Monday, September 13, 2010

The Rhode Island Art Association & the Ecology of Culture in 1850s RI

This is an exhibition about the dawn of the art world in 1850s Providence. 

It is a story about the founding of the Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA) in December 1853 and the dream of founding an Art Museum and Design School in Rhode Island.

Its narrative arc contains a cautionary tale about how the Panic of 1857 defeated this synergistic moment of optimism. But in the long run it is a hopeful story about the long-term inspirational legacy of the RIAA, which was referred to again and again throughout the nineteenth century as a promise that must be fulfilled.

The Rhode Island Art Association is the ancestor of the Providence Public Library as chartered (1871; opened 1878), the Rhode Island School of Design (founded 1877), the Providence Art Club (founded 1880), the RISD Museum of Art (opened Oct 1893), and the Newport Art Association (founded 1912) & Newport Art Museum (opened at the Richard Morris Hunt Griswold House in 1916). The RIAA unlocks another view of the founding of the RI Foundation (1916), and the American Academy in Rome (1894).

Bookends for this exhibition are 1850, when the first of the five annual Industrial Exhibitions with Fine and Applied Arts sections were held in Providence from 1850-54 and sponsored by the RI- Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry (RI-SEDI).

Working on the Fine Arts exhibitions for these Industrial Fairs were the RI architect Thomas Tefft (1826-1859) and the Athenaeum member and future NYT sculpture critic Albert Jones (1821-1887). Together, they juried the 1853 exhibition, and had ambitions for something more. The RIAA was born out of this ambition.

The other bookend is 1860, when Albert Jones sent the five-foot wide Coliseum photograph back from Italy after Tefft’s sudden death of fever – attended to by Jones. Albert Jones’ gift is one of many tributes paid to Tefft in 1860, and also a comment on the promise of Art and the challenge of commerce. It is about the arena where the battles of the RIAA were fought.

Would the RIAA continue? What would happen to Tefft’s plans for an Art Museum and school, and the companion Merchants’ Exchange – where the work of current RI artist, designers, and manufacturers was to be on constant view?

Would the terms of Tefft’s will be honored? “After the lapse of ten years my stock…shall become the property of the RIAA providing the Directors of that Institution shall carry out the true intentions of the prospectus…” (Dec 11, 1856).  [It was not, and his bequest lost.]

Just prior to his own death in 1887, Jones echoed this ongoing dream in his own bequest that led to the founding of the RISD Museum of Art, (after a 4-year lawsuit with the Providence Art Institute): “I give …[this] fund for an Art Institute in the City of Providence. When the citizens of Providence shall have contributed the funds necessary to form an Institute worthy of the City for the promotion of Art, then this sum with accumulated interest shall be permanently invested…” (May 1886, written in Rome)
This history remains relevant in 2010. I believe this is a timely exhibition because the issues addressed here tie in to current practical problems and give historical perspective to the private non-profit in America.

Like: what should we do about the boarded-up Arcade and the vacant lot next to it where Tefft originally proposed the Merchant’s Exchange? What can we learn from the changes Tefft proposed to the Arcade so as to better relate the two adjoining sites?

Or, what strategies will best help cultural institutions, including the Athenaeum, make it through the current economic depression?  Many of RI’s other cultural institutions are undergoing a transition in leadership, and every historic institution is under pressure to clarify its mission and relevance for the 21st century. It is a critical time with much to lose.

I strongly believe that scholars have a contribution to make to current policy decision-making.  Among other things, historians introduce a different theory of time and slow down the rush to fix it now, regardless of the future cost.  I am a scholar with a Twitter account. I hope to be there with the Twits and offer them, if not a book, at least a label with more than 140 characters. For it is about insisting on a different theory of time and the humility to look at the current situation from the perspective of more than one’s own life experience, or the buzz of the instant.

The RIAA can tell us about best practices for citizens supporting private non-profits initiatives that you think the government should be supporting but they just do not. Not now, and not then. Almost all of RI’s cultural institutions have been founded by citizen initiatives, and still look to their membership for financial support. We might wish this were Europe where the State supports the Arts, and the concept of the private non-profit is considered an insult to people’s sense of a State’s obligation to the people. But that is not the situation we have in America. We are here.

I hope an exhibition like this can help private non-profits explain their historic role as incubators of future talent, like Jones & Tefft - two Rhode Island boys (from struggling families) who dreamed big dreams, left bequests to the people of RI, and an idea that inspired for decades to come.

I hope this exhibition also germinates more conversations about growing local talent, growing local cultural institutions and local businesses – and what happens when those cycles of growth don’t line up. How best to plan for cyclical economic downturns, and not have every good idea put on hold for a generation?

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

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