2020 marks ninety years of temporary traveling exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum. Perhaps one of the best examples that brings to life this aspect of the Museum’s programs is Cranbrook’s brief but wildly successful partnership with LIFE Magazine.

The Cranbrook-LIFE Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting opened in 1940, ten years after Cranbrook Art Museum hosted its first traveling exhibition, organized by the American Union of Decorative Artists and featuring contemporary interior design. The idea of temporary traveling exhibits at Cranbrook began the same year as the permanent collection was established by founder George G. Booth. It furthered Booth’s commitment to presenting contemporary art as foremost a learning tool for Academy of Art students. It was intended “to remind our students that art is a living thing and that the record of our times is being created from day to day by the artists of this age, and in so doing perhaps to stimulate the creative spirit among those who work here.”


Judges examine paintings in New York, April 1940. Hansel Meith, photographer. Copyright Time Inc.

Cranbrook-LIFE was a celebration of contemporary U.S. art meant to symbolize “America’s increasing responsibility as a democratic world art center.” (Life, May 27, 1940) As such, LIFE invited sixty painters, living and working in America, to submit three paintings to be voted on by a jury of six. The painters included Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Cranbrook’s own Zoltan Sepeshy. The jury, comprised of Sepeshy, two leading art museum directors, an editor at LIFE Magazine, a representative from the Federal Works Agency Section of Fine Arts, and a well-respected American painter and educator, convened in a New York City warehouse where they spent four hours whittling down 180 submissions to the final sixty paintings shipped to Cranbrook for the show. One of these was Grant Wood’s American Gothic! Loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago, the already famous painting appears to be the only piece in the exhibition to come from another art museum.


Opening night attendees arrive. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

If you’re at all familiar with LIFE, you may be asking yourself why a popular weekly magazine, known for its photographic general-interest stories, would make a foray like this into the art world? According to a 1940 TIME Magazine article, in the previous three years,  “the No. 1 U.S. source of popular knowledge of U.S. art has been LIFE, which has reproduced for the man-in-the-street’s weekly dime some 452 paintings (usually in full color) by U.S. artists.” Your next question might be why it was held at Cranbrook, as opposed to, say, the newly constructed Museum of Modern Art building in New York City? Florence Davies of the Detroit News may have answered that, when she wrote at the time: “Life Magazine picked Cranbrook not only because of the enchanting setting of the place as a whole, but more particularly because it found there ‘work in progress—an atmosphere of creative activity.’”


Academy of Art students parade through the opening night gala reminding attendees of the student exhibition simultaneously on display at the Cranbrook Pavilion. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The exhibition drew an estimated 2,500 national and international visitors in the short two weeks it was on display from May 17-June 2, 1940. Because of the size of the show, it could not be held in the current museum building on Lone Pine Road and Academy Way (Eliel Saarinen’s museum building began construction during the exhibition). And, as the Academy student exhibition was currently occupying the Cranbrook Pavilion, the decision was made to utilize the Academy’s Painting Department Studios. Opening night was a festive gala. Attendees, including George and Ellen Booth, Loja and Eliel Saarinen, Edsel B. Ford, Albert Kahn, and “1,000 Detroit socialites braved wintry winds” in formal attire. (Time, June 3, 1940)


Marianne Strengell, Charles Eames, and Richard Reinhardt. Richard A. Askew, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and during the beginning months of the War in Europe, pro-American sentiment was high, as evidenced by the placement of potted American-grown tomatoes in windowsills as decoration. According to TIME Magazine, the music for the evening was by U.S. composers and refreshments included “Rhine wine flavored to taste like U.S. new-mown hay.” (!?)

Cranbrook-LIFE marks the beginning of the Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records, which illuminate thirty-six years of temporary traveling exhibits, and are rife with names of renowned artists that have exhibited at Cranbrook throughout its history.

It’s not all in the past, though! Don’t miss Cranbrook Art Museum’s current traveling exhibition,  In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969, on view until March 8, 2020.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

Oliver LaGrone: Sculptor, Poet, Educator, and Humanitarian

Oliver LaGrone (1906 – 1995), was a sculptor, poet, educator, and humanitarian; he was also the first African-American student at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Oliver LaGrone circa 1941. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Oliver LaGrone circa 1941. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Clarence Oliver LaGrone was born December 9, 1906, in McAlester, Oklahoma Territory, to Lula Evelyn Cochran and William Lee LaGrone. William was a minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and an avid writer. He raised Oliver to appreciate education and his African-American heritage. As Oliver later told a reporter from the Albuquerque Journal (Cranbrook Archives):

My father was a gifted writer, and also a builder, and extremely creative. He regaled us with his poems. I was brought up in an environment like that.

In 1928, Oliver attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he studied English and economics, planning on becoming a lawyer. He left school in the summer of 1929 to help his family with their move to Albuquerque, New Mexico. After his father passed away in 1930, he chose not to return to Howard, and in 1934 he began to attend the University of New Mexico. He worked as a teaching assistant to architect-sculptor, William Emmet Burk, Jr.

Oliver graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1938 with a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology and fine arts. He was among the artists employed by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1937, he created his sculpture Mercy for the Carrie Tingley Children’s Hospital.

It was in Albuquerque that he met and married Irmah Cooke, September 21, 1938. During the 1940 census, Oliver, Irmah, and newborn baby Lotus Joy were still living in Albuquerque, where Oliver was working as a mail carrier. However, later in 1940, the family moved to Michigan.

In the fall of 1941, at his wife’s encouragement, Oliver began studying with sculptor Carl Milles at Cranbrook Academy of Art. His tuition was covered by a scholarship from the Student Aid Foundation of Michigan. In March 1942, Oliver won a McGregor Fund scholarship for advanced study in sculpture.

Oliver LaGrone in his studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art circa 1942 with a model of his bust of Harriet Tubman. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Oliver LaGrone in his studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art circa 1942 with a model of his bust of Sojourner Truth. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Upon completing his studies at Cranbrook, Oliver worked a variety of jobs in order to support his family. Because of an old injury, he was not able to enlist in the Army during World War II, but in the 1940s, he worked for Ford at the Detroit Rouge Plant. It was there he came into contact with the United Auto Workers, whom he worked for from 1943 to 1948.

Oliver participated in the renaissance of black artists in Detroit. During this time he wrote his first poetry, gathering them into a collection, Footfalls (1949).

Footfalls: Poetry from America's Becoming by Oliver LaGrone. Courtesy Between the Covers.

Footfalls: Poetry from America’s Becoming by Oliver LaGrone. Courtesy Between the Covers.

During the McCarthy-era Red Scare, Oliver was asked by the Detroit Loyalty Committee to act as an informant and provide “communist” information on his contacts in the art world, particularly Paul Robeson. Oliver refused, lost his UAW job as a result, and had to sell pots and pans door-to-door to make ends meet.

He returned to school, attending Wayne State University from 1956-1960 and received the equivalent of a Master of Arts in Special Education. Oliver worked in Detroit Public schools teaching arts and crafts and special education.

Oliver LaGrone in his studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art circa 1942 with some of his works. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Oliver LaGrone in his studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art circa 1942 with some of his works. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Oliver was always part artist, part activist. He served for two years, 1968-1970, on the Michigan Council on the Arts. He served on the African Art Gallery Fund Committee of the Detroit Institute of Arts. From 1964 on, he was a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It occurred to me early on that you’re not going to be satisfied until you find a way to combine your art with social commentary.

In 1970, Oliver was invited to lecture in art education and Afro-American history at Pennsylvania State University. In 1972, he was appointed Special Assistant to the Vice President of undergraduate education, and in 1975, became artist-in-residence for all 21 branches of the university system. He then served as artist-in-residence at the Hershey Foundation and the Boas Arts Magnet Center for Learning in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Oliver did not limit his creativity to teaching art and creating sculptures. He also wrote and had several poems and reviews published in Negro Digest and the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Oliver was a longtime Unitarian Universalist and significantly impacted the church and the Harrisburg community by establishing the Oliver LaGrone Scholarship Fund in 1974. Proceeds from the sale of Oliver’s “The Dancer” was an early contribution to the fund.

Oliver LaGrone at work in his studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art circa 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Oliver LaGrone at work in his studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art circa 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

“Oliver LaGrone Day” was proclaimed by the mayors of Harrisburg on February 3, 1980, and again in 1993, in respect for his community contributions.

In the mid-1990s, Oliver returned to Detroit to live near his daughter and her family. Still sculpting and writing poetry, he died in October 1995 at the age of 89. There are two collections related to LaGrone in Cranbrook Archives, one donated by his daughter Lotus Johnson and the other from the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg Scholarship Committee.

Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar

Birds of a Feather …

“… the Cranbrook Foundation, dealing with things material and visible, rests in turn upon another foundation made up of things invisible – that is, of thought, vision, and ideals… No product of human hands exists which was not a thought before it became a thing.”
Rev. Dr. Samuel Simpson Marquis, “The Laying of a New Foundation for Cranbrook Institutions,” Commencement Address to Cranbrook School, June 6, 1936

The thought, vision, and ideals of George and Ellen Booth endure in the cultural community and architectural landscape that we enjoy today. One of the great joys of working in the Archives is witnessing the documentary heritage which traces the stories of the people, places, and things that contribute to Cranbrook’s history. All record types — from correspondence, financial records, and reports to written and oral memories and reflections — provide a different insight into the process of making an idea a reality.  I am particularly fond of architectural records, because it is possible to see the built campus in its earliest form. Cranbrook Archives holds a large collection of architectural drawings for the entire Cranbrook Educational Community, as well as for  projects of Cranbrook affiliated firms and architects. The drawings are arranged by division or creator and housed according to their format. One format that is housed separately are detail drawings, which include millwork details and decorative designs. They are pencil on tissue drawings preserved folded in their original envelopes, many for almost a century. I would like to share with you an example of this type of drawing, one that documents the birds sitting atop of the columns of the aisle wall stalls at Christ Church Cranbrook.

CCC birds

View of the aisle wall stalls at Christ Church Cranbrook. Center for Collections and Research.

Finding sources in an archives depends upon the arrangement and description of the collections. Because of their very nature, sometimes a fair amount of detective work is required when the material being described is a visual format. Architectural drawings that have been catalogued are searchable using the Cranbrook Academy of Art library catalog, so the search most often begins there. In my case, a search for the wall stalls at the church returned seven results, none of which refer to the birds specifically. Yet, one of the descriptions suggested that there was great potential that it would include a drawing of the birds and, indeed, that is what I discovered.


Architectural drawing (AD.10.659) Variants for Wall Stalls in Aisles and Paneling at Door #128 and Window #128, March 1930. Cranbrook Archives.


Architectural drawing (AD.10.659), detail of the owl. Cranbrook Archives.


Architectural drawing (AD.10.659), detail of the American robin. Cranbrook Archives.

The discussion between George Booth and Oscar Murray about the design and contract for the stalls began in early December 1929 and the stalls, carved by Irving and Casson, arrived for installation in August 1930. Booth left it to Murray’s judgment as to whether to have a continuous row of the same model for the columns or whether to include the variation. As you can see, this drawing includes two variants of tracery, four variants of corbels, and six of seven variants of birds, including the swallow, quail, dove, cat-bird, owl, and American robin. The seventh bird yet remains a mystery, leaving us something to discover in the future. Discoveries like these, and helping others achieve similar ones, make the job of a Cranbrook Archivist both enjoyable and rewarding.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

[Editor’s Note: When this post was first published, the quote was attributed to George Gough Booth. Subsequent research has revealed that it is from an address by the Rev. Dr. Samuel S. Marquis.]

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