All’s well that ends well

This is a story about a wonderful discovery and a trial of patience. A few years ago, I processed the F. Shirley Prouty Collection on Johannes Kirchmayer, which documents the life and work of her great uncle and contains many years of meticulous research. It was a wonderful collection to work with, and a trove of information on architects and craftsmen of the American gothic revival.

Two of the most outstanding of these are architect Ralph Adams Cram and woodcarver Johannes Kirchmayer, who worked together on many projects. This week I made a wonderful new discovery of another product of their hearts, minds, and hands: a silver and gilt portable font initially commissioned as a gift for the Detroit Museum of Art (now the Detroit Institute of Arts) by George Booth. Cram designed it and Kirchmayer created the sculpture models and chasings for it; then, the piece was executed by silversmith James T. Woolley and decorated by enamellist Elizabeth Copeland.

Silver gilt font completed in 1920 for Detroit Museum of Art. Ralph Adams Cram, Johannes Kirchmayer, James T. Woolley, and Elizabeth Copeland. Cranbrook Archives.

In February 1918, Cram designed the font, which George Booth hoped to have ready for display at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, to be held in Detroit for the first time in October of 1919.

The making of the font did not follow the anticipated timeline, but rather than a story of delay and disappointment, it becomes a story of patience and its reward.

During the spring, Booth visited Boston and left the Cram blueprint with Woolley. On May 1st, he enquired to know Woolley’s interest in executing the design and an estimate of cost, to which Woolley replied positively, quoting $450 excluding the enamel parts. Giving the commission to Woolley, Booth advised him to confer with Cram or his assistant, Mr. Cleveland, and that Copeland will complete the enameling work.

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Cranbrook-LIFE

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.”

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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.

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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.’”

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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)

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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

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