"A Vital and Integral Part of Society:" Women Patrons of the Arts in the South (1)

Article excerpt

Women in the South have a rich history of patronage and leadership in arts and culture. However, unlike their Northeastern peers, such as Isabella Stewart Gardner, Louisine Havemeyer, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Southern women are little recognized for the numerous contributions they have made to the cultural landscape as it developed throughout the South in the twentieth century. The achievements of Southern women patrons of the arts began with the 1875 establishment of the first art museum in the South, the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in Savannah, Georgia, founded by Mary Telfair (Fig. 1), the sole heir to a prominent Savannah family fortune. (2) Motivated by noblesse oblige and a desire to improve the social and cultural needs in the South after the Civil War, white upper class women labored to establish and promote a cultural identity within the Southeastern region. Their work in this field paralleled progressive reforms, such as improved living conditions for women and children, that society generally considered the domain of the female population. Individually, Southern women patrons created various art centers in the region and supported them by generating significant material and financial donations. Their efforts sought to both educate and inspire Southern communities hungry for such institutions. These Southern women patrons persevered in supporting the visual arts because of their educational opportunities, financial, marital and/or familial independence, as well as their love of art and culture. They were ultimately successful because of their willingness to work within the deeply rooted patriarchal system that existed in the South well into the twentieth century. (3)

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In addition to Telfair, other leaders who endowed the South with art museums and centers included Harriet Harwell Wilson High (Fig.2), founder of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia; Corrine Melchers, founder of Belmont, The Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery in Fredericksburg, Virginia; Ninah May Holden Cummer, founder of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida; Margaret Acheson Stuart, founder of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida; and Elizabeth White, founder of the Sumter Gallery of Art in Sumter, South Carolina. (4) Other important women patrons of the arts who supported and sustained these establishments included the Telfair Museum of Art's Elizabeth Millar Bullard, financial supporter, volunteer curator and donor of American Impressionist paintings, and Gertrude West Hollowbush, a multimillion-dollar donor who placed the Telfair on a stable financial footing in 1988, the first time since its opening one hundred and two years earlier. (5) Other notable supporters included Sara Virginia Jones, donor of over three hundred-fifty prints to the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson; Adele Clark, WPA director of the Federal Art Project in Virginia, initial supporter of the Virginia Arts Commission and early supporter of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; and Louisiana's Matilda Geddings Gray, a Faberge collector whose objects are housed at the New Orleans Museum of Art. (6)

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Art, the key interest and pursuit of these women patrons, allowed them to focus their attention on building a cultural South. Most women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were educated in the arts, including drawing, sewing, and china painting. For some women these activities developed into a passion that led them to become practicing artists and/or art patrons. (7) Tetfair engaged in needlework and dabbled in drawing, but her sincere appreciation of the arts intensified during her travels in the North and Europe. She noted attendance to galleries and private collections in journals and letters. In a letter to her friend Mary Few she wrote: "America is only behind Europe in the fine arts ..." (8) The establishment of the Telfair Academy may have been inspired by these visits. …