Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist
As we navigated these past months (it’s been a whole year!) of the pandemic, we heard a lot about other “hard times” that also tested our resolve. We’re all hoping, at this point, that this year will be vastly better than the last, and that we’re stronger for having endured – just like the survivors of past hard times. Their stories of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the World War II years of the 1940s remind us that we’ve survived some tough stuff. But, what was it like in Fort Wayne back then? I’ve been combing through some old museum records as we mark our 100th birthday, and thought it might be interesting to share some tidbits about those challenging decades and how the museum got along; and, also how it helped people cope.
Though Fort Wayne’s growth slowed dramatically in the 1930s, it fared the Depression better than many other cities, partly because some of the city’s largest employers, like the Wayne Knitting Mills and International Harvester, were able to stay in production, keeping most of their workers employed. At the same time, 25% of the workforce was unemployed.
To be sure, belts were tightened and resources were short here, as everywhere. Others not only lost their jobs, but also their homes, farms, businesses, and savings. A shantytown of shacks constructed by the desperately poor sprang up in the area known as Jailhouse Flats, just a couple of blocks north of the museum’s present location. Along with freight and paying passengers, the steady day and night trains crossing the city brought the destitute and jobless looking for work or just something to eat; they were often seen walking the streets and alleys downtown. Lots of Americans were hungry: Fort Wayne families were aided by soup kitchens, bread lines, and various federal, state, and local programs. Often it was neighbor-helping-neighbor that made ends meet!
But not all was gloom and doom. If you had the luxury of an extra twenty-five cents, you could bask in the splendor of the Emboyd (now the Embassy) or Paramount Theaters and lose yourself in the picture shows as young Art School student, Bill Blass, did before he left the city to find his future in high fashion. Another Fort Wayne native and Blass’ idol, Carol Lombard, born Carole Jane Peters, lit up the screen with her dazzling smile in the 1930s. Hollywood glamour on the silver screen transported many during these austere years, as did broadcasts from WOWO and other recently launched radio stations. In winter there was ice-skating at Lakeside or Reservoir Park while in summer picnickers could travel by streetcar to one of many nearby green places or go for a swim in the St. Joe River at the Municipal Bathing Beach. Cards, puzzles, board games, and pick-up games of baseball helped pass the time, with little or no expense.
Some interesting things were happening in the local arts scene due to the widespread lack of resources. Because travel was out of reach for many, local music and theatre organizations were launched – the Fort Wayne Community Concert Association in 1931; the Fort Wayne Civic Symphony in 1933; the Old Fort Players in 1931; and the Civic Theatre in the late 1930s. Some of the same arts patrons were also finding creative ways to support the visual arts, for example, in 1937, a group of young women formed the Citizens Art League to provide aid to the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum (and its students) in a time when the school was threatened with closing for lack of funds.
The young Art Museum, just launched in 1922, did its part, too, with dozens of exhibits that were enjoyed free of charge by almost 4,000 visitors in 1934 alone. And aspiring artists continued to find their way to the school; in 1935, 101 students were painting, drawing, and sculpting. A few students were able to attend on federal aid, some received local scholarships, some modeled for tuition, while still others did janitorial work in exchange for tuition. A few were even allowed to lodge in the school for a short time during the leanest months.
A new era began in 1932 with the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and, through the mid-to-late 1930s, his administration’s New Deal programs began to set the nation on a sounder course. Gradually jobs returned, hunger pangs eased, and the shantytowns were vacated.
Down at 1026 West Berry Street, the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum was also climbing out of the Depression slump. At the end of 1939, there were 141 students in the Saturday, day, and night courses; and the Matrons course also drew a few students, aligning with the institution’s mission to serve the entire community. Almost $3,000 was paid to the school in tuition. In the spring of 1939, a Living Pictures program was held featuring members of the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum dressed as figures reenacting ten famous paintings accompanied by piano music – “one of the loveliest programs we’ve ever had”. Exhibits included a show of watercolors by Constance Forsyth, daughter of one of the school’s first teachers, William Forsyth. The school was operating in the black, and every little bit of extra income had helped. The students contributed by designing and selling Christmas cards, calendars, and wrapping paper that was printed by the Chicago Paper Company.
Mr. Theodore Thieme continued to check in from the West Coast, offering encouragement and guidance and sending funds periodically to help pay down the mortgage and for special projects, like redecorating the ceiling of the library. His son, Wayne, gave $50 to replace the school’s set of flatware. The school and museum carried on as optimistically as possible, while providing diversions of art and entertainment to those starved for beauty and an escape from the dreary reality.
Great things were beginning to happen in America – those who could travel visited the 1939 New York’s World’s Fair where they could see Paul Manship’s The Moods of Time and Time and the Fates of Man sculptures, among many other futuristic wonders. The Paul Manship pieces would come to be very important to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art!
As 1939 wound down, the school and museum’s board made plans for a February Beaux Arts Ball. The theme was to be The Parade of Nations – guests could wear costumes from the foreign land of their choice, but must also wear a mask! The planners hoped to secure Benny Goodman’s orchestra for the grand affair. In early 1940, the party planners changed the theme; hoping to capture some of the excitement of the new, immensely popular film, Gone With the Wind. The dance was a success and cleared $230. That March, the board was considering celebrating the school and museum’s Golden Jubilee — a few years late, counting its age from 1887-1940. Every angle would be considered in hopes that a proper observance could be carried out within 18 months. A Mutt Show at the Armory that spring would raise a few dollars and provide loads of fun. Plenty of activities and programs were offered at the school in its Little Art Theatre, including teas, lectures, puppet shows, movies, and exhibits. In May, the board chose a silver pattern; a set with ample serving pieces was ordered for $75, and like the flatware, was paid for by Mr. Wayne Thieme. Proceeds from the sale of the Art Leagues’ book of Favorite Fort Wayne Recipes (below), from which one could recreate Mrs. Wayne Thieme’s chocolate soufflé or Mrs. Clyde Quimby’s salad dressing, also went to covering the expenses.
The dedicated board members saw to the serious work of keeping the Art School and Museum running, though a committee was briefly proposed to discuss dismantling the museum at the request of Director McBride – this was never noted again. In fact, the school and museum’s board was growing the collection at every opportunity. Mr. Wayne Thieme proposed that board member Mrs. Duemling write the Misses Hamilton, descendants of the prominent pioneer family, and the heirs of the late Mrs. Mahurin about old pictures and any museum pieces the families might wish to pass along. The Art League gave a lithograph by Hill Sharp, and soon a windfall would enhance the collection beyond all expectations.
The board continued to promote the stature of the school and museum in the community, with support from the city. In 1940, Mayor Harry Baals recommended Judge William Ballou and Mr. George Sweet for membership on the board of the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum — mayoral appointments were required by the by-laws. Board meetings were often followed by a companionable dinner in the school’s auditorium with an educational lecture, presentation, or travelogue.
The purchase of the property adjacent to the school was proposed by board president Mr. Wayne Thieme to accommodate the increased enrollment, additional classes and programs. There was some worry that overfilled classrooms would adversely impact the learning experience. Always thinking of the bottom line, the board decided that bridge parties would continue, as the last had raised $108.40.
In late December of 1940, news of accomplished Cleveland architect and Fort Wayne native Mr. James M. Hamilton’s untimely death from injuries caused by an automobile accident was received with sadness and surprise. He had left most of his estate to the school and museum. A financial bequest of about $60,000 in securities was made; and Director McBride reported in April 1941 that a shipment of about 50 pieces from Mr. Hamilton’s personal art collection had been received and opened. The formal dedication of the gift was set for September 30, 1941. Mr. Francis Taylor, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was invited as the special guest.
The 1941 exhibition calendar also included showings of work by sculptor Paul Manship, including the models for his World’s Fair piece, The Moods of Time, painter and Art School teacher Homer Davisson, and the artists of Brown County. An exhibit of student watercolors was displayed in the offices and hallways of the school and an exhibition of original Walt Disney Pinocchio illustrations was enjoyed by young and old. Mr. Manship gave a lecture in the Little Art Theatre on November 18, 1941. But, this brief spell of calm was about to be shattered, because on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II.
At the annual meeting that May, Mr. John Escosa gave a harp recital, then accompanied by Mrs. Erwin Mast, led the group in the singing of the National Anthem. The amended constitution that allowed the receipt of gifts in the form of securities – necessitated by the Hamilton bequest – was unanimously accepted. Mr. Siegfried Weng, Director of the Dayton Art School and Museum, gave a talk on art schools and museums across the country.
On January 20, 1942, the American Association of Museum Directors’ wartime resolutions were read to the board and entered in the minutes:
“Therefore be it resolved:
- That American museums are prepared to do their utmost in the service of the people of this country during the present conflict
- That they will continue to keep open their doors to all who seek refreshment of spirit
- That they will, with the sustained financial help of their communities, broaden the scope and variety of their work
- That they will be sources of inspiration illuminating the past and vivifying the present; that they will fortify the spirit on which Victory depends.”
The meeting adjourned and the members gathered in the auditorium for dinner and a talk given by the students on the work of Clare Leighton.
In October of 1942, the school was reported to be in a good financial condition. Mr. Mead, Board Treasurer, moved that the Board of Directors accept the Board of Trustees recommendation that the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum purchase the Paul Manship bronze, Day. The motion carried. On May 18, 1943, the Board’s School Committee asked that the three other Manship bronzes, Morning, Evening, and Night not be returned to the artist, but purchased to complete the set of four models that were made for the large-scale Moods of Time at the 1939 World’s Fair. They requested that the Trustees be asked for the sum of $2,000. This motion also passed. These funds were drawn from the monetary gift left by James Hamilton.
The minutes of the December 1942 Board of Directors meeting note that boys in the service reported that training received at the Art School had been of definite use while enlisted. Additional classes for the boys at Camp Scott and Baer Field – the two new local military bases – were being planned, tuition free. A picture loan was established at Baer Field for the enjoyment of the soldiers. There were fewer and fewer male students enrolled in classes at the school, but a mechanical drawing course offered with Purdue drew several students; at least one of these was hired by the drafting department at Baer Field.
In April 1943, it was recorded that Art School students had made twenty-one posters for the U.S.O., twelve for the Lions Club Victory Garden, and one for the Salvage Committee.
And as we experienced in 2020, the challenges of difficult times had unexpected effects on the school and museum and their roles in the community:
1944-45 Annual Report of the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum:
The effect of the war has been felt in museums as well as all other organizations. The immediate past war years will stand out in our history. Curtailment has been very necessary in many lines of our work, but in others it has allowed us to expand even outside the realm of art when we saw we could contribute to some phase of war work. The difficulty of transportation has kept many from attending the museum and its activities; but also has caused many to turn to the School and Museum as a constant source of interest and recreation.
And while the focus of the school remained fixed on maintaining normalcy, as much as possible during wartime, it began to look forward to inevitable post-war changes. One of these was learning to accommodate returning soldiers who might require special programs and courses. Another was working out tuition payments via the G.I. Bill. The first G.I. Bill student enrolled at the Art School in early 1945.
Fort Wayne had its war heroes, too, and two of these had connections to the Fort Wayne Art School.
On March 27, 1944, Bud Mahurin, who grew up in Fort Wayne and was the great-nephew of architect and Fort Wayne Art School and Museum charter member, Marshall Mahurin, was shot down over Germany. He was the first double-ace fighter pilot in the European theater. Mahurin parachuted out of his P-47 and was eventually rescued by the French Resistance. He went on to fly P-51s in the Pacific Theater. He also flew in the Korean War where he was captured by the enemy and held as a prisoner of war until his release in 1953. Mahurin died in 2010 at the age of 91.
On February 14, 1945, Melvin O’Brien, First Lieutenant, Bombardier on the B-26B, “Shirley Ann”, #42-95914, 497th Bomber Squadron, 344th Bomber Group, U.S. Army Air Force was killed in action when his plane was shot down over Germany. The “Shirley Ann” was part of a “Maximum Effort” mission of 54 planes from the 344th and 387th Bomb Groups. O’Brien’s plane had bombed its target, a railroad bridge, and in turning away suffered a succession of direct hits. Only one crew member survived and was captured. Of that mission, eight airplanes were shot down, 24 men killed, and 19 became prisoners of war. Mr. O’Brien had been a student at the Fort Wayne Art School. Less than two months later, on May 7, 1945, it was VE Day. O’Brien, first buried in the Netherlands, was later repatriated to the United States. He was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart. The Fort Wayne Art School and Museum purchased two prints in his memory in 1954.
The directors and trustees of the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum had begun looking toward a bright future, even before the war ended. In April 1945, it was reported that the trustees had appointed a committee to “consider various suitable locations” for a new museum and “discuss them with the Park Board”. By mid-July, they had asked architects Saarinen & Swanson of Birmingham, Michigan for a proposal for new buildings. The floor space plan was accepted in early September; and by the end of October, the board, upon the architects’ recommendation, had chosen Foster Park over Swinney Park as the setting for the new facility.
In mid-November, Mr. Wayne Thieme urged the board to “stop wasting valuable time and go out and get some money as quickly as possible”. In mid -December the board voted to ratify the gift of land from the Fort Wayne Park Board. On May 5, 1946, a special meeting of the board was held to view and discuss the sketches and plans of the new school and museum with the architect. The board voted to accept the plans. On July 22nd, they met to view the architects’ model and “left with a feeling of pride in having a part in helping to realize this goal.” In December, the board presented the trustees with a contract for a feasibility study to be conducted by the American City Bureau for $3,200. The study would answer the question: Would Fort Wayne fund a new Art School and Museum? The consultants opened a temporary office at the Chamber of Commerce in the spring of 1947. But, in October, the board requested that the trustees allow the purchase of the property at the corner of Union and Berry Streets to enlarge the Berry Street campus. The new building drops from the conversation, and a gap in the records leaves to the imagination the outcome of the study, but we know this new Foster Park facility was never realized. The Fort Wayne Art School and Museum was not held back by this disappointment, but moved on into the 1950s with the same pluck and gritty determination that had carried it for the last several decades.
Want to see more of FWMoA’s collecting history? Come visit us and check out A Century of Making Meaning: 100 Years of Collecting as we rotate artworks throughout year! Look out for more blog posts from Sue Slick about the history of FWMoA as the year progresses, too.