“The cause of art is the cause of the people.”
That maxim has been inscribed over the doors of the Allen Memorial Art Museum for 100 years.
“The museum was founded with that idea incised indelibly in stone and we’ve always looked to it as our mission,” said director Andria Derstine.
Normally, the AMAM is closed on Mondays, but it will open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on June 12 to celebrate its centennial. There will be birthday cake and tours from 2-4 p.m.
It was on the day before Oberlin College commencement on June 12, 1917 — as professor Hugh Black of the Union Theological Seminary prepared to deliver the address to 243 graduates — that the museum opened to the public.
Admission was free that first day and it has been free every day since.
To set the stage: Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States. American soldiers had recently called off their search for Mexican revolutionary general Francisco “Poncho” Villa and Puerto Ricans had gained U.S. citizenship following passage of the Jones Act. The Original Dixieland Jass Band released the first commercial jazz recording, “Dixie Jazz Band One Step,” and the very first Pulitzer Prizes went to writers Laura Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Hall. The United States had just entered World War I and, days before commencement, conscription of American soldiers began.
But the story of the AMAM began more than a decade earlier.
In 1904, educator Charles Olney had bequeathed nearly 8,000 paintings, decorative arts, and sculptures from his Cleveland home to Oberlin College. There was only one big problem: Where could they all be displayed?
Only 700 of the best works, mostly Asian objects, were kept while the rest were sold to finance high-end art purchases. Collector Charles Freer, a connoisseur of Asian art, later expanded the holdings with a gift of 100 works.
Alumnus and college trustee Dudley Allen and his wife, Elisabeth, daughter of oil magnate Louis Severence, planned to build a museum to house the burgeoning collection. Dudley died before construction began but Elisabeth Severance Allen Prentiss, as she was later known, pressed on in his memory.
Under the AMAM’s roof, scattered artworks from across the campus were consolidated. When Prentiss died in 1944, her personal prints by Rembrandt, Durer, Whistler, and other masters went to the museum.
As decades passed, others took up the cause of gathering, guiding, and curating the priceless works:
• Art historian Wolfgang Stechow, an expert in the Baroque period
• Businessman R.T. Miller Jr., who donated about $1 million for art purchases and became the college’s greatest single donor.
• Mary Ainsworth, who gave 1,500 Japanese woodblock prints showing the shifting styles of the 17th to 19th centuries.
• Charles Parkhurst, a real life Indiana Jones who recovered stolen art during World War II and served as director of the AMAM from 1949 to 1962.
• Joseph and Enid Bissett, who contributed modern European paintings by Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, and other icons.
• Oberlin art professor Ellen Johnson, who donated a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and started the college’s art rental program, which allows students to display original works in their rooms.
• Alumna Ruth Roush, who provided support for construction of a wing in Johnson’s honor in 1977.
• Helen Hesse Charash, sister of painter Eva Hesse, whose gifts now comprise more than 1,000 items.
Today the museum’s collection includes more than 14,000 pieces.
The Italian Renaissance-style building on North Main Street, designed by prominent architect Cass Gilbert, is home to some of the most recognizable and revered works in the world.
Among the public’s favorites, according to Derstine, is Monet’s “Garden of the Princess, Louvre,” painted in 1867 and depicting a panoramic view of Paris.
Another is “Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene,” a 1625 painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen showing the Catholic martyr’s body pierced with arrows.
From Greek pottery dating to the fifth century B.C. to West African masks from the 18th and 19th centuries to prints by pop artist Andy Warhol, AMAM exhibits have some of the world’s most striking pieces.
Whether visitors are college students or seasoned art-lovers, Derstine said the goal is the same: “We want them to enjoy being in the museum and enjoy looking at art. That’s a lifelong practice.”
Infants are welcomed and parents with strollers are frequent visitors. Children benefit from forming a bond with visual arts from a young age, said Derstine.
That’s why the AMAM hosts a continuing education program with the Oberlin City Schools. Second-graders get to visit the museum and “see it is their place,” she said. “We want them to feel this is a normal place to be, that they are accepted here.”
Curators want everyone to learn and grow, to find a window into another culture or time period, even if visiting for just 10 minutes.
Derstine said she wants visitors to see that art is relevant to our world today. “They see that something made 100 years or more ago is relevant to the decisions we’re making, to the issues we still face.”
The AMAM has a tremendous intellectual, spiritual, and emotional impact on residents of the community, she said. Each year, it embraces between 35,000 and 40,000 visitors.
Among them are Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts excited to experience Native American and Egyptian art, as well as college students and professors viewing the collection with more critical, analytical eyes.
New exhibitions are coming this summer. Derstine said that starting in the fall, the centennial celebration will feature monthly programs about the museum’s history — including an Oct. 7 symposium about the museum’s role in the community. And regularly-scheduled events like First Thursdays and Tuesday Teas will have centennial themes.
“I hope that 100 years from now, when the museum is celebrating its 200th birthday, the members of our Oberlin community and surrounding Northeast Ohio community have had another century of enjoying amazing art for free and making connections to their work,” Derstine said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.