The next time the history of the Dayton Art Institute is written, it’s bound to include these significant dates: Friday, March 13, 2020 through Friday, July 17, 2020. Those days will be chronicled as the period in which a worldwide pandemic forced the museum to close for an extended time.
The only other time the museum shut down was for 18 months between 1995 and 1997, when the building was undergoing a major renovation.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was not how we wanted to start our second century, but it will certainly become a fascinating chapter in the museum’s history,” says director Michael Roediger.
With the famous landmark open again, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at this iconic Dayton treasure and those who have led it over the years.
In conjunction with the museum’s centennial celebration, local educator Michael W. Williams has been presenting talks about DAI history for the Dayton Metro Library and other groups.
Williams’ fascination with history began in the third grade. “I had always loved a good story, and what was better than a story that was real?” he says. “During the upheavals of 1968, I became aware that history was happening and, as a third-grader, decided I had to study history.”
The Vandalia-Butler High School graduate earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at the University of Dayton and has taught at the Miami Valley Career Technology Center for the past 34 years. He’s also taught classes in Western civilization and U.S. history at the University of Dayton and Sinclair Community College.
Williams spends his summers researching topics that often end up as articles in history magazines or as presentations for the Dayton Metro Library. He co-authored “The Industrial Hobarts” with Peter C. Hobart, a history of Troy’s Hobart family and the companies it founded.
We chatted with Williams about the history of one of the Miami Valley’s most popular attractions.
Q: What’s your earliest memory of the art museum?
A: The first time I visited the DAI was on a field trip while attending Queen of Martyrs elementary school. I remember the docent pointing out the many elements in the huge painting, “Empress Faustina visiting St. Catherine in Prison” that draw the viewer’s eye toward its center. In “Portrait of a Young Man with a Sword” I marveled at how Ferdinand Bol evoked the texture of a velvet cloak.
Q: Why did you decide to research the museum’s history?
A: The Art Institute was approaching its 100th anniversary, a timely topic that could be researched locally. Invariably, my family and I visit art museums when on vacation, but we have yet to find one whose building and setting surpass the beauty of the DAI, and I wanted to discover how it came to be created. As often happens, research turned up more interesting people and stories than I could have imagined.
Q: What did you find out about the museum’s earliest roots?
A: Miss Linda Clatworthy, Dayton’s head librarian, returned from a trip to Europe determined to create an arts organization in her hometown. On June 21, 1912, art lovers meeting at Memorial Hall formed the Miami Valley Art Association and elected eight officers, six of whom were women. They planned to host two traveling shows in the coming year from the National Federations of the Arts on the ground floor of Memorial Hall. Misfortune struck the morning of Tuesday, March 25, 1913, when the levees broke and river water surged through downtown Dayton, completely destroying the recently-installed second traveling exhibit. The show had been composed entirely of watercolors.
Q: When we visit the museum, there’s a portrait of Julia Shaw Patterson Carnell. What was her involvement?
A: On Feb. 28, 1919, the association reorganized and incorporated itself as the Dayton Museum of Arts and purchased a house at the southeast corner of Monument and St. Clair streets to serve as its first home. The 33 original trustees included many prominent Daytonians, such as Orville Wright and Valentine Winters.
Soon, Julia Shaw Patterson Carnell — who headed the committee on the home and grounds of the museum — rose to pre-eminence. Julia had married Frank Patterson, who co-founded the National Cash Register Company with his older brother John. In 1901, Frank died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Julia widowed at age 38 with three young children to raise. She remarried a year after her eldest left for college. In June, 1918, her youngest child, Frank Stuart Patterson, a test pilot for the Army Air Corps, was killed in a plane crash at Dayton’s McCook Field. Shortly after this tragic loss, Julia threw herself into remodeling the downtown home and grounds into an art museum, but she dreamed of a much grander setting, Steele Hill, which towered over a bend in the Great Miami River northwest of downtown. In 1923, the museum was renamed the Dayton Art Institute to reflect its growing mission to educate dozens of art students.
Q: Can you tell us more about the current building?
A: Carnell hired architect Edward Brodhead (E.B.) Green, who proposed a building in the neo-classical style, like the art museums he had designed for Buffalo and Toledo. But Julia had fallen in love with Italy during a family trip in her youth and she envisioned an Italian Renaissance villa. Brodhead’s son, who was his father’s partner, had recently been to Italy, and the Steele Hill site reminded him of the 16th century Villa Farnese, built for a cardinal in Caprarola.
The final design adapted the Villa’s grand staircase, but the Art Institute’s façade, with its three tall round-arched windows, echoed the Villa’s casino or garden house. Carnell kept a close eye on the builders and artisans during the two and a half years it took to construct the museum, a process she described as both “tiring and enjoyable.” On Jan. 7, 1930, several hundred guests attended the gala opening. Carnell told her fellow Daytonians, “I feel as if I were giving into your hands a child of my own. Be good to it.”
Q: Can you tell us something about those who have directed the museum over the years and the changes each of them introduced?
A: Siegfried Weng, an accomplished artist and musician, was only 25 when he became the first director at the new building in 1930. (He had served as the model for a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln because, like the 16th president, Weng was 6-foot-4.) Due to the Depression, many donors postponed or even canceled their pledges to the Institute. The expected surge in memberships fizzled.
Carnell had to financially support her “child” through a difficult adolescence. Weng disdained museums that reminded him of “a great overfilled mausoleum.” Instead, he endeavored to make the Institute “Dayton’s Living Room,” a place inviting to families. He installed comfortable seats, softer lighting, and music. Weng sought to attract children who would grow into art students, adult members and eventually donors. Saturday morning treasure hunts sent youngsters traipsing around the museum to find objects, which they were encouraged to draw. The goldfish swimming in the pond by the Ming Dynasty Buddhist shrine soon had a variety of feathered and furred companions on the Institute grounds. Cockatoos, cranes, toucans, peacocks and a macaw named “Old Mac” added their colors and squawks. A monkey named Skipper cavorted inside a bamboo cage in the Asian gallery. Children never forgot to visit the donkeys and llamas who occupied outdoor pens. Julia Carnell passed away in 1944, but her son, Jefferson Patterson, remained an important patron and art donor throughout his life. Weng served as director until 1950.
Dr. Esther Seaver (1950-1956) took a six-year hiatus from her career as an art professor to direct the DAI. She scored a major coup by convincing a New York businessman who had never been to Dayton to donate one of Monet’s famed water lily paintings!
Thomas C. Colt, Jr. (1957-1975) flew combat missions in his Corsair fighter over Iwo Jima and Okinawa . During his Dayton tenure he built one of the finest collections of Baroque paintings in America and secured the donation of Edward Hopper’s “High Noon,” which became one of the Institute’s most requested works. The museum installed air conditioning — an amenity that E.B. Green once considered a “fad.” The Art Ball, organized by the museum’s Associate Board, became Dayton’s premier social event, and the first Oktoberfest, also organized by the Associate Board, was held.
Bruce Evans (1974-1991) served as a curator at the Institute before becoming its director. He helped expand Oktoberfest and acquired Ponderosa’s large corporate collection of modern art. Since the University of Dayton and Wright State had established art programs, the Institute phased out its formal art school in 1975. Evans worked with Pam Houk to establish the Experiencenter, a participatory gallery of interactive art activities for the young.
Alex Nyerges (1992-2006) staged some blockbuster exhibits during his tenure including the works of Edgar Degas, the glass sculpture of Dale Chihuly, shows on Eternal China, and the Treasures of Ancient Egypt. In 1997 he completed Carnell’s vision by adding the final two sides of the projected octagon along with a new entrance rotunda at the rear of the building. This gave the Institute 35,000 square feet more of exhibition space. The Gothic Cloister was covered with a glass skylight to become a popular space for weddings, concerts, and other community events.
Janice Driesbach (2007-2011) came to Dayton from Lincoln, Nebraska and had to make tough decisions to stabilize the DAI’s finances in the wake of the 2008 recession. Attendance and memberships grew during her tenure and in 2011 she staged Creating the New Century with art loaned by the Dicke family, key benefactors of the museum.
The museum’s current director, Michael Roediger, took the reigns in 2011 as Dayton’s first truly home-grown director. The Wright State graduate spent 14 years with the Victoria Theater Association and has focused on building the Institute’s endowment and reducing its debt to better support its staff and collections. He has also secured funding for many renovations and improvements: new windows, roof repairs, improvements to accessibility and renovation of the auditorium. Several events were organized to celebrate the DAI’s 100th Anniversary in 2019; renovation of the Grand Staircase and fountain will be completed this summer, wrapping up the centennial project.
“It has been a difficult time for the museum and the coming months will continue to hold challenges,” says Roediger. “But the DAI has survived many challenging times in its 100-year history. I am confident we can weather the storm.”
HOW TO GO
What: “Samurai, Ghosts and Lovers: Yoshitoshi’s Complete 100 Aspects of the Moon,” a special exhibition on view through Sept. 13. “Photographs from the Collection,” “Swashbuckling Samurai” and “In the Company of Friends: The Kettering and Patterson Legacy” are also on view.
Where: Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton
When: Museum hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. on Sundays.
Cost: Museum general admission, which includes the collection galleries and all exhibitions, is $15 adults, $10 seniors (60+), active military and groups (10 or more), $5 students (18+ w/ID) and youth (ages 7-17), free for children (ages 6 & younger) and museum members. Advance tickets are not required to visit the museum, but capacity may be limited in some collection galleries and the Special Exhibition.
Other offerings: The Museum Gift Shop is open. You can also access free programs on the DAI website including “Draw From the Collection” and “Tiny Thursdays at Home.”
More info: daytonartinstitute.org
NOTE: Guests are asked to remain six feet from others not in their group. All staff and guests will be required to wear face coverings. Enhanced cleaning procedures are in place throughout the museum. Protective shields have been installed at the museum’s Guest Services Desk.