By Andrea Volpe

In August, I arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art carrying a slim book with a library binding — the original Handbook of the Cleveland Museum of Art, first published in 1925, which promised “a brief description of the museum, its collections, and its works.” My plan was to use it like an archaeologist would use an old map: to identify traces of the museum’s founding collections and, in turn, to link them to the men credited with founding the museum — Hinman B. Hurlbut, Horace Kelley, and John P. Huntington, all of whom, around 1890, had the idea of starting a museum in Cleveland, and J. H. Wade, who came along a bit later. I had questions: who were these men, and what motivated them to give their fortunes to found an art museum? Why has this museum survived, and flourished, and remained free to all, long after the economy that created the fortunes that founded it are gone? Especially when another similar museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, is currently in such peril.


The age of museums starts, some would say, in 1793, when, because of the French Revolution, the Palace of the Louvre became the Museum of the Republic. Or perhaps it began 40 years earlier, with the founding of the British Museum.  Whether amassed as royal collections, like the Louvre, or as collections fueled by mercantile fortunes like that of the Medicis in Florence, European collections date to the 1500s.

Steel frame of the CMA building from the north, as it appeared March 17, 1914

Steel frame of the building from the north, as it appeared March 17, 1914

American museums, like American culture more generally, felt deeply inadequate in comparison. Charles Willson Peale had what he called a museum in Philadelphia in 1786, but it was a bit of a hodgepodge. There’s a famous picture of him, pulling back a drapery onto a room lined with glass boxes filled with taxidermy animals and portraits done in the British style. But generally speaking, Americans were filling museums with stuff of all sorts — skulls, rocks, more taxidermy — through the end of the nineteenth century.  What became known as the Hudson River School of painters emerged in the 1830s and 1840s as the first distinct form of American art, but Americans barely thought of themselves as having a culture, and the anxiety about having any authentically American art would also get expressed as collective worry about the function of art in a democracy.

In fact, mostly what intellectuals wrote about in the nineteenth century was about how artistic styles imported from Europe should function in the still-new American democracy. American democracy was deeply suspicious of luxury before the late nineteenth century, because our political theorists associated luxury — and art was a sure sign of luxury — with monarchy.  They believed that art in a democracy needed a function, and that is why so much of nineteenth-century American art is allegorical and trying to teach us a lesson. Thomas Cole’s  “The Course of Empire,” which tells the story of the rise and fall of an imagined democracy in five parts, is the best example I know. Meanwhile, science and history museums, lyceums, and athenaeums were created throughout the nineteenth century.  Portraits and landscapes went up side by side with skulls and books.

It would not be until Americans started to amass huge wealth from the Industrial Revolution that art museums as we conceive of them today were founded. Why did things change?  Because American industry began to consolidate, and industrialists began to see huge profits.  Suddenly there was a class of people who had surplus capital, and in the process of defining themselves — in essence as a kind of industrial aristocracy — they turned their surplus capital into art.  At the same time that these wealthy industrialists were acquiring great art, they were also faced with the great throngs of immigrants who came to our shores looking for work — among them the Eastern Europeans and Italians whose labor as coal miners and steelworkers and factory workers generated such great profits.  But their labor was both threat and promise, as many a labor strike in the second half of the nineteenth century would prove.  So some of those same wealthy industrialists came to believe that if they could cultivate cultural appreciation, and democracy, among workers, through museums, they would quell some of the labor unrest. The art museum solved both problems: it became a place for Americans to display their refined tastes, and to prove that a democracy could have culture. And that culture, in turn, could be used to smooth out the rough edges of the immigrant worker. Art could Americanize. And for that to happen, museums needed to be public temples to culture.


So one way to explain the men who made the Cleveland Museum of Art is by looking at the local circumstances, both economic and cultural — the immense profits made in Gilded Age industry, the exhaustion that came with it, and the restorative power of art.

Building from the Southeast, November 3, 1914

CMA building from the Southeast, November 3, 1914

Immense fortunes were made between 1870 and the turn of the century.  And everyone — everyone — involved in the founding of the CMA could trace his wealth back to iron, oil, coal, and the commerce that grew up around it–the Cleveland Museum of Art is a monument to the Gilded Age. One robber baron — Rockefeller — was responsible for helping make the fortunes of the men who envisioned an art museum for Cleveland. Another, Andrew Carnegie, in his 1889 essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” essentially told fellow millionaires that the best thing they could do was to give their extra money away. Carnegie ranked free libraries as the best possible object of surplus capital, followed by an “art gallery or museum.”  Get a fireproof building, he said, and the gifts of treasures and objects would start flowing.


The founding of the Cleveland Museum was the result of three trusts created through the estates of John P Huntington, Horace Kelley, and Hinman B. Hurlbut, all of which provided for the building of an art museum in Cleveland and would lead to J. H. Wade donating additional land in Wade Park for building the museum in 1892.

The building from the Lower Boulevard, April 1915

The CMA building from the Lower Boulevard, April 1915

Huntington, Kelley, and Hurlbut had something else in common besides the idea that Cleveland needed a museum: they were all so exhausted by the Gilded Age that they sought refuge in Europe and in art. And they had all turned to one particularly skilled lawyer, Henry Clay Ranney, to be their trustee. Ranney, who had also grown exhausted and sought rest in Europe, would ultimately broker the compromise between the three trusts to get the museum built.

Born in 1819, Hurlbut left Vermont at age 18 for Cleveland. The 1879 Biographical Cyclopeida and Portrait Gallery with a Historical Sketch of the Men of Ohio, which is a sort of who’s-who of late nineteenth-century industrialists, identifies him as a “railroad president and capitalist.” Like so many New Englanders in the early nineteenth century, to him Cleveland was the frontier.  Hurlbut was a lawyer by training, but in 1852 he opened his first bank in Cleveland.  The Civil War was actually a boon to finance (the Union issued the first national currency to conduct the business of war), so by 1863 Hurlbut had four national banks. By 1865 he was “stricken with paralysis,” which suggests that corporate finance was exhausting, even in the nineteenth century. In 1871 he became president of the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis Railroad, which, as its name suggests, ran across Ohio to Indiana and would be a key part of a line running to Chicago by the late 1880s. The railroad was controlled by the Vanderbilt family, and would become part of Vanderbilt’s New York Central line.

Hurlbut made two trips to Europe, the first for three years starting in 1865 (to recover from that paralysis), and again in 1881. These trips made him a collector, and his collection was displayed at the 1878 Cleveland Exposition. In 1882, after his return from Europe, his collection reportedly included 58 paintings, a good deal of them by American painters.

Catalogue of the inaugural exhibition June 6-September 20, 1916

John Huntington

John Huntington was born in England in Lancashire and immigrated to Cleveland in 1857, starting out as a slate roofing contractor.  In 1864, he helped start a firm called Clark, Payne & Co., which became the largest oil-refining business in Cleveland, and where in the course of business he patented many inventions related to oil refining. In 1870, none other than Standard Oil bought his business, and Huntington walked away with 500 shares of Standard Oil stock.  Huntington went on to invest in various industries — coal, wood, shipping, mining, and stone quarrying — throughout the Great Lakes region and would become one of the wealthiest men in Cleveland. He was particularly civic minded (as was Hurlbut). Huntington served 13 years on the city council, where he focused on professionalizing the city. He supported a paid fire department; a municipal sewer system; deepening the river channel; and reorganizing the waterworks department. He also endorsed the sale of beer on Sundays, which, in a city of Germans and Irish, would prove a popular stance.

Apparently being an industrialist and capitalist was hard on his health, too, and Huntington spent four years in Europe trying to recover from illnesses, only to die in London.  In 1889 Huntington’s estate established the John Huntington Benevolent Trust and the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust. The Benevolent Trust revealed a broad support for Cleveland charities, spanning religions (he gave to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish institutions) as well as supporting orphans, hospitals, children’s aid, and Western Reserve University.  The Art and Polytechnic Trust was to provide an art gallery and museum, and a “free evening polytechnic school.”

Catalogue of the inaugural exhibition June 6-September 20, 1916

Horace Kelley

Horace Kelley was born in Cleveland into a commerce-minded family from Connecticut. Orphaned at age four, Kelley was raised by his uncles’ families, eventually settling on Kelley’s Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky. By 1845 he had sold his interest in limestone and timber on the island and moved to Cleveland. For the rest of his life, real estate would be his main concern. He made his first trip to Europe in 1868, also for health reasons, and would return to the continent four more times. Kelley’s will provided half a million dollars in 1890 (the equivalent of $13 million in 2014) to acquire land for an art gallery and an art school.

Hurlbut died in 1884, Kelley in 1890, and Huntington in 1893. The Hurlbut bequest, because it came to the museum only after the death of Hurlbut’s wife, was smaller than anticipated. (The Huntington Trust was not fully bequeathed to the museum until 1928.) By 1891, it was widely known that the three men had given money for a museum, or more accurately, for museums. Ranney becomes a central character in the story of the CMA at this moment, since he was a trustee of all three estates and eventually brokered a deal by which the Kelley Foundation and the Huntington Trust formed a non-profit corporation in 1899 to establish an art museum.

The John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust directed that one-fifth of the income of his estate would go, in perpetuity, “to the founding and maintenance of an art museum.” And Hurlbut’s will directed his trustees to display his collection of art objects, either in his house, or to build a museum for it. (Hurlbut was not the only one to consider turning his house into a museum — this, incidentally, is why there is a Frick Collection in New York and Pittsburgh.) Kelley’s will provided funds from his estate to be put in trust for the building of an art museum in Cleveland — he specified that all people should have access, and even suggested a name: the “National Gallery of Fine Arts.”

Huntington’s will provided income only, whereas funds from the Kelley estate were available only as the estate was settled and property was converted to cash, and Hurlbut’s estate was subject to life use by his wife, meaning it would got to the museum after her death. So, three estates, three different ways of funding a museum, none of them immediately accessible, and none of them, on their own, capable of funding the entire museum, which is why, even though the funds from the three estates originate in the nineteenth century, ground was not broken for the museum until 1913.

View of the Building from the Northwest, July 13, 1915

View of the CMA building from the Northwest, July 13, 1915

The land given to the city by J. H. Wade II for the museum in 1892 had its origins with Wade’s grandfather, known as Jeptha Wade I, who had given Wade Park to the city in 1882. The story of the first Jeptha Wade is typical for the nineteenth century in a Ragged Dick, pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps sort of way: born poor in Seneca County, New York, and orphaned as a baby, young Jeptha Wade worked as a carpenter, an itinerant portrait painter, and a daguerreotypist before becoming interested in the telegraph. Wade built the first telegraph line west of Buffalo, in Michigan, in 1847. He moved to Cleveland in 1852 and started the task of building a national system of telegraphs, which would eventually string wire all the way to California and result in the Western Union Telegraph Company. His only son, Randall Wade, would also work in the telegraph industry. His son J.H. Wade II was a philanthropic-minded financier who served in 45 companies, and became a close business associate of his grandfather’s after his father died. Wade would be the only one of the four founders to live to see the museum built and lead the CMA as president from 1920 to 1925.  He would eventually give 2,855 objects to the museum, including a collection of lace, a Rubens, a Delacroix, a Degas, and a Winslow Homer, along with an endowment valued at 1.3 million dollars in 1926.


The museum was incorporated in 1913, the result of the trustees of the three estates creating an independent public corporate organization known as the Cleveland Museum of Art, which was entirely independent of the Huntington and Kelley trusts. The corporation was to own the building, and the trusts agreed to maintain and operate the museum and contributed to an acquisitions fund.

Catalogue of the inaugural exhibition June 6-September 20, 1916

And, as The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art claimed, the distinction was important, for “the Cleveland Museum of Art is a representative body of the citizens of Cleveland,” and “It is the ambition of the trustees to make the Cleveland Museum of Art an educational center of art and artistic influence in the broadest sense — to stimulate, to encourage, to educate in an appreciation of the beautiful.”

The Bulletin continued:  “If the citizens of Cleveland will but add to the foundation we now have, the same degree of interest and support which is given to like movements in many cities of the middle west, it is no idle dream to predict that, in the not distant future, Cleveland will possess an art museum which shall be a real center of art on this side of the Atlantic. The generosity of a few citizens had laid a sure and magnificent foundation.”

The museum in Cleveland had become an important case study of something bigger, too — of the place of museums in early twentieth-century America. When Charles L. Hutchison, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, addressed the opening of the Cleveland museum on June 6, 1916, he expressed, on behalf of the citizens of Cleveland, their debt to Huntington and Kelley, whose trusts had funded the construction of the building, but he also expressed for the first time that the nation, too, was indebted to the founding donors. So what had started in the 1880s as something local wasn’t just about Cleveland anymore.

Hutchinson was the first president of the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and his address at the opening of the museum signaled the arrival of the idea of cultural democracy, which during the progressive era emanated from the Metropolitan Museum westward, motivated by the belief that the cultural function of museums in an industrial age was to exert a positive influence on civic values. “Art is not destined for a small and privileged class.  Art is democratic,” he told the audience assembled for the opening of the CMA in 1916. The AFA wanted to expand art into every industrial city in America, to bring “art among the masses” because it believed that art and beauty were essential to forming good citizens. For some, like Hurlbut, Huntington, Kelley, and Wade, industry made art possible in a very personal way — financing the collecting trips to Europe that were both their respite from capitalism and the fruits of it.  For others, like the immigrants pouring into Cleveland, art would be their respite from work.  And so the national is mapped onto the local, as the geography of American industrialization consolidated Cleveland’s place in the national economy, a place it would hold, in hindsight, from 1870 to the recession of 1970-71.


The 1925 handbook I used to tour the museum myself this summer was the first instance of CMA publishing a handbook since it had opened in 1916. It was meant to “assist visitors in making a more or less systematic tour of the museum, starting in the rotunda, and following the galleries.”  The path of the 1925 tour was determined by the architecture of the museum’s original building, starting in Gallery I and ending in Gallery XV. If a visitor had obediently followed the handbook, she would have begun in the Department of Early American Art in Gallery I, moving on to decorative art paintings and American sculpture. If you were the kind of museum visitor who is comforted by sequence, you pause at the special exhibition gallery before heading on to the works of the Department of Prints and Drawings, followed by Oriental Art, Egyptian Art, and the Armor court, then pausing to view Classical Art in the rotunda and the garden court, before a final stop in Textiles.

Catalogue of the inaugural exhibition June 6-September 20, 1916

It is also the kind of tour that is meant to elevate, and to educate comprehensively. The handbook suggests that adult groups “may arrange for guidance in the Museum by appointment,” or attend lectures, given Fridays at 8:15 and Sunday afternoons at 4 o’clock.  In addition by arrangement with the Board of Education, all fifth and sixth grade students in Cleveland visited the museum.

Today, Cleveland school children are not mandated to attend the museum, though many schools arrange field trips. And the remains of the museum’s earliest days can be found the in the new “handbook” the museum recently launched: many of the original items donated to the museum are featured in Gallery One, the museum’s new glitzy, high-tech entryway to the collections.  Inside Gallery One is  “the wall,” a giant touchscreen that flashes all of the museum’s holdings. There is something breathtaking about this wall, and the way it visualizes — quite dramatically — the sheer number of objects in the CMA’s collections.   The touchscreen wall also links to ArtLens, which allows you to take an app-driven tour you create yourself. ArtLens delivers on the museum’s promise of democratic access by turning the traditional museum handbook or guide, or docent’s tour, into an self-guided app. It is the 2014 version of my 1925 guidebook. The theory that art can promote democracy remains a key value in both.

So why is this museum doing so well despite the troubles of the city in which is resides? What this brief history of museums and industry tells us is that the CMA was the product of a series of tectonic changes that took place over a century — from 1796 to 1893. It takes a long time for a cultural and economic formation — the American Industrial Revolution — to find its expressions in cultural institutions.

So if we take the recession of 1970-71 as the starting point of Rust Belt de-industrialization, we’re only 44 years into the shift that Francis Fukuyama called “the Great Disruption.”  What’s gotten disrupted is plain to see: declining industry, dried-up jobs, shrinking populations. But the art that industrialization bought, that has yet to be disrupted — hopefully.  We all need to keep our eyes on Detroit.  But in the CMA, art has decidedly not been disrupted. If my visit last July was any measure — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. To that we owe a debt to four rich men who got very tired, went to Europe to recover, and brought back treasure. To what might we owe the continued flourishing of art and culture over the next half-century, now that the industry is gone?

Andrea Volpe writes frequently about culture and history from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Read more at and follow her on Twitter @andrealvolpe.

Photo credits: 1915 and 1916 Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum and the Inaugural Catalog

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