Historical Highlight:The Carolyn Randall Fairbank Memorial Collection, A Database Story

Suzanne Slick, Collections Information Specialist

Carolyn Randall Fairbank, 1854-1918, and her daughter, Agnes Fairbank Taylor, 1884-1949. Image courtesy of the Allen Country Public Library.

My title is Collections Information Specialist, which means that I spend most of my work time managing the data related to our art collection, our institutional archives, and our Special Archives. As the collections grow, so does the amount of data we collect and file, and after 100 years of collecting, we have a lot of information to keep straight! And, being human, we have some errors, some discrepancies, a variety of formats, and even some duplicates!  As good stewards of the collection and the information connected to it, we strive to be diligent in taking care of both.  And that means catching and correcting errors!

Since getting back to work in the building following the springtime “hunkering down”, one of my projects is to proofread, check for accuracy, standardize formatting, and edit our collection records accordingly  — that’s about 7,000 object records and about 1,600 artist records, spanning over a century! What’s neat about this is the historic trails that begin with examining these small bits of information, leading us down fascinating paths and even a few rabbit holes. For example, lately we decided that our credit lines should follow a more standardized format to improve the way our gallery labels appear. So, as I’ve been combing through these line by line, I became curious about a gift of prints that was given over several years – from 1941 to 1954 – some of our favorite legacy works on paper. While looking at the credit line, I noticed a spelling discrepancy, and ended up getting acquainted with another early museum supporter.

The funds for these 39 prints and drawings were given in memory of a woman who was a charter member of the Fort Wayne School of Art Board of Control, and who was also a founder, member, or supporter of other arts, music, and women’s organizations in Fort Wayne around the turn of the last century – Carolyn Randall Fairbank. Mrs. Fairbank died in 1918, and her daughter, Agnes, whose estate funded the bequest in memory of her mother, died in 1949. 

Carolyn Randall Fairbank, 1854-1918, and her daughter, Agnes Fairbank Taylor, 1884-1949. Image courtesy of the Allen County Public Library.

The gift from Agnes’ estate was arranged by Agnes’ husband, Col. James L. Taylor, Jr.  He wrote this note announcing the gift:

December 5, 1949

The Trustees

Fort Wayne Art School and Museum –

Dear Sirs,

Certain contributions to the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum will be made during the next few years from the estate of the late Agnes Fairbank Taylor, to contribute a memorial to her mother Carolyn Randall Fairbank.

Enclosed is check for $500.00, as first contribution toward such memorial. It is expected that contributions will be completed by the end of 1952, with the total not less than $3000.00.

These contributions to said memorial are to be used for the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum, as may be decided by your Board of Trustees.

Sincerely

James L. Taylor, Jr.

Our files contain several years of correspondence from Col. Taylor as he faithfully sends the contributions, never failing to name the Carolyn Randall Fairbank memorial. Carolyn was much beloved, and it seems the Fort Wayne School of Art from which the Fort Wayne Museum of Art was launched was much beloved by her. She was the daughter of Franklin P. Randall (1812-1892), five-term Mayor of Fort Wayne. First elected in 1859, Randall was known as Fort Wayne’s “Civil War Mayor”, and for his lavish home and tropical garden plants and trees at 409 East Berry Street. Carolyn grew up in a home that was so exotic and interesting that it became a Fort Wayne tourist attraction! But back to Mrs. Fairbank and the topic of accurate data – this wonderful woman seemed to be plagued with the chronic misspelling of her name! Thankfully, we had spelled “Fairbank” correctly, though it appears as “Fairbanks” in the 1897-98 Fort Wayne School of Art, Board of Control minutes and other historic documents about the family; but, we had spelled “Carolyn” as “Caroline”.  We weren’t the only ones to do this! In fact, in August of 1951, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel ran a story about the Fairbank gift – also misspelling her name! Hertha Stein Duemling wrote:

Into the waning summer comes an exciting presentation of prime interest to this community. Currently and through Sept. 15, the new $3,000 Caroline Randall Fairbank Memorial Collection of prints and drawings is being given the first public showing at the Fort Wayne Art Museum. It is the decision of Col. James L. Taylor Jr., Pittsburgh, Pa.,  that the Fairbank Memorial has been established at the local museum in honor of his late wife’s mother, who was prominently identified with the cultural and social organizations of this city and state. – The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, August 21, 1951

After reading and rereading Col. Taylor’s folder full of notes and letters, I’m beginning to think he was a real stickler for the accurate spelling of his mother-in-law’s name! Notice the highlighting and big block letters in these notes –

He also says: Greatly enjoyed the exhibition of prints – and the newspaper article – But, please remember the names – Carolyn Randall Fairbank and, Clark Fairbank. And that’s what we strive to do – to remember the names, the dates, the titles, and mediums – to get it right every time, but we are human, after all. I do feel reassured by a couple of things here – that it’s really easy to make simple mistakes; and that I’m not alone in being an accuracy geek – I think Col. Taylor and I would have gotten along famously.

Here are a couple of the works purchased by the museum with the gift Agnes gave to remember her mother, Carolyn Randall Fairbank:

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