Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay

June 20 - October 18, 2009


Wall panels for the exhibition


Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay

Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay is a double exhibition exploring the efforts of artists living in Indiana and the Midwest to establish reputations and careers of national and international standing. By presenting both historical and contemporary perspectives, the exhibit showcases the extraordinary talent found throughout Indiana and the surrounding region, and explores continuity and change in the ways artists have gained recognition outside the centers of the art world.
The gallery of historical paintings examines the Society of Western Artists, a group of artists from Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis. These artists sought to counteract the East Coast's dominance in American art by initiating an annual exhibition circuit to member cities between 1896 and 1914. These exhibitions attracted national notice, enhancing the reputations of the artists who participated.
Contemporary Hoosier artists continue to struggle to survive as artists and to attract widespread attention for their work. Their efforts to build careers and sustain their artistic passions -- while remaining based in Indiana -- are the focus of the gallery of contemporary work. The exhibit features 20 Hoosier artists who, through varying means, have succeeded in establishing artistic careers and raising their visibility beyond the region.

The Founding Members of the Society of Western Artists

The year of the Society of Western Artists' birth, 1896, coincided with Indiana's "Golden Age," a time when Indiana and American art and culture overlapped. The "Hoosier Group" of Indiana painters -- T.C. Steele (1847-1926), William Forsyth (1854-1935), J. Ottis Adams (1851-1927), Otto Stark (1859-1926), and Richard Gruelle (1851-1914) -- were considered leaders in a potential movement to establish a distinctly American school of painting.
Founding members of the Society of Western Artists all chose to return to the Midwest after studying abroad. They claimed their home territory to be as visually interesting and worthy of representation as more dramatic coastal or mountainous terrain. Far from the Eastern seaboard, where the major art exhibitions took place, they were acutely aware of the disadvantages the Heartland posed concerning sales and recognition.
The Chicago artists from the Cosmopolitan Club can rightfully claim to have been the driving force behind the initial organizing and founding of the Society of Western Artists. But the Hoosier Group artists, excluding Richard Gruelle, were its sustaining strength. They devoted much time and energy to serve as officers, jurors, and working members of the annual exhibit committees, in addition to entering their best works in the exhibitions.

The Society of Western Artists

The name chosen for the Society evokes images such as mountains, deserts, wild horses, and Native Americans. But in the late 1800s, residents in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Indiana considered themselves to be in the West. Despite the 1890 census claiming Brown County, Indiana, as the center of the nation's population, the Ohio Valley remained politically and culturally "Western."
The Society of Western Artists was an artist-led organization founded in the early 20th century to raise national awareness of members' work and to boost sales in wider markets. The Society's organizers, all from the Midwestern cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis, wished to bring the work of their artists "before the public in a more satisfactory manner." To that end, the artists established an exhibition to circulate among their member cities.
That first exhibition, consisting of works by founding members and juried nonmembers, launched an ambitious six-month circuit that continued each year until 1915. The inaugural opening at the Art Institute of Chicago on December 15, 1896, presented 227 paintings, 19 sculptures, and 17 ceramic works. Through size alone, the Society's exhibition reverberated in the press all the way to New York. For the next 18 years, annual shows enjoyed priority scheduling at sponsoring museums and attracted wide-ranging reviews in the nation's art periodicals.

Artists Who Chose to Leave

Making art can be a solitary pursuit fraught with uncertainties. In addition to being vulnerable to fickle consumer preferences and economic volatility, artists must continually set their own standards for quality control while experimenting with new methods. Although plein air painters commonly paint together, and those involved in Academia may gain inspiration from revolving classes of students, other artists work alone with no critical input during the creative process.
The camaraderie and inspiration of working among other artists in an open-minded environment may have been the motivation for many artists to leave their Midwestern roots and head for the Big Apple. Perhaps the best known native-Hoosier artist, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) moved to New York and became a leading American Impressionist and influential teacher. Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949) moved to Louisiana to teach, and William Edouard Scott (1884-1964) settled in Chicago after his French sojourns. Victor Higgins (1884-1949), Olive Rush (1873-1966), Carl Woolsey (1902-1965), and Wood Woolsey (1899-1970) all headed out to experience Santa Fe's artist community. More recently, feminist artist Mary Beth Edelson (b. 1935), and African-American artists Carl Robert Pope Jr. (b. 1961) and Felrath Hines (1913-1993) went to the East Coast. Constructivist Don Gummer (b. 1946), David Smith (1906-1965), and controversial sculptor Daniel Edwards (b. 1965) also left the Hoosier state to establish art careers.

Current Artists Who Chose to Stay

Indiana in the 21st century is home to hundreds of visual artists who have chosen to live here. The reasons for their location preferences vary -- quality of life and family ties; appreciation of Indiana's varied landscape; job or relationship prospects; or lack of resources to relocate, to name a few.
Professional artists devote major time and energy to pursuing their vocations in make-shift spaces at home, warehouses, studios, and the great outdoors. However, creating art is only part of their job. Getting their work seen and purchased by the public is crucial. Indiana artists have found success in different ways, from hiring marketing agents to personally schmoozing in urban centers in order to increase name recognition. Some artists, focusing primarily on creating art, have adapted their lifestyle needs to accommodate modest incomes.
Artists who have chosen to live in Indiana have been selected for this exhibition to tell their stories. Their stories represent the variety of ways that each finds their own measures of success in the Midwest. Each artist must find his or her own balance of creativity and sustenance to master the art of living.


Return to Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2009 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.