August 2012

Art: A matter of appreciation…

UA_Photos_FineArts_2.jpgWhen the Fine Arts Room first opened adjacent to the University Gallery in Northrop Auditorium in February 1936, the reaction amongst faculty and students was not that of unanimous approval. The room, designed by curator Ruth Lawrence with modern furnishings, was in stark contrast to other types of interior decoration then on campus. The room included a kapok circular couch, as well as venetian blinds and large blue floor length drapes. Lawrence even had the audacity to vary the paint color — two walls were painted blue, the other two off-white. Dean of the College of Education, Melvin E. Haggerty, who was apparently shocked by the décor of the room — as well as its purpose — wrote to Malcolm Willey and President Lotus Coffman to express his concern:

FAR_Letter-Haggerty.jpgFebruary 7, 1936, Dean Haggerty to President Coffman :

My dear President Coffman:

You can see from the enclosure that I am in a bad temper, but some activities about the University cut so clearly across the general philosophy of our departmental program in the field of art that I have attempted to express myself probably more emphatically than you will feel is justified.

I shall be glad to have this manuscript back when you have read it, if you have the time to do so.

M.E. Haggerty

Haggerty included a manuscript titled, “The Artist and the Layman,” from a publication titled, “Arts & Progress,” dated 1915, the main point of which argued that “the idea which distinguished the artist as a different kind of being from the layman has led to an unfortunate and unnecessary separation in artistic education.” It further stated that in artistic training, even if an artist were to acquire the best technical training, he still has “little chance of knowing anything even about art. The one thing which he ought to have above anything else is critical judgment; and this can be formed only on the basis of serious and prolonged study of masterpieces of the past and of the present day.”

Such thought was in contrast to the intent and purpose of the Fine Arts Room, which was opened not to rigorously train artists, but to provide access to art and cultivate artistic appreciation for ALL University students. When Dean Malcolm Willey first proposed opening a Fine Arts Room to President Coffman, he wrote that he was inspired by the “theory that true appreciation of fine art comes from being in presence of a fine object under ideal conditions.” The origination of the Fine Arts Room was revealed in a letter Willey wrote to Coffman on June 1, 1935:

I should like to try the experiment of fitting up on our campus, as part of our attempt to increase interest in and appreciation of fine arts, a room which in its furnishings should be simple, but in impeccable taste, comfortable, and in every way lovely as a room. Into this I would put one art object at a time – one of the fine things we have bought… I would open this room as a retreat. No studying allowed, no textbooks admitted, no formal instruction. If the setting and the art object [cannot] induce the spell I am seeking, nothing else can.

Haggerty, not inclined to follow this philosophy, and still stirred up by the Fine Arts Room and the University’s approach to arts appreciation, wrote another letter, this time to Dean Willey:

FAR_Letter-Haggerty2.jpgFebruary 10, 1936, Dean Haggerty to Dean Willey:

My dear Dean Willey:

Just by way of continuing the argument under conditions of complete sobriety and having the latest, if not the last, word I am enclosing an effusion which I got off my chest Friday.

Sincerely yours,
M.E. Haggerty

On the bottom of Haggerty’s typed letter is a hand-written note from Willey to President Coffman, whom he likely forwarded the letter to:

My dear President Coffman,

At least Dean Haggerty plays fairly! He has sent me a copy of his reactions to the art room, which gives me the chance to continue our friendly discussion.


In President Coffman’s reply to Dean Haggerty regarding the Fine Arts Room, and of art in general and its appreciation in the University, a reflection of Coffman’s well-held educational beliefs are asserted:

February 13, 1936, President Coffman to Dean Haggerty:

I think there may be something to your surmise that you got out on the wrong side of the bed the morning you wrote your reflections on visiting the new fine art room in Northrop Memorial Auditorium.

I agree fully with your general position that we should create an environment which will be artistic and attractive, which means that attention should be given to the architecture and the general style of our buildings, to the improvement of campus, and to doing everything and anything that will in any way contribute to making our situation more attractive and beautiful. Now from this point I think we might begin to have some differences of opinion.

I do not believe that all art is associated with utility as I think that many researches are carried on with just the researcher having any thought or conception of their value or use. I should have pictures and other forms of art about the campus even though I don’t understand them, just as I would have a beautiful chapel on the campus even though no one ever worshipped in it, or ever went there for prayers, or to hear the Scriptures read. I would have fine music played on the campus and I would reduce the rates, if I had my way, to a point which made it possible for the poorest to attend; I would do this even though I know that most of those who attend don’t understand a thing that is being played. I have often thought that it would be a most interesting psychological study for one to take an inventory of the thoughts that race through the minds of a hundred or more persons in the audience at one of the Symphony concerts. I find, for example, that I think about everything under the sun. I would have people live in an environment every feature of which makes some artistic contribution and I really would try to teach students as much as possible about these features, for I believe that appreciation and genuine understanding are closely related.

Mr. Willey said you sent him a copy of your paper. I am glad that you did. He told me that you and he are carrying on an interesting and animated discussion on the subject of art. Who knows, maybe your letters and his will be published some day just as Royce’s and James’ letters have been published.”

After reading this series of correspondence, a new appreciation is gained of President Coffman’s early advocacy of the arts and his enlightened educational philosophy.

WPA: Visual Aids to Teachers of Art

In her report titled, “University of Minnesota Gallery of Art,” with “Mrs. Lawrence 25-year report” written in pencil across the top, long time gallery director Ruth Lawrence provided a 24 page background on all of the activities of the Gallery over the course of 25 years. A large portion of the report — nearly seven pages — outlined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) work projects assigned to the Gallery. Ruth reflected, “By February 6, 1938, significant changes were taking place, but greater ones were ahead. On that date the Emergency Relief Works Progress Administration assigned a project of 20 workmen to the Gallery.”

From 1938-1942 WPA workers were assigned to annual work projects in the University Gallery. The main duties of their work consisted of developing an art reference service to support instruction at the University. Workers also created circulating exhibitions comprised of visual aids for teachers. These visual aids were matted, framed, and compiled by the WPA employees and distributed by the Junior League Clubs of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. Exhibitors from elementary and secondary schools, teachers colleges, and other small arts organizations throughout the state could rent the visual aid exhibits for a fee that covered postage.



Found within WAM’s collection of exhibition catalogues was a stapled report titled, “Visual Aids to Teachers of Art” that included descriptions of the exhibits and how they could be rented. A booklet titled, “Horses in Art, Exhibition No. 101” was also found. This booklet, which contains instructions and a sample curriculum, accompanied the exhibit materials. Exhibits were comprised of 10 reproductions of old and contemporary artwork that were mounted to boards, designed to be set in the grooves of a chalk well and rest against classroom blackboards.

Cats_017_VisualAids_1940.jpg Cats_022_HorsesArt_1941-2.jpg

After the outbreak of WWII, all WPA work at the University was re-assigned to the war effort, and the art reference service was scaled back to provide resources to University instructors and students only. Ruth reflected, “All traveling exhibitions were stopped. During the war years unfortunately, these were destroyed by a mysterious fire in the storage or fan room, beginning in the organ loft.”

Thanks to the accessibility of the Minnesota Daily’s PDF Archives, more information about the mysterious fire is gleaned when a search of the PDF Archives provided a copy of the November 5, 1942 edition of the newspaper, which contains the following headline, “Fire Destroys Northrop Art Works.” The article begins,

A fire of undetermined origin burning for more than half an hour in the organ blower room, 303 Northrop auditorium, yesterday destroyed almost all of the art displays, and equipment stored in the room.

About $250 worth of picture frame moldings, ten elementary school art exhibits and numerous picture display board were burned.

Thanks to the WPA project reports, the existence and preservation of posters and catalogues, as well as additional resources such as the PDF Archives, we are able to learn more about the unique services and programs that the Gallery once provided.