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Houston

There was no Women's Liberation Movement Houston, A.D. 1900. However, during the first two decades of the twentieth century the development of music and the visual arts was initiated, encouraged and promoted by women. Of course, there were men who understood the significance of the arts in a healthy society and lent moral and some practical support to what we have come to call the cultural aspects of life, but art in Houston was a woman's concern.

The first efforts toward formal art education were made in the small art classes of Mrs. Penelope Lingan, Mrs. E. Richardson Cherry and Miss Stella Hope Shurtlaff. The public schools of Houston also played a prominent role in the development of what might be called an art consciousness. The work of devoted teachers such as Mrs. Frances Volck, and the wise and understanding superintendence of Mrs. Pearl Rucker did much to nurture the creative minds of the young. Mrs. Grace Sands Smith followed and administered a progressive art program outstanding in the public schools of the South.

In the spring of 1900 the Houston Public School Art League was founded by interested laywomen, a number of teachers, and a few professional artists. The League's purpose was to put reproductions of great works of painting, sculpture and architecture in the classrooms of the public schools. This was done and some of the pictures remain in use. But the stated purpose of the League was found to be too limited. The name was changed to the Houston Art League and it operated more broadly under a state charter and its subsequent activities became the record of the foundation of the Museum of Fine Arts and its continuing efforts to support and develop the creative artists of its region.

Before the world war the Art League had plans to establish a Museum. Through the generosity of Miss Kate Scanlin, several rooms in the Scanlin Building at the corner of Main and Preston were made available as a temporary home. Here the League held its meetings, and Miss Stella Shurtlaff conducted classes in drawing and give a series of talks on art history and appreciation. Gradually the League 

[[image - photograph]]
First units of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, designed by William Ward Watkin, built in 1924 and 1926, "Erected by the People for the Use of the People" (Eidson Photo)

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assembled a small collection of paintings and art objects, some by purchase which resulted from many determined efforts to raise funds. Mrs. M. E. Jones, the aunt of Jesse Jones, was among the first donors; but the greatest spur to the establishment of a Museum came with the bequest of George Dickson and his sister Belle of their collection of paintings and bronzes. Even before the gift, the Art League had made efforts to get a site on which a Museum might be built and several locations in succession, were secured and subsequently abandoned. The present site was received from the Trustees of the Hermann Estate with some assistance from J. S. Cullinan. The Art League and the Estate Trustees came to an agreement which had one major problem - that a Museum of Art occupy the ground and a building be started within a specified time, or the land would revert to the City of Houston. While the United States was not yet in it, the first world war put a damper on the League's efforts to raise funds. But the agreement with the Hermann Estate was satisfactorily met by the building of a permanent marker on the site, later to be incorporated in the Museum building. When the marker was finished, the site was dedicated April 12, 1917. After the close of the war, the Art League felt that it could proceed with the building. William Ward Watkin, the chairman of the Architecture Department of Rice University, (then Rice Institute) was employed as architect. The initial scheme was to build the Museum on a unit plan; a small central portion to be built first and later additions constructed as a need was felt and funds became available.

The League had continued, basically as a women's organization. Mrs. Henry B. Fall, as president, must be considered the leading factor in fulfilling the League's dream of a Museum building. However, in 1924 the "reach" of Mrs. Fall and her coworkers "was greater than their grasp." The building was nearing completion, but the funds on hand were insufficient to pay the building contractor. Will C. Hogg, after a consultation with his sister Ima, then a member of the Art League Board, volunteered to help and in a few weeks he raised funds, not only sufficient to pay for the original unit but the build the two side units as well. This fact was announced amid great rejoicing at the formal dedication of the central unit on April 12, 1924.

The Houston Art League now changed its name and its charter to the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston. The members of the League became the first members of the new organization. However, the original purpose of the League was never forgotten and a close relationship of the Museum to the Public Schools was always in the minds of the Trustees. When the two wings of the Museum were completed in 1926, funds were insufficient to finish the interior of the wing facing Main street. The first and second floors had large unfinished spaces, originally planned for galleries, which made an excellent home for classes in painting and sculpture. With the opening of Rice University in 1912, a Department of Agriculture came into being, and as a necessary part of the agricultural curriculum, courses in drawing and painting. The first member of the faculty in this field was John C. Tidden and he developed quite a large class of aspiring painters on the Rice campus. Several of his pupils who, later, were to represent Houston in the field of painting were Margaret Brisbine Preble, Evelyn Byers Bessel, Watson Neyland and Mrs. Cleveland Sewall.

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