A critique on the museum’s 5-year plan for growth
as reported by The Blade
In the spirit of community involvement, I’m compelled to offer some feedback on the recent article in The Blade about the museum’s future. But first a discussion about the last paragraph in the article, “The Toledo Museum of Art was founded in 1901 by Mr. Libbey and his wife, Florence Scott Libbey.” That’s incorrect – The Toledo Museum of Art was founded by a group of artists.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to say that Libbey was not important in the establishment of the museum – he was by far the chief benefactor in establishing the Toledo Museum of Art. But to say that he and his wife founded it is like throwing the museum’s populist history down the memory hole.
There are many near-contemporaneous accounts of how the Toledo Museum of Art was founded by a group of artists.
In the book, Memoirs of Lucas County and the City of Toledo from the earliest times down to the present Vol. II, published in 1910, which includes biographical sketches of prominent Toledo men, there is no mention of Libbey founding the museum, but there is mention of Edmund Henry Osthaus being “one of the founders and incorporators” of the museum.
This is how Osthaus is described in the Toledo Museum of Art’s own collection:
The Blade, September 30, 1922: “Museum Idea Takes Form” In 1893, the painter, Thomas Parkhurst formed the Tile Club, a group consisting of artists and architects in 1893. In 1900 the club had its first exhibition at Parkhurst’s store on Superior St. Out of that event grew a movement. After the exhibition, the group of artists and architects was so enthused and fired up with the idea of establishing a home for art in Toledo that they got together with George Stevens as the leader, and talked art museum day and night. Robinson Locke, son of David R. Locke of Petroleum V. Nasby letters fame, helped through The Blade. Finally, George Stevens, “in an inspired moment” elicited the co-operation of Edward Drummond Libbey, who gave them the use of an old building on Madison Ave. and 12th Street to use for the museum, but they needed money…
Edward Drummond Libbey was the biggest benefactor, and he encouraged community involvement because everyone wanted a museum that belonged to the people. Libbey matched donations, and children collected pennies to contribute to the building fund.
The Toledo Museum of Art was always OUR museum….
By the Seventies, the museum was in high gear: it was a leading teaching museum, providing annually about eight Educational Fellowships, training museum professionals from all over the country, who also helped with the free children’s Saturday classes that drew around 2,000 children per week. The Toledo Museum of Art ranked in the top 10 American art museums for popularity and assets. It was the center of the community art scene, with not only Saturday classes for grade school and high school students, but for its small but superior college art program in the basement of the museum, the Toledo Museum of Art School of Design, which extended to adult classes. That really brought in the community.
The museum also had monthly shows featuring local artists from 1933 to 1970, 540 in total, for both men and women artists. Beginning in 1918 it hosted the annual Toledo Area Artists Exhibition, celebrating the local art community. The museum was alive with community involvement.
In the 1990’s, the museum’s School of Design and much of the adult education ended when the Frank Gehry building was built, which was connected to the east side of the museum. The University of Toledo’s School of Visual Arts occupies the space, taking over for the museum’s School of Design. The extensive children’s Saturday class program slipped away. The Saturday class program that had served the community for many decades became a sorry shadow of what it used to be.
What have they done to OUR museum?
In 2014, under the new director Brian Kennedy’s watch, the venerable, 95-year old tradition of the Toledo Area Artists Exhibition came to a shameful demise when the Toledo Museum of Art opened the show to entries from Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus, populations nine times the size of the Toledo region, while simultaneously limiting the show to only 27 artists. To add insult to injury, they stuffed it with Toledo Museum of Art insiders, mostly men. Additionally, the show was totally devoid of diversity, the absence of which is not the norm and has never been the norm for our TAA show. See a full account of the 2014 show on this website, in the tag cloud in the footer of this page.
In 2011, Brian Kennedy presented his five-year strategic plan. I remember him saying that if art classes were available at one place in town, they were not necessary in two places because that’s redundant, we should save resources. Kennedy’s “basic principles” projected on the screen contradicted what he was saying there, as would his subsequent actions to what was projected on the screen.
In 2015, a few months after the 2014 TAA show debacle, I was at the museum attending the senior curator Larry Nichol’s gallery talk about a particular painting we were sitting on front of in the gallery, when at the end, he asked the small group of people before him, mostly age 45 and up, how to bring younger people in. I raised my hand and said, bring your children’s classes back. Bring the TAA show back. Bring the monthly local shows back. He said, “noted.”
What did they expect would happen to attendance at the museum, when they take everything away that enlivened the art community, from classes for children and adults to lending a wall for a local art show?
The exclusive, discriminatory “Circle 2445” membership effort designed to bring in the museum’s desired younger members was short-lived. The overt ageist discrimination insulted many people.
In other ways too, the Museum became unresponsive to the Toledo community. For example, here’s a story having to do with Toledo’s first artist, William H. Machen, who died in 1911. Over the years, his descendants have approached the museum for advice, once in 1941 and again in 2015 — see the contrast in responses between the third museum director, Blake-More Godwin and the ninth director, Brian Kennedy…
In 2019, Brian Kennedy resigned after only eight years to become the director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. (Which might be a fine historical museum that is owned by Harvard University, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the great Toledo Museum of Art.)
Now then, back to the subject of this post, a critique of the new 5-year plan as outlined in the above screen-shotted March 9, 2021 Blade article…
the new 5-year strategic plan
- to continue to build on its diverse collection... Well that’s good, because Edward Drummond Libbey’s bequest stipulates that half of the money taken from the fund in any given year must go to buying new art.
- working more closely with local artists through a more active outreach and engagement strategy… Does this mean they will bring our Toledo Area Artists Exhibition back? Have they forgotten the relationship they used to have with local artists? I hope they will read my blog post, it’s outlined above!
- becoming an employer of choice through support and retention policies… Hasn’t the Toledo Museum of Art ALWAYS been an employer of choice? Or are they talking about the museum guards, whom for many years were hired from our community of senior citizens, but about 10 years ago the museum started replacing senior citizens with young people, who just aren’t sticking with the job like the seniors did, because being a long-time museum guard is a dead-end job… Are they using young people for their ageist young image?
- creating a platform for operational excellence through the upgrade of visitor amenities, making museum access a priority, growing the museum’s financial base and becoming more efficient…
Culture of Belonging
and Authentic Integration
of great art and everyday community
As if words, regardless of deeds, will make it so.
That’s exactly what the Toledo Museum of Art used to do. The Toledo Museum of Art didn’t have to try to be authentic — the Museum oozed with authenticity and community involvement. That’s because it was our museum – it belonged to the people of Toledo – it was Edward Drummond Libbey and the artist founders’ intention – funded in part with the pennies of the children who have since become our forefathers.
Will the Toledo Museum of Art bring back our venerable, prestigious Toledo Area Artists Exhibition? Will they bring our classes back? Will the Museum ever be the center of the working artist community again? Or will it continue to be a place for yoga on the front steps for the 24-45 crowd, and “baby and me” looking-at-art classes in the galleries for bored (but sufficiently young) parents?
The artists of Toledo can’t wait to find out.