. It undoubtedly was all highly gratifying to William Milliken, but it didn’t come without personal cost. Traveling to Europe that winter for rest and recuperation, the director suffered a nervous breakdown in Sicily. Happily, he bounced back to head the Cleveland Museum of Art for another two decades.  


Cleveland Art, July/August 2011