Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay

June 20 - October 18, 2009


Exhibit overview

Eighteen artists gathered in Chicago in March, 1896, to found The Society of Western Artists. The Society was comprised of three artists from each of the cities of Indianapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

The represented cities were not geographically nor even demographically in the western United States at the time, but they remained "Western" politically and culturally. Despite the fact that the 1890 census revealed the center point of the nation's population to be located in Indiana, states in the Ohio Valley were still considered the West, with the Pacific region the Far West. Hence the designation of The Society of Western Artists caused little confusion when organized.

The fundamental difference between the Western artists and those on the Eastern seaboard was the lack of access to the resources necessary for building a career. The major annual exhibitions of America occurred at the National Academy of Design, the Society of American Artists in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The annual exhibits in Indianapolis, Chicago and Cincinnati, beginning in 1893, consisted primarily of recycled works selected by Eastern organizers. Although the major juried exhibitions accepted qualified work by Western artists, they were not as well known as those working in the East. They were taken less seriously as artists of national importance.

The Society of Western Artists' organizers aspired to bring the work of Western artists "before the public in a more satisfactory manner." To that end, the artists established an exhibition to circulate among the member cities. The first exhibition, consisting of works by founding members and juried nonmember artwork, 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 included 227 paintings, 20 sculptures and 17 ceramics. Through size alone, the Society's exhibition was a significant event which reverberated in the press all the way to New York. For the next eighteen years, annual shows enjoyed priority scheduling in sponsoring museums and attracted extensive reviews in the nation's art periodicals. T.C. Steele, as a founding member of The Society of Western Artists, along with Frank Duveneck, Lewis Henry Meakin, William Forsyth, and J. Ottis Adams, among others, benefited from enhanced national stature and occasional out-of-town sales.

The Indiana State Museum exhibition showcases approximately 50 historical paintings included in the Society of Western Artists' annual exhibit circuits between 1896 and 1914, with emphasis on work by the participating Hoosier Group of artists. A third of the paintings are from Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. Two of the paintings are from the Indiana State Museum collection and the remaining pieces are borrowed from museums and private collectors.

Didactic panel information discusses why Midwest artists felt compelled to organize the Society; challenges for the Society's continuing 19-year existence, and causes for the organization's demise.

A second gallery will focus on the similarities of the challenges facing today's Hoosier artists. Approximately 45 pieces will display a variety of mediums and styles currently being produced in Indiana. Artists who have chosen to live in the state have been selected for this exhibition to tell their stories. Their stories represent the variety of ways that mid-western artists find their own measures of success in the Twenty-first century. Each artist must find his or her own balance of creativity and sustenance to master the art of living.

A book titled T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896-1914, with 61 color reproductions and complete catalog listings, is scheduled to be published by Indiana University Press in the spring of 2009. It will be the first extensive research and publication of information about the Society. Articles in The American Art Review and Traces of Indiana and Midwest History will be published promoting the book and exhibition.

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