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Chapter 1 — Section II

The founding date of 1877, recorded in the many historical summaries in University publications, is celebrated in the name of the 1877 Club restaurant in the Gray Conference Center next to Mortensen Library. It springs from the founding of what became the Hartford Art School, one of the oldest art schools in America.
In June 1877, the newly organized Society of Decorative Arts in New York City issued a challenge to Hartford and several other cities urging the creation of societies of decorative arts "to further art education in America." Shortly thereafter, a group of public-spirited women met at the home of Mrs. C. E. Perkins and took up the challenge. Among them were Mrs. Samuel Colt, widow of the Colt Patent Firearms millionaire, and Mrs. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as the wife of the novelist "Mark Twain," whose Hartford home is now open to the public as a National Historic Landmark and who is celebrated as one of the most famous citizens of Hartford.

The earliest years of the art school, originally known as the Hartford Society for Decorative Art, were productive but financially precarious. Noted authors and personalities such as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner gave lectures to support the school, already committed to "elemental education by superior teachers," and "promoting the best standard of art work."

The first studios were located in the Cheney Building, designed by the noted American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, which is still standing on Main Street in Hartford, renovated and renamed for the architect. By happy coincidence, Hartford also possessed one of America's first art museums, the Wadsworth Atheneum, but it, too, was suffering from post-Civil War financial difficulties, and by 1886 had been closed to the public because of insufficient operating funds. In an early example of the cooperative educational spirit that is characteristic of Hartford, the Art School agreed to use the gallery of the Wadsworth for studio space and re-open the museum to the public. "In return for the use of the room, they (the art school) offer[ed] to assume the expense of heating and caring for it, and of providing a thoroughly competent custodian."

This sharing arrangement prospered, working well for almost seventy years, as the Hartford Art School and its programs, faculty, and students increased in size and complexity, though still stopping short of a full-blown collegiate setting. The close working relationship continued through one of the most creative periods of the Atheneum's history, following the appointment of A. Everett Austin, Jr., as director in 1927. It was Austin who founded the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, an iconoclastic organization that gave six subscription concerts a year in private houses, with performances of works by such composers as Stravinsky, Milhaud, Schoenberg, Ives, and Hindemith. On one of the more memorable evenings, Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Paul Bowles, and Virgil Thomson all performed work by one another.

When the new Atheneum director decided to organize, in 1928, a "Venetian féte" in the central hall of the Morgan Memorial Building, Hartford Art School students were on hand to assist, and they were there again at all the most fantastic and elaborate celebrations that characterized these Depression-era years. Chick Austin's spectacular efforts were often one step ahead of financial disaster, and the fund-raising became ever more frenetic, but Hartford was established as an American center in avant-garde art. Although later an effort to establish a national school of ballet in Hartford with George Balanchine as its director came to nought, the Atheneum did see the first performance, in 1934, of the path-breaking Four Saints in Three Acts, with text by Gertrude Stein and music by Virgin Thomson and with an all-black cast. In the same year, Balanchine brought his dancers to Hartford for the Premiere of the Ballet Alma Mater, with music by the composer Kay Swift (at a time when women seldom got the opportunity to have their music performed), and with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Archibald MacLeish, Salvador Daldi, George Gershwin, and Mr. and Mrs. Pierre Matisse (he was a prominent New York art dealer) in the audience., In 1936, The Art School played a prominent part in the First Hartford Festival, a celebration of the arts that included contributions by Alexander Calder and Pavel Tchelitchew. Tchelitchew decorated the Avery Court of the Atheneum with elaborate ornamentation made of brightly colored newspapers, dutifully gathered from all over the city by Hartford Art School students, who assisted in the decoration and also performed in the celebrations. Among the guests on that occasion was the painter Fernand Leger.

With the end of World War II, the School was ready to launch a complete academic and degree-granting program and looked around for a partner to assist. It found that partner in Hillyer College, an institution that had itself relatively recently expanded to four-year programming and that agreed to provide the academic support in the liberal arts that was needed to bring the Art School's plans to fruition. In 1949 the Art School was accredited as a degree-granting institution.

By the mid-1950s, the Hartford Art School had stabilized its operations, had built up a small endowment to assist its work, and had the support of a strong cadre of alumni, alumnae, and friends in Hartford. It also had an international reputation. On the other hand, it had completely outgrown its quarters in the Avery Memorial and Watkinson buildings of the Wadsworth Atheneum, which was by then accommodating not only the Hartford Art School and the Atheneum's own extensive art collection, but also the Hartford Public Library as well. Clearly a new location would be desirable if not shortly imperative, thought director Alan Tompkins and the trustees, but where?

more> Chapter 1 — Section III