Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thomas Tefft’s Plans for an Art Museum and Design School in RI (1853)

The Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA) was founded in Dec 1853. Its stated mission was to establish an Art Museum and Design School in RI. We now know that RI architect Thomas Tefft was working toward this goal for the entire year prior to the founding of the RIAA.

The Tefft portfolio preserved in the Brown University Archives contains a sequence of drawings that can be organized to map this evolution from Dec 1852 to Dec 1853 and the split off to form the RIAA. With Brown’s permission, a rough-cut video of Tefft’s digitized drawings tentatively dated and set in sequence is being shown at the Providence Athenaeum exhibition, with clarifying text and other explanations added. The finished video will be posted at:

Exhibited at the Athenaeum from Sept 1-23 are the key original drawings that show Tefft's year of transformation in thinking about how to successfully create these new cultural bodies in RI.

In Phase 1, from Dec 13, 1852 to May 16, 1853, Tefft began working on a new Franklin Lyceum Building, and kept expanding it to include more space for an Art Gallery.

Lyceum #1 Jan 4-March 29, 1853 is the first drawing shown here. This was likely used to solicit funds for the planned new Franklin Lyceum building on a specific site. It was a dynamic time for the institution, with more people, like the art dealer Seth Vose, joining at this time.

Tefft drawings reproduced by permission of Brown University Archives. With special thanks to Jennifer Betts, Interim University Archivist  for her assistance throughout this project.
By April 25th, the Lyceum had raised $2,500 for a new building, and on May 2nd they discussed the legal changes needed to hold $50,000 in property, suggesting they were committed to construction. Throughout April and May 1853, until his final report of May 16th, Tefft’s plans for the new Lyceum Building become ever more ambitious. The next drawings are from this expanding and final stage of Phase 1.

Unexpectedly, Tefft began including larger and larger Art Galleries in the building. The final design shown here as Lyceum #3 is signed and ated May 2, 1853. The proposal features an Art Gallery 32’ x 58’.,and no art exhibition space this size was built in RI until RISD added the Waterman Gallery in 1897 - a major exhibition space still in use. Accompanying this is my proposed facade attribution, a drawing currently filed as unidentified office building.

Then, on May 16, 1853, Tefft reported to the Franklin Lyceum on the plans & circular that would help them solicit more funds for a new building. But this is an ending, not a beginning. Tefft’s report was received, filed, and his committee discharged. He does not actively engage with the Franklin Lyceum after this.

Phase 2: May 16 - Dec 5, 1853

The Rhode Island Art Association grew from here.

Between May and Dec 1853, Tefft designed a kind of cultural center that would house RI’s first Art Museum, an Art School, Art Education School, Lecture Hall, and have a common library and offices for a suite of civic organizations. The proposal included Studios, and rooms for Drawing, Casting, and Modeling.  It appears to be merely a draft, possibly on tracing paper. No other plans from this project survive in the Tefft portfolio at Brown.

I have dated this drawing as before the founding of the RIAA because that group, formed Dec 5, 1853, is not referred to in the cluster of societies housed on the second floor of the plan.  The plan does refer to the RI Society, which is another name for the RI Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry (a group forever reporting on the challenges of their cumbersome name and common abbreviations, like the RI Society, that they considered adopting). Since Tefft was a member of at least 3 of the 4 groups included, it seems likely to propose this project as a transitional endeavor between Tefft’s Franklin Lyceum Building proposals and the clear need to begin a group dedicated to founding an Art Museum and Design School.

A historic drawing in RI's cultural history. Here Thomas Tefft makes the first concrete proposal for an Art Museum in RI, in 1853. This is forty years before the first Art Museum in RI, the RISD Museum of Art, opens in the Waterman Building (opposite the First Baptist Church in America) in Oct 1893.
Thus, already in 1853 Tefft designed an Art Museum for a proposed private non-profit collective building. This was the starting point when the RIAA began in Dec 1853 with its mission to found in RI a School of Design & Art Museum.


Phase 1

Lyceum #1            2-story, 3-bay            Site 30’x80’                     Dec 1852 - March 29, 1853

Lyceum #2A:         3-story, 5-bay            Site 45’x100’                  April 1853

Lyceum #3:           4-story, 3-bay            Site 35’x100’                  April - May 16, 1853

Phase 2: Art Museum, Schools, Library +

                              4-story                        Site 180’x300’               May 17 - Dec 5, 1853

Rhode Island Art Association 1st meeting called  Dec 5, 1853

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

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