Many notable personalities have contributed to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s success over the years—transforming it from simply an idea into one of the world’s leading art museums.
This was especially true in the early days when museum director Frederic Allen Whiting, board of trustees chairman Jeptha Wade II, and dedicated trustees like William G. Mather and Leonard C. Hanna Jr. set the new museum on a path to greatness.
William Mathewson MillikenProminent among these early leaders was William Mathewson Milliken, who served as the museum’s second director from 1930 until 1958.
Milliken was born in Stamford, Connecticut in 1889. His early education was in private schools, which led to a B. A. from Princeton University in 1911.
After a brief foray into the New York textile industry, which he found to be very distasteful, Milliken entered the art world, serving on the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an assistant curator of decorative arts until 1917.
Along with so many other young Americans, Milliken’s plans were disrupted that year when America entered what was then known as the Great War. He was quick to leave his job and enter the Army Air Service, serving as an officer in the 282nd Aero Squadron from its formation in February 1918 through the end of the war.
Identifying himself early-on as someone with no interest or aptitude for flying, he was an intelligence officer in the unit’s ground echelon during its service overseas. Milliken remained with the unit until it was disbanded in December 1918.
Returning to civilian life, he found that his old job at The Met had been given to someone else.
He immediately left for Cleveland to begin work as curator of decorative arts at the practically brand new Cleveland Museum of Art.
One of his first acts in his new job was to create the museum’s May Show, destined to become a Cleveland institution for decades.
Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show. From 1919 to 1993As a newcomer to Cleveland, Milliken’s engaging personality and remarkable range of knowledge enabled him to make friends easily. These genuine and lasting friendships involved many people who became major donors to the museum.
Milliken moved easily in circles that included Mather, Wade II, and Hanna Jr. The museum benefits from these relationships to this day.
Milliken acquired some of the museum’s most prized exhibits during his tenure, including the Guelph Treasure in 1930, which gave the museum international stature.
In 1930, barely past the age of 40, he became the museum’s director, a position he held for the next 28 years.
Milliken’s taste in art was eclectic, and he encouraged acquisition of art that covered a wide range of genres. He established relationships with counterparts in important European museums and was honored by several foreign governments for his work to develop collaborations.
Milliken was no stuffed shirt. An avid baseball fan, he was known to sit incognito in the bleachers at Cleveland Indians games. A man of the world, he kept an apartment in Venice and was in the habit of spending time there every year.
He prized the friendships he made in the Army and attended his WWI squadron reunions faithfully for years.
When Milliken retired from the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1958, he chose not to stand still.
He enjoyed good health. For years he is said to have walked around the perimeter of Wade Lagoon 21 times every day.
Born Under the Sign of Libra by William Mathewson MillikenHe was a published author. His memoir “A Time Remembered,” recounting his career at the CMA was published in 1975. It is a warm and generous recounting of many of the relationships that made the museum great.
Shortly thereafter, Milliken published his autobiography, “Born Under the Sign of Libra.” He also wrote a book about his beloved Venice. He remained in Cleveland—his interest in art unabated.
In retirement he continued to read and study, and friends noted that this scholarly man did not own a radio or a television set.
He made very good use of the 20 years he lived after retirement, widely mourned when he died in 1978 at the age of 89.
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.