Lasting legacy: the men who envisioned the Cleveland Museum of Art

More than a century after it opened its doors to the public on June 6, 1916, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) remains one of the greatest cultural institutions, not just in Cleveland, but in the entire world. The conditions that led to its creation were unique.

Separate bequests from three wealthy Cleveland business leaders were combined to create the funding necessary to launch the museum in 1913.

Industrialist and inventor John Huntington; real estate investor Horace Kelley; and lawyer, banker, and railroad executive Hinman Hurlbut each left provisions in their wills to fund a new art museum.

Rotunda interior during construction, April 22, 1915.Their executors became aware of this and cooperated to establish one grand museum instead of three lesser ones. This was a lengthy process, as all three benefactors died 25 years before the museum opened.

With financing secured, the renowned Cleveland architectural firm Hubbell & Benes was selected to design the new building and the team opted for a dignified white marble neoclassical Beaux Arts design. The new structure cost $1.25 million—the equivalent to $25 million In today’s money.

 Jeptha H. Wade II was instrumental in the museum’s creation. It is quite likely that Hubbell & Benes was chosen because of his great satisfaction with the firm’s design of the Wade Chapel at Lake View Cemetery.

As one of the principal speakers on the day the museum opened in 1916, Wade declared that it would be “for the benefit of all people, forever,” a motto the museum holds to this day. By 1920 Wade was the museum’s president.

One of the museum’s most notable pieces is Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker”—one of just 10 examples cast and patinated during Rodin’s lifetime. It was acquired by Cleveland businessman and philanthropist Ralph King and presented to the museum in 1917.

The sculpture was a design originally meant to be incorporated in a work titled “The Gates of Hell,” a pair of bronze doors commissioned for a proposed museum of decorative arts in Paris that was never completed. Rodin worked on this concept for 10 years and his design for the doors is regarded as his masterpiece.

The damage to the Cleveland statue of “The Thinker” is the result of an act of vandalism in 1970. While no one was ever prosecuted, the militant group The Weather Underground was thought to be responsible.

Frederic Allen Whiting, the museum's first director, at the opening of the Cleveland Museum of Art to the public on June 7, 1916 with University school 4th graders. Frederic Allen Whiting became the museum’s first director in 1916 and served in that capacity until 1930. He cultivated strong relationships with a number of wealthy Cleveland families who became ardent supporters of the museum who donated generously.

Those families included the Severances, Holdens, Nortons, Warners, Allens, and Wades. Prominent Cleveland businessman William G. Mather was also a major benefactor during this time.

When Whiting left Cleveland, he was replaced by William Milliken, who served as director until his retirement in 1958.

A veteran of the First World War who served in France with the Army Air Service, Milliken wrote a memoir about his tenure at the museum. Published in 1975 and titled “A Time Remembered,” it is a warm tribute to many of the personalities whose unselfish early support set the museum on a path to greatness.

The Wade family had much to do with this, even donating the land the museum stands on. Wade Park was once part of a Wade family estate. Jeptha Wade I, the grandfather of Jeptha Wade II, owned the property that became Wade Park. The property was the original site of the Cleveland Zoo (today the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo), which moved to its current location to make way for the Art Museum.

The tradition of generosity continues with the 2012 $7.5 million donation from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation—the greatest single act of philanthropy in the museum’s storied history.

Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., (1889-1957). Leonard C. Hanna Jr. was a member of one of Cleveland’s most prominent families and a generous benefactor—giving $93 million to Cleveland cultural and educational institutions in his lifetime. Hanna was a strong supporter of the Art Museum as early as 1914, and developed a strong interest in modern art.

A year after his death in 1957 the CMA received a bequest from Hanna that gave it the largest budget for acquisitions of any museum in the world. He was almost certainly the museum’s greatest benefactor in the 20th Century. His lasting influence on the art museum and Cleveland is incalculable.

Additionally, Hanna was particularly generous with bequests to University Hospitals and Western Reserve University.

The museum has expanded several times, most recently in 2012, as collections have grown.

With annual attendance in excess of 750,000 visitors, The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the best attended art museums in the world and demonstrates the loyalty of the people whom it was intended to benefit for all time.

Read more articles by Tom Matowitz.

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.