MUSKEGON – The French artist Henri Matisse, known for his fearless exploration of often controversial techniques, once remarked, “Creativity takes courage.” His observation applies not just to art, but to those who dedicate their lives to it. And one of those individuals was Lulu Miller.
Director of the Hackley Art Museum, now the Muskegon Museum of Art, from 1916 to 1930, Miller had always been passionately committed to bringing cultural awareness to Muskegon. This could be a challenging task in a lumber town that had to be convinced that shelling out big bucks for a little old painting or sculpture was money well spent.
But Miller was dogged in her pursuit of beauty. Perhaps her most famous achievement, when she was the librarian at Hackley Library in 1907, was the acquisition of 20 volumes of works by the then little-known photographer Edward S. Curtis, depicting life among the North American Indians. Convincing the board, and the citizens, to fork over $3,000—around $80,000 in today’s money—for what many saw as a foolhardy venture took courage. But it paid off. Lulu put Muskegon on the international map; among other subscribers to the Curtis portfolio were the King of England, President Teddy Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell!
Curtis, of course, went on to become an American icon whose portraits of Native Americans established him as an artistic pioneer. Today the Curtis collection at the MMA is considered the finest in the country.
When Raymond Wyer, the museum’s first director, purchased a small James Whistler masterpiece, “Study in Rose and Brown,” for a whopping $6,750, it created a controversy so heated that in 1916, Wyer resigned in protest. Miller was appointed in his place, becoming only the second female museum director in the U.S. She achieved national recognition for her outstanding contributions to the field, and by the time she retired, had helped to create one of America’s most impressive small city art museums.
One of the most valuable aspects of Miller’s legacy was the establishment, in 1921, of the Friends of Art, a volunteer group that was to become a vital force in building the collections, and the identity, of the museum and, in the process, its relationship with the community. The Friends helped to acquire great works of art, and to bring people into the museum.
“Miller’s legacy is hard to match,” says MMA Assistant Director Catherine Mott. “In 1922, she and the Friends of Art organized a reception to promote the museum. I think they surprised themselves. Over 2,000 people showed up! Now in their 100th year, the Friends of Art still continue to provide art education to our community. The Art Smart series is one that’s hard to replace. They’ve shared in-depth perspectives of staff, other scholars and many of their own who have done great research on pieces from our own collection and things abroad. They’ve done trips, tours, many things along the years. This volunteer group is one that has made us a better museum and shared with the community what one volunteer group can do to change, express and celebrate a museum.”
To honor the Friends of Art, the museum is presenting a new exhibition, “The Friends of Art: 100 Years.” The exhibition features a selection of some 30 artworks donated by the Friends to the museum’s permanent collection over the decades. According to MMA Senior Curator Art Martin, “Visitors will discover a rich diversity of objects, along with some of the museum’s most significant works of art, including pieces by James Richmond Barthé and Paul Howard Manship and one of our signature paintings, Tunis Ponsen’s Yacht Club Pier.”
Such acquisitions attest to the Friends’ keen appreciation of excellence, and their visionary savvy. They boldly went after works by contemporary artists who were just becoming acknowledged, knowing they would stand the test of time. In 1929, the Friends began purchasing artwork for the museum’s permanent collection. Their first acquisition was a remarkable still life painting, “Corbeille de Fruit,” by the French artist Albert Andre (1869-1954). Two years later, the Friends purchased “Yacht Club Pier,” by Dutch-born artist Tunis Ponsen (1891-1968), who had emigrated to America after WWI and settled in Muskegon, where he took night art classes at the Hackley Gallery. Later moving to Chicago, Ponsen became a noted force in the American art world, and “Yacht Club Pier” is a stunning example of his impressionist/modernist skills.
Visitors to “Friends of Art: 100 Years” can marvel at “Corbeille de Fruit” and “Yacht Club Pier, as well as key 20th century American sculptures like Harlem Renaissance sculptor James Richmond Barthe’s (1901-1989) powerful “Feral Benga” and Paul Howard Manship’s (1885-1966) “Flight of Europa,” a classically flamboyant example of Art Deco bronze sculpture. Among the Friends’ later acquisitions were a collection of Japanese woodblock prints, photographs by Ansel Adams, works by Western Michigan artists and prints by American printmakers.
“When the museum needed additional funds to complete a purchase, the Friends also proved a vital resource for raising the monies needed for several important acquisition,” notes Martin. “Through their gifts and programs, the Friends have provided a lasting legacy here at the MMA.”
“Friends of Art: 100 Years” runs through May 2. The museum’s other exhibitions include:
The Art of the People: Contemporary Anishinaabe Artists. Through Feb. 28.
Levi Rickert: Standing Rock, Photographs of an Indigenous Movement. Through Feb. 28.
Jim Denomie: Challenging the Narrative. Through March 14.
Ansel Adams: The Photographs of Yosemite Suite, featuring “24 iconic images of Yosemite National Park, the location and pictures that defined Adams’s internationally celebrated career. Friends of Art members purchased the photographs for the museum collection in 1989.” Through May 9.
For more information, visit www.muskegonartmuseum.org.