The Origins of a Collection and Institution:
The Evansville Museum
In 2004, the Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science celebrated its 100th anniversary of its collection. It is interesting to recall the origins of the collection and of the institutions that have been charged with its care for the past 100 plus years.
The origins of a museum in Evansville are traced to the Ladies’ Literary Club formed in 1874. This club – whose members studied history, art and literature – was incorporated in 1884 and became a part of the State Federation in 1899. It was this period that the Ladies’ Literary Club made a concerted effort to encourage the study of art in Evansville. This came to fruition through a cooperative effort with the Art Committee at Willard Library and resulted in a highly successful exhibition in 1900.
Held at Willard Library and promoted as a “curios loan” exhibition, this one-week exhibit featured over 400 objects including two-dimensional artwork, sculpture, religious relics, historic books and war paraphernalia. Highlighted in the exhibition was the collection of Colonel and Mrs. Charles Denby. Mr. Denby had served as United States Minister to China and his artifacts included tapestries, wood carvings, and porcelains.
Encouraged by this success, the Art Committee of Willard Library and the Ladies’ Literary Club continued to support the study of art. This included the purchase of the painting Sunset by the noted Indiana artist, J. Ottis Adams. Today, this painting remains a key element of the Museum’s collection and recalls the legendary group of Indiana artist known as the Hoosier Five.
With this backdrop, plans were laid to establish a permanent museum facility with its own collection. Under the leadership of Reverend W.A. Whipple of First Baptist Church, Anna Keck, Dr. Snyder Busse and Charles Artes, Sr., a fundraising campaign was initiated to acquire artifacts from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis. Countries from around the globe were in the process of selling their exhibitions; and artifacts from the Philippines, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Italy and other parts of the world were purchased by the Evansville contingent. The new museum also received a boost when leading citizens of Evansville – including Denby, Samuel Evans and C.A. Rosencranz – donated portions of their private collections to the effort.
The site selected for the new Museum was the historic Barnes-Armstrong Mansion at the foot of Cherry Street in Sunset Park. This three-story Georgian structure had most recently been used as a boarding house and was considered well suited for the new collection. Club women in Evansville began a campaign to secure the building; and the needed $6,000 for the purchase of the mansion was raised through subscription. Prominent local architect Manson Gilbert was retained to design porches and restrooms for the building. By 1905, the exhibits purchased in St. Louis were installed in the mansion, and on November 16, 1906 Evansville’s first true museum opened to the public at 7:30 p.m. The Women’s Federated Clubs hosted the opening reception, and invited guests included the School Board, the Parks Board and the mayor and his cabinet. Coffee and cake were served. The initial exhibitions consisted of curios from the orient, art from Europe, arts and agriculture from the Philippines, and natural history – shells, corals, minerals and beetles.
Over the next four years, the Evansville Public Museum undertook several successful exhibitions and became a center for cultural programs. By 1909 the young institution was debt free and, in view of this financial milestone, the officers of the Museum indicated to Mayor John W. Boehne that it was an opportune time to turn ownership of the facility over to the City of Evansville. This was one of the last positive moments for Evansville’s first museum.
In 1910, even though the City Council had approved $5000 for repairs, the Parks Board claimed the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion was unsafe and condemned the structure. This decision did not meet with public approval as a poll conducted by The Evansville Courier indicated support for maintaining the facility by a 10 to 1 margin. Ministers also spoke from the pulpit deploring the possible destruction of the museum. Dr. M.A. Farr of Trinity Methodist Church said “It is the duty of Parks Board members to serve the public, not themselves.” However, on August 1 the Parks Board, in a secret session, ordered the collection removed from the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion. Vans moved the collection to the (Old) Court House where artifacts were haphazardly placed in Room 12 of the building. Subsequently, the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion was razed. Though there was speculation that the building was demolished to satisfy a well-connected neighbor(s) who claimed the museum blocked the view of the Ohio River, a definitive reason for the destruction of the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion is not clearly delineated.
With the razing of the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion, much of the collection was lost or destroyed. However, in 1913, at the request of Joseph Igleheart, the School Board took over the care of some of the artifacts. An inventory was performed and some broken items were discarded.
In the 1920s, efforts were made to establish a new museum in Evansville. In 1921 the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society was established. Originally a committee of the Sebastian Henrich offered a gift of Native American items. In 1922, the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society requested custody of the old museum collection and cases from the Parks Board – those in the care of the public schools. The Parks Board agreed to turn over the cases and collection for an exhibition at Willard Library. This collection and the Henrich Collection served as the basis for the exhibition. The logistics of manning the museum room at Willard and low visitation were a continuing challenge for the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society.
An organization interested in establishing a permanent museum in the City formed in 1926 when The Society of Fine Arts and History was founded. The purpose of this organization, as stated by Paul H. Schmidt, was “to establish, perpetuate and maintain a Temple of Fine Arts for the people of ‘Evansville and Vanderburgh County…said Temple to be used for all such purposes as will foster the aesthetic development and the higher life of said Community.” The new organization – under the leadership of officers Schmidt, Francis F. Reitz, Mrs. George S. Clifford, Mrs. Moses Gans, Mrs. Paul H. (Samuella) Schmidt, and George Honig – was offered, rent free, the former Y.W.C.A structure at 216 Northwest Second as a temporary home. This offer was accepted and, after merging with the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society, the collection at Willard Library was moved into this 8900 Square foot structure. Following repairs to the building, The Society of Fine Arts and History, whose Museum was known as the Temple of Fine Arts, opened to the public on March 19, 1928 with an exhibition of 25 paintings on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The organization founded as the Society of Fine Arts and History is today’s Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science.
The Evansville Museum:
Growth at Second Street
The Society of Fine Arts and History opened a museum known as the Temple of Fine Arts on March 19, 1928 at 216 Northwest Second Street in the former quarters of the YWCA. The organization founded as the Society of Fine Arts and History is today’s Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science.
When the Temple opened in 1928 in the old YWCA, it was in an 8,895 square foot building that basically consisted of two old houses that were connected. The Permanent Collection consisted of 2,658 objects. 324 people were Members of the Museum and from late June of 1928 to January of 1929, 3,500 people visited the facility. Today’s Evansville Museum is a 48,000 square foot facility with 30,000 objects, a Membership of 1,600, and an average annual attendance of 70,000.
When the facility opened, Kaloolah Howe was the secretary-curator and lone employee of the Temple of Fine Arts. Although a registrar was hired in 1932 and others followed, the Museum did not hire its first full-time director until the addition of Alvin Eastman in 1947. It was also in the 1930s and 1940s that the name of the organization was changed. In 1938, the Society of Fine Arts and History changed the name of their facility to the Museum of Arts, Sciences and History; and, in 1942, the organizational name became the Society of Arts, History and Science and the facility was commonly referred to as the Evansville Public Museum.
Though the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression throughout the 1930s, the Temple of Fine Arts was an active institution during this decade. As early as 1930, there were efforts to raise money for a new building as the Foundation Fund was created in that year. The first monies received from the fund were proceeds in the amount of $830.41 from a recital presented by Rosanna McGinnis (later Mrs. Robert Enlow) on May 1, 1930 at the (old) Central High School Auditorium. Later in the decade, on June 16, 1937, Board President Paul H. Schmitt announced a $1 million campaign for a new museum building. The facility was to consist of two, two-story wings and include a small theater and a large auditorium. The building was to be located near Dress Plaza with the option of also utilizing the Federal Building (the Old Post Office) if the government relocated its offices, but the plan was eventually deemed too costly. The following year, Schmitt appointed a Committee to find a new sight for the Museum, but no financial campaign was to be undertaken until the “recession” was over.
It was not until the 1950s that the Museum, under the leadership of a new, energetic director, moved into its long anticipated and much-needed new home.
The Evansville Museum:
The Siegfried R. Weng Years, 1950-1969
In 1950, one of the most influential people to touch the life of the Museum arrived in Evansville. A physically imposing man of keen intellect, Siegfried Reginald Weng became the Director of the Evansville Museum after serving in a like capacity at the Dayton Art Institute. Under Weng’s capable leadership, in conjunction with the Board of Trustees and staff, the Evansville Museum made substantial strides. Key among these was the fulfillment of a decades-long dream to construct a new museum structure.
Today, the Evansville Museum continues to benefit from the far-sighted efforts of the late Mr. Weng, who, appropriately, celebrated his 100th birthday in 2004 as the Museum celebrated the centennial of its permanent collection.
The Evansville Museum:
The John W. Streetman III Years, 1975-Present
In 1975, the Evansville Museum’s longest serving Director began his tenure. During his years of leadership, the Museum has experienced substantial growth in exhibits, programming and facilities. Key among the substantial strides that have occurred under Streetman’s farsighted leadership are facility expansions and renovations such as Rivertown USA, the Koch Science Center, the Old Gallery, Mankind, the Crescent Galleries and EMTRAC; the initiation of nationally touring art exhibitions and attendant scholarly books; and the development of a contemporary American still-life collection that includes many of the genre’s most recognized artists. Most significantly under Streetman’s guidance, the Evansville Museum received its first-ever accreditation from the American Association of Museums in the 1970s—an earned honor that has been maintained throughout his administration. The Evansville Museum will benefit from the dedicated and gifted efforts of John Streetman for decades to come.