Thursday, September 25, 2008

RI's 1st Art Museum

The Jones Bequest & the founding of Rhode Island’s 1st Art Museum, 1890-94

Nancy Austin

We often take for granted the philanthropic gestures that founded our great American cultural institutions, like the New York Public Library. But around 1890, a crisis arose around an important group of trusts and bequests that had been left specifically to create new cultural and educational institutions across America. Repeatedly, the wills that contained these gifts were challenged by relatives who sued in court, arguing that a cultural institution that did not yet exist could not be considered a more real or important offspring than a blood relative, even if a distant one. And the nephews and nieces were winning. In 1893, a newspaper reported that a rash of these recent court decisions had robbed the public of millions of philanthropic dollars in New York State alone.

The precedent for this collision of values was the trust that Samuel J. Tilden left at his death in August 1886 to found “a free library in the City of New York”. Tilden’s nephew successfully contested the gift on the grounds that such a library did not exist and was thus a vague entity and impossible legacy. It was not until 1895 that Tilden’s hopes for a New York Public Library were finally realized after his friends brokered a merger of Tilden’s surviving books and estate with the existing Aster and Lenox Libraries.

The ramifications of the Tilden Trust/New York Public Library debacle extended to Rhode Island. Providence native Albert Jenkins Jones died on May 25, 1887 in Italy where he had lived for over thirty years and worked for two decades as the New York Times’ neoclassical sculpture critic during the peak of fashion for white marble statuary. In his will, Albert J. Jones left a bequest to the people of Providence for an Art Institute. Jones’s niece immediately sued on the grounds that such an institution did not exist and hence such a bequest should be seen as vague, unreal, and invalid. All the executors of Jones’s will declined to serve.

However, to the long-term benefit of the people of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that just because such an institution did not yet exist, it did not follow that Jones’s intention was vague. They ruled that a bequest for the encouragement of art was a valid charitable gift. The Rhode Island decision assured that the Jones Bequest would result in the founding of the first Art Museum in the state, while elsewhere, especially in New York, these trusts and bequest were being overturned.

But what Rhode Island institution could realize this dream? Did such an institution currently exist? Resolving these questions became “part two” of the Jones Bequest lawsuit. On November 26, 1890, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), founded in 1877, petitioned to join the case because it “truly believes that it is entitled to the legacy … it being an Art Institute in said city of Providence, established and maintained by the citizens thereof”. Two days later, on November 28th, the Providence Art Club filed to join the case, describing itself as a corporation formed for “Art Culture” whose membership included most of Providence’s professional artists and those interested in art. The Providence Art Club brief mentions the club’s gallery and exhibition program, periodic lectures and other forms of instruction before concluding: “whether or not it be such an Art Institute in the City of Providence” as envisioned by the Jones Bequest, the Providence Art Club was at least competent to be the Trustee of the Jones Bequest until it could finally convey the money to the “proper beneficiary”.

As the Jones Bequest lawsuit took shape, members of the Providence Art Club incorporated the new Providence Art Institute (PAI) as a surrogate institution whose primary purpose was to be an Art Institute that could claim the Jones Bequest. The founders of the Providence Art Institute included Judge George M. Carpenter, President of the Providence Art Club in 1892-3 and Seth Vose, the owner of the Providence Vose Gallery and the first and most important American dealer of French Barbizon School painting. The other key figures were Walter Richmond, Beriah Wall, and Joseph Ely (the lawyer representing the PAI in the suit). All three men were Vose clients and major collectors of Barbizon painting.

Forty-two paintings by Corot, Daubigny, Diaz, and Rousseau were the highlight of the Providence Art Institute’s first major loan exhibition in 1891. The Walter Richmond and the Ely family collections made up over a third of this large, 190 painting exhibition attended by almost a thousand visitors. Newspaper reviews called it the most important exhibition in a decade. Furthermore, with the emphasis on locally owned work, the reviewers felt the Providence Art Institute was reviving in Providence the enthusiasm of that first 1854 exhibition by the failed Rhode Island Art Association. With the conviction of success, the head of the Providence Art Institute (a Judge and President-elect of the Providence Art Club) decided to approach RISD about a resolution to the Jones Bequest lawsuit. To no avail.

RISD had held exhibitions, but nothing like this one of the Providence Art Institute. For example, in 1880 RISD had begun a “Museum of Manufactured Objects”, and five years later opened a “First Exhibition of Pictures by American Artists” at “the Gallery of the RI School of Design”. In 1887, RISD’s Trustees voted to have a committee work to establish “an Industrial Museum in connection with the School”, and in 1889 there was an exhibition of teachers’ work that included oil paintings, jewelry design, and details for a grinding machine. From the very beginning, RISD had held annual exhibitions of student work in the fine, applied, and mechanical arts in the classrooms. During the early stages of the Jones Bequest depositions, RISD was asked directly if the school had a museum. Eliza Raedeke responded that RISD had “the nucleus of one”, including perhaps as many as 400 casts of classical figures and ornament, “autotypes illustrating drawings and paintings of the old masters and etchings and reproductions representing history of art – we have a few paintings and a small library and a small collection of pottery and textile fabrics and objects illustrating industrial art.”

At this time, RISD had lost its lease and was being forced to relocate from the top floor of the downtown Hoppin Homestead building. An effort was made to rent rooms on the third floor of the Providence Journal Building, but attention soon turned back to a lot “on the corner of Page and Pine Streets” that had been given to the school informally by Jesse Metcalf between June 1889 and June 1890. RISD had an architect draw up plans for a serviceable brick and brownstone building that could be retrofitted for manufacturing if need be. (This lot had been bought by Jesse Metcalf in 1886, and was later given in 1895 to his two daughters. Here was erected the Jesse Metcalf Building for jewelry manufacturers, used today as a State office building for DCYF with an address of 101 Friendship St.)

As it turned out, neither RISD nor the Providence Art Institute had swayed the court during the first round of depositions, legal maneuverings, and public relations campaigns. On January 5, 1892, the ruling came down that there was at present “now no person or corporation qualified to accept the bequest”. The money was deposited into a holding account “until such a time as there is an Art Institute in the city of Providence.” RISD immediately abandoned the Pine St. manufacturing district site as “hardly suitable for a school building” and postponed plans for a textile department. RISD amended its charter so that it could take in the gift of a newly planned building that would be “designed with the purpose of maintaining one or more suitable rooms for a Public Art Museum and picture gallery.” The Waterman Street lot on the East Side of Providence was purchased by Jesse Metcalf on August 1, 1892 and donated to RISD November 30, 1892.

The donation letter from Jesse Metcalf specifically references the Jones Bequest’s requirement of an Art Institute, even as it retains a commitment to RISD’s founding mission. He wrote: “Whereas it is my desire to present in honor of my wife Helen A. Metcalf unto the Rhode Island School of Design….a lot of land and to erect thereon a building suitable to its purposes as an Art Institute wherein shall be maintained a school of fine arts and the arts as applied to the industries of the State as well as an art museum for the benefit of the people of the State and which shall be used for such other purposes as will best carry out the original objects of said School of Design as declared by its promoters at the time of its establishment to wit…” And then he enumerates the three defining aspects of RISD historic mission statement.

RISD’s new East Side home in the villa-like Waterman Building, directly opposite the First Baptist Church and the Providence Art Club, opened on October 24, 1893. The Waterman Building represents RISD’s new awareness of the public function of its institutional architecture as expressed through location, monumentality, and a museum. The main floor featured a loan exhibition hung in the spaces presented to the court during the Jones Bequest lawsuit as the site of the new museum. This opening exhibition was followed in January 1894 with a permanent installation of casts of classical sculpture and Autotype prints, open to the public. (The RISD Nature Lab now occupies these rooms in the Waterman Building.) RISD’s new building and public programming helped conclude the Jones Bequest lawsuit. In April 1894, the lawsuit was settled in favor of RISD, although it took six more months for the final echo of counter-arguments launched by the Providence Art Institute to be decisively silenced. On November 14, 1894, the RISD Board of Trustee Minutes reported that the Jones Bequest was now in the hands of the school. The first Minutes of the “Museum Committee, Museum of Art, RISD” began about two weeks later, on December 2, 1894.

Frank Marshall’s 1893 etching of the Waterman building captures the diverse publics that RISD sought to accommodate in its new home. In his composition, a student is walking briskly toward the side entrance that faces downtown, while three elegantly dressed figures linger at the museum entrance façade of RISD, across from the church and Providence Art Club. In the ensuing years, RISD has continued to address both the needs of its students and that of the public. The Waterman Building was RISD’s only building for about a decade, having been expanded once in 1896 for new Gallery space. Then, the Departments of Mechanical Design and Textile Design, as well as shops for modeling and casting moved into Memorial Hall the same year that Pendleton House was built to house a major donation of furniture and decorative arts to the Museum. Before 1920, RISD erected the huge block of the Textile Building along North Main St. and acquired the now-destroyed West Hall to house extensive machine and woodworking shops. This building initiative was followed by Eliza Radeke’s donation of an extensive new building for the Museum. Throughout this zigzagging development of various aspects of RISD, the Waterman Building remained the “main building”, home base for studios and the portal through which students entered the RISD Museum. Until the mid-1970s, this Waterman building doorway connecting the classroom studios and the Museum remained open, a physical symbol of connection. In 2008, the Chace Center addition reaffirms the historic linkage implied by an open passage between campus and museum.

The Jones Bequest lawsuit is the most pivotal event in RISD’s 131-year history. It permanently reshaped the institution’s scope, direction, and place on the playing field of Rhode Island cultural institutions. Winning the Jones Bequest was the impetus behind RISD’s move from one rented floor in a downtown Providence office building to the new, purpose-built Waterman Building on the East Side of Providence. RISD was consciously sited directly opposite the Providence Art Club and the First Baptist Church in America. Indeed, this kind of symbolic triangulation is an archetype in the place-making habits of RISD’s founder, Helen Rowe Metcalf, from childhood ancestral home to the end of her life.

The life of Albert J. Jones and the lawsuit his bequest engendered permit a vivid look into the often-segregated worlds of visual culture that occasionally wrestled with each other in nineteenth century Providence. Would American visual culture be based around public sculpture in architecture and urban spaces, as Albert Jones wrote about from Italy for the New York Times? Or was it the kind of artisanal design for everyday life that Helen Rowe Metcalf’s students at RISD learned to make? Perhaps rather it was about easel painting as a medium destined for the private home or gallery, like the Barbizon paintings exhibited by the Providence Art Institute from private collections? This Rhode Island example suggests that the museum movement of the 1890s is less the culmination of common hopes for a mature American culture, and more a moment of ambivalence and tension between quite different dreams about the what and where of American visual culture.

The first Art Museum in Rhode Island opened in October 1893 as a direct result of the bequest Albert J. Jones left to the people of Providence. Yet almost no one has ever heard of Albert Jones, and few know why the state’s first Art Museum was founded as an integral part of the young Rhode Island School of Design, itself only founded in 1877.

Footnotes: a Tribute to Albert J. Jones, the forgotten founder of Rhode Island’s first Art Museum is a site-specific art installation and performance done in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based artist, Caroline Woolard. It is designed to promote historically-grounded dialogue in response to the broad pool of associations conjured by our tea party in honor of RISD founder Helen Rowe Metcalf at the Albert J. Jones Family plot in the North Burial Ground, Branch Avenue at North Main Street, Providence, Rhode Island on Saturday September 27, 2008 from 12-6pm. Our project is part of Cryptic Providence 2008, a juried exhibition of site-specific sculptures curated by Jay Critchley.

Copyright Nancy Austin 2008.
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