Prestigious national position of the Cincinnati Art Club
The Cincinnati Art Club today has a pretty low profile in the local area. It is often viewed as a private club not very accessible to the public. In fact, membership is open to all and many of our activities are offered free to the public. We may be better recognized across the country within the artistic communities. We are the second oldest club of this type in the US, having been in continuous operation since 1890. Only the Salmagundi Club in New York City can claim longer uninterrupted operation. Our annual juried show, Viewpoint, attracts entries from 30 or more states with good representation from both coasts. Shown is the original logo adopted in 1894 and designed by Henry Farny. It is intended to depict the struggle that artists must endure; the tadpoles have not made it yet through the trials depicted by the wreath of thorns; the dragonfly, of course, is the artist who has achieved greatness; the word Quero means “we seek”.
“The fly represents the spirit of art rising out of the morass,” Henry Farny said, “and the wreath of thorns and laurel represent the thorny path artist travel before he attains the crown of laurel.” 1
Position of Cincinnati as an art center during the 19th century
When studying the history of the Club, it is useful to understand the environment in Cincinnati in the 19th century. It was then a prosperous and comparatively rich city. There was an unusually large portion of the population with education. The economic opportunities here drew wealthy investors from the East Coast who became patrons of the arts as well as supporters of other civic causes. Art schools and other art clubs existed here from the early 1800s. During the latter half of the century, the number of artists in the area grew significantly as numerous lithographing, publishing and related decorative arts businesses developed here. The Queen City was the recognized art center of the West in those days.
Founding of the Club
Even artists who have achieved broad recognition and have established themselves economically want to continue their development by group discussion, critique and sharing their techniques with other artists. One such circle of artists was a Cincinnati sketch group regularly meeting in Jon Rettig’s studio as early as 1885. From this group came the 13 founding members forming a men’s art club at a meeting in Clarence Bartlett’s studio on March 15, 1890. The members were John Rettig, president; James McLaughlin, vice president; Edward Butler, secretary-treasurer; Clarence Bartlett, Matt Daly, Albert Elzner, Edward Johnson, Remmington Lane, Leon VanLoo, Louis Lutz, William McCord, Percy Morris and John Henry Sharp. In order to avoid the unlucky number of 13 members, they elected Bartlett’s dog as the 14th member and recorded that in the minutes. The first printed roster of the membership is that of 1891-92 listing 32 active members and 36 associate members, indicating remarkable growth in the first year. Henry Farny was elected the second president and Leon VanLoo the third. In 1896, Frank Duveneck was elected the 4th president. Duveneck was already the most prestigious painter in the area and his commitment to the Club brought in many additional members.
Early character of the Club 1900-1920
At the beginning the primary focus of the Club activity was art practice and study. As the membership expanded to include many non-painting Civic leaders and art supporters, Club activity broadened into a social area that almost overshadowed the artistic aspects during the next couple of decades. The Club became famous for “entertainments”; shows, dinners and other elaborately staged social affairs. John Rettig, while an accomplished portrait and landscape painter, was best known as a designer and producer of outdoor spectaculars dealing with historic events such as the “Fall of Rome”, “Moses and the 10 Commandments”, the “Fall of Babylon”, and others. Many of these utilized blocks-long temporary stages and drew thousands of spectators. In 1903, there was a “Crusades” dinner where 17 different committees were formed to design and fashion the props.
Evolution to a self sustaining group 1920-1950
During the early days, business was conducted by the membership at large during monthly meetings with everyone voting to decide activities, elect officers, etc. By the 1920s the scope of activity called for more discipline and organization. A nine-member Board of Trustees was set up to manage affairs and elect officers from that panel. In 1923, the Club purchased its first permanent clubhouse on East Third Street. Herman Wessel was president at that time. The Club incorporated to more effectively own and manage a facility. For a while the property was held in Wessel’s name pending completion of incorporation. The organization was set up on a non-profit basis from the beginning. Social extravaganzas decreased in number and scope during these years, and of course, by the 1930s depression era these activities all but ceased. However, the organizational work done earlier helped the Club survive these difficult times.
One of the funnier incidents in the Club’s history took place in 1928 when a celebration was held dedicated to burning the mortgage on the Third Street property. It was later discovered that the legal document ceremoniously burned at the foot of an Egyptian styled statue was actually the deed to the premises and not the mortgage papers as supposed. It is not recorded how they unwound the legal complexities of this mistake.
A major chapter in the Club’s history closed in 1953 when the last of the original 13 charter members, John Henry Sharp, died. Another notable member, Charles Schlapp, died in 1964, ending his 36-year term as secretary-treasurer of the Club.
Current character and positioning of the Club
The next phase of the Club’s development was precipitated by the creation of Ft. Washington Way across the front of the city. The East Third Street property was taken by that construction in 1955 and the current Parkside Place location inaugurated in 1957. Monthly dinner meetings during the transition were held at Hassman’s restaurant on McMicken Avenue. Board meetings were held in various members’ homes. The role of Associate Members began to change significantly after World War II. While the Associates group still includes friends and supporters of the arts, just as in the early years, it began to more typically be made up of newer artists still in their formative years that joined with the objective of becoming active status members as they were able to meet those standards. In 1978, the Club Constitution was changed to tap the talents of these members by allowing them to vote in Club elections and serve on the Board. Another important broadening of the membership took place in 1979 when the Board decided to offer membership to women. Women artists in the area responded strongly, even though they still have their own vibrant Club. In 1985, Martha Weber became the first woman president of the Club. At this point women are involved in all facets of the Club and are now slightly more than 50% of our membership. The Club is now a potential resource and source of inspiration for any artist in the greater Cincinnati area.
Club art collection
A review of the Club’s history would not be complete without some discussion of the Club’s art collection. Over the years members and their families have donated paintings to the Club. Mostly their intentions have been to someday help the Club financially through sales or other methods. We have over 100 paintings in the permanent collection, which is now a major asset.
Looking to the future
Today, after nearly 120 years, the Cincinnati Art Club is a healthy, vibrant organization. We have about 350 members, almost 200 in active status with the balance Associates. As mentioned earlier, slightly over 50% are women. Fifty-six people have served as president, including 3 women. As an aside, we have photos of all of those presidents except one; George Deberiner of 1920-22 is missing from our archive for some unknown reason. Our monthly dinner meetings held September through May are well attended, sometimes reaching the capacity of the facility. On the one hand, the Clubhouse in Mount Adams is too small to meet our needs and desires. For example, we are unable to routinely display our collection of paintings although we do have climate-controlled storage to protect them. We do make very heavy use of the facility and getting the most from our limited resource. We have no mortgage on the building and we manage to cover our operating expenses from dues, commissions on sales and rental fees. We were able to renovate the gallery in 2004 which depleted our reserves, and we would like to build up our currently small fund for the future replacement or major renovation of our facility
Amazingly, the Club retains the purpose established in 1890, namely to advance the knowledge and appreciation of art within the community and to assist local artists in developing the skills to present the highest quality of art to the community. Not many organizations of any kind can claim that kind of constancy.