The Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show, one of the country’s first annual regional exhibitions, provided a venue for the artists of northeast Ohio to exhibit and sell their works. Begun by museum director Frederic Whiting in 1919 as the Annual Exposition of Cleveland Artists and Craftsmen, before gaining its popular moniker based on the month in which it was mounted each year, the exhibition was enthusiastically managed by curator William Milliken, who became museum director in 1930. Under his care, local artists were able to derive income from their work, particularly throughout the Depression, a time when many might have otherwise had to abandon their chosen field.
A jury of three prominent artists, art historians, and educators was chosen each year to select from the thousands of entries. In 1937 Georgia O’Keeffe was invited by Milliken to serve on the May Show jury. An early collector of works by both O’Keeffe and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, the museum purchased O’Keeffe’s White Flower in 1930. Stieglitz’s New York gallery was a regular stop for Milliken when he was in the market to acquire works for the museum. O’Keeffe visited Cleveland in 1935 when her Red Maple, Lake George was exhibited in the museum’s 15th Annual Exhibition of American Oil Paintings.
Despite her reservations about the jury system, O’Keeffe accepted Milliken’s invitation because she was interested in the work being done by artists around the country. She joined Mahonri Young and George W. Eggers, both of whom had served on previous May Show juries. Eggers was head of the Department of Fine Arts at the College of the City of New York after having been director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Denver Art Museum, and Worcester Art Museum. A practicing artist known for his sculpture and painting, Young was a well-respected May Show juror. O’Keeffe’s credentials were questioned in the April 11, 1937, issue of the Plain Dealer by art critic Grace V. Kelly, who described O’Keeffe’s paintings as “subtly and delicately rendered, but with a suggestion lingering about them that a term or two, in some reform school, at an impressionable period would have done a world of good.” Perhaps Kelly, a artist herself (including in 1937), was slightly intimidated by O’Keeffe.
Artist entries to the 1937 May Show numbered 2,810 objects by 700 artists; of these, the jury accepted only 1,012 works by 385 artists, who included Russell Barnett Aitken, Kenneth Bates, Mabel Hewit, Henry Keller, and other luminaries of the Cleveland School. Although the jury praised the quality of the submitted watercolor paintings, they were particularly critical of the portrait class of oil painting, and they even declined to award a first prize in the category “Oil Painting, Industrial Cleveland.” The jury’s critique didn’t dampen the city’s enthusiasm, however; Clevelanders bought a significant number of works from the exhibition. The museum purchased 11 works of art for the permanent collection, including watercolors, ceramics, and oils.
The May Show was last mounted in 1993. Many of the artworks shown over the years remain in private collections and are often found at local auction houses, and thus the history of the exhibition continues to be of interest. The Museum Archives has digitized and indexed May Show entry cards and exhibition gallery views, which are accessible through the Ingalls Library website.
Cleveland Art, January/February 2019