Museums for the Masses
Museums for the Masses
High Culture. During the 1870s art became en-shrined in the United States. Over the course of the decade grand art museums—hitherto a rarity in America—opened their doors. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston opened in 1870. Philadelphia built its Museum of Art in 1876, the same year that it hosted the national Centennial Exposition. Chicago, bounding back from the Great Fire of 1871, established its Art Institute in 1879. And in 1880 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, founded in 1870, moved into new, palatial headquarters. At long last major American cities boasted adequate facilities for the display of fine art. By any measure, however, these new museums reinforced the division between high and low culture—and high and low society. The museums owed their existence to the patronage of society’s upper crust. Inside they were crammed with European masterworks; outside they resembled European palaces. Art—or so the evidence suggested—was meant to occupy an airy province.
A Competing Model. Even as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago built shrines to high culture, a broader definition of American art became current elsewhere. The notion of “useful” art animates the story of Cincinnati and its quest for an art museum. Prior to 1870 Cincinnati thrice had attempted to establish a permanent art gallery. Each attempt had failed because of lack of interest and lack of funds. In 1877, however, a new group of boosters emerged: the Woman’s Art Museum Association (WAMA). Although most of the WAMA women hailed from the upper classes, the organization prided itself on democratic values. Taking the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) in Great Britain as its model, the WAMA emphasized the links among art, industry, and civic life. A museum, the WAMA declared, ought “to educate and develop the genius of the masses.” A museum should offer public classes (in design, painting, and the textile arts) in addition to displaying fine art. In 1880, after three years of vigorous promotional activity by WAMA, a local industrialist donated $150,000; the city picked a building site (Eden Park, an enclave overlooking the downtown area); and the WAMA and the newly formed Cincinnati Museum Association (CMA) set to work acquiring collections.
The Museum Opens. The Cincinnati Art Museum opened to the public on 17 May 1886. Both inside and out, the museum did the Queen City proud. The building itself was a handsome Romanesque structure designed by a disciple of H. H. Richardson, the preeminent American architect. The curators sought out rising American painters, a strategy that established Cincinnati, over the following decade, as a center of contemporary American art. Other collections—a bequest of American Indian artifacts, for instance—went unappreciated in the 1890s, but later cemented the reputation of the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Complications. Only two issues complicated Cincinnati’s quest to establish a truly democratic institution: entrance fees and Sunday hours. Admission fees (twenty-five cents per visit at Cincinnati) kept museums financially solvent. Such fees, however, often proved prohibitively high for members of the working class. For most workers, Sunday remained the only “free” day of the week—and thus the only day available for attending museums, parks, or sporting events. Should a museum charge reduced rates on Sundays? If it did open on Sundays, would it violate the sanctity of the Sabbath? One museum official counseled in favor of Sunday openings; “A better behaved, more orderly lot of people have never been seen together in a public building,” this official noted of museumgoers in Pennsylvania; “only three men were put out of the Museum for being rude to ladies.” He added, “if Grog Shops are open, and people will go to the park on Sundays, it is better to give them a refined and attractive place to pass part of their afternoon, and thus avoid the temptation which strong drink offers to many.”
A Refuge in Eden Park. Convinced that the American public deserved access to American art, the Cincinnati Museum resolved to stay open on Sundays and to charge a reduced admission fee often cents. Yet even the most “democratic” nineteenth-century art institutions were likely to remain top-down enterprises: opportunities for an urban elite to protect common folk from the
evils of the “grog shop.” Still Cincinnati’s faith in “the genius of the masses” set an example for museums across the country. Drawn by the museum’s compelling collections of American art, crowds still make the pilgrimage to Eden Park.
Herbert and Marjorie Katz, Museums, U.S.A. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965);
Robert C. Vitz, The Queen and the Arts: Cultural Life in Nineteenth-Century Cincinnati (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1989).