The Museum’s origins in Evansville are traced to the Ladies’ Literary Club, formed in 1874. This club – whose members studied history, art and literature – was incorporated in 1884 and became a part of the State Federation in 1899. It was during this time that the Ladies’ Literary Club made a concerted effort to encourage the study of art in Evansville. This came to fruition through a cooperative effort with the Art Committee at Willard Library, resulting in a highly successful exhibition in 1900.
Held at Willard Library and promoted as a “curios loan” exhibition, the one-week event featured more than 400 objects including two-dimensional artwork, sculpture, religious relics, historic books and war paraphernalia. Highlighted in the exhibition was the collection of Colonel and Mrs. Charles Denby. Colonel Denby had served as United States Minister to China and his artifacts included tapestries, wood carvings and porcelain pieces from China.
Encouraged by the success of its first exhibit, the Art Committee of Willard Library and the Ladies’ Literary Club continued their efforts, including the purchase of the painting “Sunset” by the noted Indiana artist J. Ottis Adams. Today this painting remains a key piece of the Museum’s collection and its presence recalls the legendary group of Indiana artists known as the Hoosier Five.
With this backdrop, plans were laid to establish a permanent museum facility with its own collection. Under the leadership of Anna Keck, Dr. Snyder Busse, Charles Artes, Sr. and Reverend W.A. Whipple of First Baptist Church, a campaign was initiated to raise funds for the purchase of artifacts from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis. Countries from around the globe were in the process of selling their exhibitions, giving the Evansville contingent the opportunity to acquire artifacts from the Philippines, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Italy and other parts of the world. The new museum also received a boost when leading citizens of Evansville – including Denby, Samuel Evans and C.A. Rosencranz – donated portions of their private collections to the effort.
The site selected for the new Museum was the historic Barnes-Armstrong Mansion at the foot of Cherry Street in Sunset Park. This three-story Georgian structure had most recently been used as a boarding house and was considered well-suited for the new collection. Club women in Evansville began a campaign to secure the building, and the $6,000 needed to purchase the mansion was raised through subscription. Prominent local architect Manson Gilbert was retained to design porches and restrooms for the building. By 1905, the exhibits purchased in St. Louis were installed in the mansion, and on November 16, 1906, Evansville’s first true museum opened to the public at 7:30 p.m. The Women’s Federated Clubs hosted the opening reception, and invited guests included the School Board, the Parks Board and the mayor and his cabinet. Coffee and cake were served. The initial exhibitions consisted of curios from the Orient, art from Europe, arts and agriculture from the Philippines, and natural history items including shells, corals, minerals and beetles.
Over the next four years, the Evansville Public Museum undertook several successful exhibitions and became a center for cultural programs. By 1909 the young institution was debt free and, in view of this financial milestone, the officers of the Museum indicated to Mayor John W. Boehne that it was an opportune time to turn over ownership of the facility to the City of Evansville. This was one of the last positive moments for Evansville’s first museum.
In 1910, even though the City Council had approved $5,000 for repairs, the Parks Board claimed the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion was unsafe and condemned the structure. This decision did not meet with public approval, according to a poll conducted by The Evansville Courier, which indicated support for maintaining the facility by a 10 to 1 margin. Ministers also spoke from the pulpit deploring the possible destruction of the museum. Dr. M.A. Farr of Trinity Methodist Church said “It is the duty of Parks Board members to serve the public, not themselves.” However, on August 1 the Parks Board, in a secret session, ordered the collection removed from the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion. Vans moved the collection to the (Old) Court House where artifacts were haphazardly placed in Room 12 of the building. Subsequently, the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion was razed. Though there was speculation that the building was demolished to satisfy a well-connected neighbor(s) who claimed the museum blocked the view of the Ohio River, a definitive reason for the destruction of the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion never came to light.
Due to the razing of the Barnes-Armstrong Mansion, much of the museum’s collection was lost or destroyed. In 1913, at the request of Joseph Igleheart, the School Board took over the care of some of the artifacts. An inventory was performed and some broken items were discarded.
THE SOCIETY OF FINE ARTS AND HISTORY
In the 1920s, efforts were made to establish a new museum in Evansville. In 1921 the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society was established. Originally a committee of the Sebastian Henrich offered a gift of Native American items. In 1922, the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society requested custody of the old museum collection as well as cases being held by the Parks Board for an exhibition at Willard Library. The Parks Board complied, and this collection, along with the Henrich collection, served as the basis for the new exhibition. Low visitation and the logistics of manning the museum room at Willard presented a continuing challenge for the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society.
In 1926, the founding of The Society of Fine Arts and History revived interest in establishing a permanent museum in Evansville. The purpose of this organization, as stated by Paul H. Schmidt, was “… to establish, perpetuate and maintain a Temple of Fine Arts for the people of Evansville and Vanderburgh County,” said Schmidt, “to be used for all such purposes as will foster the aesthetic development and the higher life of said Community.” The new organization – under the leadership of officers Schmidt, Francis F. Reitz, Mrs. George S. Clifford, Mrs. Moses Gans, Mrs. Paul H. (Samuella) Schmidt and George Honig − offered the former YWCA structure at 216 Northwest Second as a temporary, rent-free home for the museum. This offer was accepted and, after merging with the Vanderburgh County Museum and Historical Society, the collection at Willard Library was moved into this 8,900-square-foot structure. Following repairs to the building, The Society of Fine Arts and History, whose Museum was known as the Temple of Fine Arts, opened to the public on March 19, 1928, with an exhibition of 25 paintings on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Society of Fine Arts and History opened a museum known as the Temple of Fine Arts on March 19, 1928 at 216 Northwest Second Street in the former quarters of the YWCA. This was the foundation of today’s Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science. When the Temple opened in 1928 in the old YWCA, it was in an 8,895 square-foot building that consisted of two old houses which were connected. The permanent collection consisted of 2,658 objects. At that time there were 324 Museum members. From late June, 1928 to January of 1929, some 3,500 people visited the facility. Today’s Evansville Museum is a 48,000 square-foot facility with 30,000 objects, a membership of 1,600 and an average annual attendance of 70,000.
ARTS, SCIENCES AND HISTORY
When the Temple of Fine Arts opened, Kaloolah Howe served as the secretary-curator and lone employee of the Temple of Fine Arts. Although a registrar was hired in 1932 and others followed, the Museum did not hire its first full-time director until the addition of Alvin Eastman in 1947. It was also in the 1930s and 1940s that the name of the organization was changed. In 1938, the Society of Fine Arts and History changed the name of their facility to the Museum of Arts, Sciences and History; and, in 1942, the organizational name became the Society of Arts, History and Science. The facility was commonly referred to as the Evansville Public Museum.
Though the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression throughout the 1930s, the Temple of Fine Arts was an active institution during this decade. The Foundation Fund was created in 1930 in an effort to raise money for a new museum building. The first fund-raising event was a recital presented by Rosanna McGinnis (later Mrs. Robert Enlow) at the old Central High School Auditorium. Proceeds from the recital totaled $830.41. On June 16, 1937, Board President Paul H. Schmitt announced a $1 million campaign for a new museum building. The facility was to consist of two, two-story wings housing a small theater and a large auditorium. The building would be located near Dress Plaza with the option of also utilizing the Federal Building (Old Post Office) − if the government relocated its offices − but that plan was eventually deemed too costly. The following year, Schmitt appointed a Committee to find a new sight for the Museum, but no financial campaign was to be undertaken until the “recession” was over.
It was not until the 1950s that the Museum, under the leadership of a new, energetic director, moved into its long-anticipated and much-needed new home.
THE SIEGFRIED R. WENG YEARS
In 1950, one of the most influential people ever to touch the life of the Museum arrived in Evansville. A physically imposing man of keen intellect, Siegfried Reginald Weng became the Director of the Evansville Museum after serving in a like capacity at the Dayton Art Institute. Under Weng’s capable leadership, and in conjunction with the Board of Trustees and staff, the Evansville Museum made substantial strides. Key among these was the fulfillment of a decades-long dream to build a new museum structure.
Today, the Evansville Museum continues to benefit from the far-sighted efforts of the late Mr. Weng, who, appropriately, celebrated his 100th birthday in 2004 as the Museum celebrated the centennial of its permanent collection.
THE JOHN W. STREETMAN YEARS
In 1975, the Evansville Museum’s longest serving Director − John W. Streetman III − began his tenure. During Streetman’s years of leadership, the Museum experienced substantial growth in exhibits, programming and facilities. Key among these milestones were facility expansions and renovations such as Rivertown, USA, the Koch Science Center, the Old Gallery, Mankind, the Crescent Galleries and EMTRAC; the initiation of nationally-touring art exhibitions and attendant scholarly books; and the development of a contemporary American still-life collection that includes many of the genre’s most recognized artists. Most significantly, under Streetman’s guidance the Evansville Museum received its first accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums in the 1970s − an earned honor that was maintained throughout his administration.