Leave it to a librarian to come up with an idea so good that Dayton, Ohio will celebrate it all next year.
Linda Clatworthy was head librarian at the Dayton Public Library from 1905 to 1913. Her library had sponsored art exhibits, developed a collection of art books, prepared bibliographies and collected reproductions to inspire art appreciation among its patrons, but she envisioned more. She wanted to bring beauty to Dayton by making it an art center. She returned home from a 1912 trip to Europe with an idea to do just that.
Soon, several influential local businessmen joined her in thinking that way, and gave her $100 to start her project. Off she went to Washington, D.C., where she sought advice on how to develop interest in art among her community.
Not long after she returned to Dayton, the Montgomery County Art Association was founded. Five years later, it became the Dayton Art Association, and it bought its first painting for $200. In 1919, it became the Dayton Museum of Arts, and moved into a now-demolished home at the corner of Monument Avenue and St. Clair Street. Julia Shaw Carnell, the widow of Frank Patterson, one of the founders of the National Cash Register Company, purchased the first recorded work of art in the collection: Joy of the Waters, a sculpture by Harriet Frishmuth. In time, Mrs. Carnell contributed over 500 more items to the museum.
When the collection grew too big for its home, Mrs. Carnell pledged almost $2 million to construct a new museum building atop a hill overlooking the Great Miami River, while the community committed to endowing and paying for its operations. Buffalo, New York architect Edward B. Green designed an Italian Renaissance structure modeled after the Villa d’Este near Rome, using yellow sandstone and a red tile roof. He fashioned a grand staircase leading from Riverside Avenue to the museum’s original entrance, almost exactly replicating the staircase at the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, Italy.
First intended for displaying large plaster-cast reproductions of noted sculptures for art students to study and copy, the Great Hall was accessed through doorways surrounded by carvings replicating those Mrs. Carnell saw in Florence, Italy, including the Palazzo Vecchio.
Mrs. Carnell also chose, bought and imported several pieces to create two unique cloisters within the museum. Picturesque views of both cloisters can be seen through windows from a few of the galleries, some of which are screened with elaborate wrought-iron grills Mrs. Carnell purchased in Italy.
Enter the Hale Cloister through a doorway topped by a 16th-century Latin inscription reading, “An enclosed space, forever to be used for study or pleasure.” A red tile roof shelters Roman earthenware and 14th-century columns. Joy of the Waters became the focal point of the cloister’s fountain, but was later relocated inside and replaced by a replica of a fountain from at the Smithsonian Institute. A red Japanese maple once shaded both peacocks and those who attended musical concerts held on summer Sunday evenings.
Music was also emphasized in the development of the Dayton Art Institute. The new building included a music room with a coffered Italian walnut ceiling painted with representations of sculpture, painting, music and literature. The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra gave its first concert there in 1933, and continued to offer concerts two Sundays each month for years. A Skinner pipe organ was acquired for the museum’s auditorium, where concerts featuring the rare organ are still held.
After the museum was completed in 1930, it was given its current name to reflect its art school. It became a center of art, music and learning, so loved that it was soon referred to as “Dayton’s Living Room.”
Today, its collections include art from Europe, Asia and North America. There are works by big names on view, like Rodin’s oversized study of a hand, a vibrant portrait by Gilbert Stuart and a larger-than-life bronze statue of Chief Massasoit by Cyrus Dallin. There are examples of Cincinnati artistic talent, like Eve Disconsolate, by the Neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers; Free Sample, Take One, D. Scott Evans’ 1891 trompe l’oeil still-life of peanuts; and Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, by Robert Scott Duncanson, who created the eight large murals depicting the American West in the Cincinnati mansion that is now the Taft Museum.
Beyond paintings and sculpture, there are wonderful decorative arts, including examples of Tiffany glass; a porcelain-and-enamel centerpiece from the Wiener Werkstätte; Brussels lace; and a Queen Anne-style daybed attributed to John Goddard and Job Townsend, the leading Colonial-era cabinetmakers of Newport, Rhode Island.Robert Koepnick’s circa-1930 bronze sculpture of Huck Finn, which once spouted water from a marble pedestal in a private home, and Gaston La Touche’s Dinner at the Casino are some museum works that inspired regional artists to create original artworks for Dayton Metro Library branches through its ReImagining Works project. The museum also holds a significant collection of Pictorialist photographs by Jane Reece (1868-1961), a Dayton photographer. Although the bulk of her work is in black and white, she also experimented with early color photographs known as autochromes, a type of glass-plate photography in which grains of dyed potato starch, carbon black and silver emulsion capture an amazing range of hues. In “The Rembrandt,” her downtown Dayton studio, she made her signature self-portrait, The Poinsettia Girl, and took “Camera Cameo” portraits of Helen Keller, Robert Frost, and fellow Daytonians, including the father of the Wright brothers and the mother of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. She retreated to “The Bird’s Nest,” her three-room cottage in the Far Hills neighborhood of Dayton, where she captured the rising waters of the 1913 Flood. At her home and studio at 834 West Riverview Avenue, she covered the walls in burlap, added Moorish arches and had flying birds painted on a ceiling, creating a place where the community gathered for concerts, dramatic readings and dance recitals. Jane Reece Park is next to her home.
Next year, the Dayton Art Institute will celebrate the centennial of its founding. To mark the occasion, the museum is preserving the original appearance of its historic hillside by restoring its grand double staircase, which has been closed for years; adding new exterior lighting; and turning on its fountains, which have not operated in over 50 years.
For more on the Dayton Art Institute and its collection, read Selected Works from the Dayton Art Institute Permanent Collection; “Dayton’s Living Room:” The Dayton Art Institute in the 1930s, by Lynn Griggs Alexander; and The Soul Unbound: The Photographs of Jane Reece, by Dominique H. Vasseur.