Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Flowers & Feuds: The Utah Arts Council’s Early Years

Painting of roses by Alice Merrill Horne

Part I: Alice Merril Horne’s Flower Power

Alice Merrill Horne loved flowers, and she knew how to use them: as decor, as subjects for her paintings, and as tools for political persuasion.

Though Horne is best known for her work as an advocate for Utah art, she was also a talented artist, recognized at the turn of the last century as one of the leading floral painters in the state. After completing a degree in pedagogy at the University of Utah, Horne took an interest in art and studied with J.T. Harwood and others. Her association with Harwood and her brief career as a teacher are what led Horne into her short-lived, but very fruitful political career.

In 1897, Harwood and his boyhood pal, Edwin Evans, were causing a stir with the state board of education. They objected to the method of drawing then taught in the public schools, named for its architect and chief proponent, D.R. Augsburg . The issue was important enough to them to keep the fuss going for over a year, resulting in a lively discussion in print and three-hour long debates in public. In the end their crusade was successful and in September of 1898, Augsburg was replaced as supervisor of drawing in the public schools, and Harwood was rewarded for his efforts with the position of art instructor of the high school.

This was only the beginning of the Utah artists’ political activism. While Harwood was taking on his new position as art instructor, Horne, likely emboldened by her colleague’s successes, had sought and won the Democratic party’s nomination for a seat in Utah’s third legislature. The largest plank in the thirty year old’s education-minded platform was the creation of a state-funded organization to foster the fine arts. In November the Democrats swept Salt Lake County, and Horne immediately sat down with a legislative committee consisting of Harwood, Evans, H.L.A. Culmer and Mrs. Franc R. Elliott (who had replaced Augsburg), with an eye towards the 1899 session.

A sketch portrait of Alice Merrill Horne in 1898

Once she took her seat on January 9, 1899, Horne, almost immediately submitted her bill for consideration. By the last official day of the part-time legislature, however, the Utah Art Institute bill had still not been voted on. So as Senators and House members made their way into the halls of the Salt Lake City and County building on March 9, Horne pulled posies from a large box on her desk and pinned bouquets on the lapels of her fellow legislators. “This, of course, made favorable action upon the measure obligatory,” the Salt Lake Tribune commented somewhat sarcastically the next day, “for what man can resist a woman’s wiles.” Horne’s bill had been redrafted in the Senate, and after some squabbling over the exact name of the state art collection mandated by the bill, the Senate voted 10-5 to make into law the Utah Art Institute (now the Utah Arts Council), the first state-run arts organization in the nation.

Horne’s legislation appropriated an annual sum of $1000 to fulfill the Institute’s missions to hold an annual exhibition, educate the public about the fine arts, and select pieces for the Alice Art Collection. The legislation was strongly supported by the state’s first governor, Heber M. Wells, who, while being from the opposite side of the political aisle, was also brother to Edna Wells Sloan, Horne’s friend and a noted floral painter, and brother-in-law to artist H.L.A. Culmer. That Spring, the governor set about appointing the governing board mandated by Horne’s bill: one individual associated with State education, one architect, one person involved in manufacturing of silk or other art fabric, and four artists. Culmer, one of the best-loved artists of the time, as well as a poet and active businessman, became president. John B. Fairbanks, another well-established artist (one of the LDS art missionaries a decade earlier) was made Vice-President. For secretary of the organization the governor appointed Joshua H. Paul, a prominent educator involved in Democratic politics who had served as the president of the State Agricultural College (Utah State University) in Logan and recently returned from a mission for the LDS church. Mrs. Elizabeth McCune was appointed Treasurer. She and her husband, mining and railroad tycoon Alfred W. McCune, had recently returned from Europe and were living in the Gardo House while they used a portion of their considerable wealth to construct their mansion on 200 North, and the other portion to further Mr. McCune’s political ambitions. Mrs. McCune’s personal interest in silk art, combined with her considerable influence, might explain the provision in the bill providing for a board member involved in fabric art. W.E. Ware, one of the leading architects and designers in the city (and father of future artist Florence Ware) fulfilled the demand for an architect. Horne and Harwood served as artists, as did Louise Richards [later Farnsworth], who at 22 was the youngest member of the board by almost a decade. She was the daughter of a prominent physician, had recently returned from art studies in New York, and, like Horne, was known for her skill in portraying flowers.

Once assembled, the board began meeting at Culmer’s studio and commercial office at 4 Culmer Block (on 100 South, next to the Savoy Hotel), and met every Thursday evening throughout the summer. In October, the Art Institute sent out Utah’s first “Call for Entries,” a circular notifying artists, students and patrons of the first annual exhibit planned for December. The circular was sent to artists as well as every state official and every teacher in public schools. In addition, Culmer sent out personal invitations to about 300 individuals who he thought would be interested.

The Institute’s first exhibition was eagerly awaited by the public. All three of the major papers – The Salt Lake Tribune, The Salt Lake Herald, and the Deseret News – covered the exhibition before, during and after its hanging. Over the past decade Utah had witnessed group exhibitions from the Society of Utah Artists, but as the papers editorialized, these had been too infrequent and unimpressive to make much of an impact. “The artists have come to realize that spasmodic efforts are virtually useless, and that if they desire to reach the goal desired, annual exhibitions must be had,” opined the Salt Lake Herald.

Salt Crested Rocks at Black Rock, by J.T. Harwood

The Tribune noted that “Heretofore the art exhibitions given in Salt Lake have been confined to the pictures hung upon the wall, a few chairs for such spectators as desired to sit down, and rather bad lights.” The Jennings building on First South was selected as the site for the Institute’s exhibit because of its ample space, and the Institute promised to transform its “barn-like quarters “with, rugs, curtains, draperies and other adornments.”

On December 4th, the big day finally arrived. Despite the cold and rain, “an enthusiastic throng” filled the hall, which Horne had been sure to decorate with flowers: potted ferns, chrysanthemums, palms, roses, carnations and others. These provided a backdrop for the over three hundred works on display. The majority were paintings — oils and watercolors — but there were also sculptural works, painted china, and a much-remarked-upon carved saddle. The vast majority were by locals, but the exhibition committee had worked hard to bring in substantial works from the East, importing from Chicago works by sixteen artists. These were greatly admired by those in attendance, but the local critics felt that the Utah works, especially the landscapes of Culmer, Harwood and Hafen, could more than hold their own. For her part, Horne exhibited two floral pieces, a fleur de lis and a composition of violets.

The evening contained a short program. An address by the governor in which he recognized Horne’s crucial efforts — “I doubt if the men who composed that august tribunal [the Legislature] would have ever thought of encouraging art, and certainly would never have passed such a law had it not been for the persistent and untiring efforts of Mrs. Alice M. Horne.” — was followed by a rendition of “Three Grenadiers” by B.H. Goddard, and an address by Culmer explaining the nature of the organization and giving short descriptions of the eastern artists who had loaned works. Selections from Beethoven and Chopin, performed by Arthur Shepperd, rounded out the evening.

After opening night, the exhibit was opened to the public at a general admission price of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for school children. During the Gilded Age, art exhibitions were a major form of entertainment — paintings receiving the type of attention we now devote to films — and it was not uncommon to charge admission to exhibits. For the next three weeks the papers kept up a running commentary, noting the crowds, describing various works on exhibit and noting the public’s reaction to them. One of the paintings that attracted a continual throng gives us some idea of the tastes of the public at the time. By one of the outside artists, “The Silent Partner” was a melodramatic genre piece that depicted a disconsolate Italian organ grinder, his little tambourine girl in tears and a dead monkey in its cage.

By law the award committee could only consider works by Utah artists. James T. Harwood’s “Salt Crested Rocks at Black Rock” won the $300 purchase award and became the first piece in the state art collection. A harvest scene by Edwin Evans and a landscape of Provo Canyon by John Hafen won the second and third place awards.

Harwood’s painting was joined in the state collection by two donated works. In exchange for lifetime membership in the Institute, George Ottinger donated his “Children of the Sun,” a work based on a Peruvian legend, and Emma C. Carson donated her “A Road Through the Forest.” The following year Harwood donated “Priscilla” and also became a lifetime member. Members of the community were also encouraged to become members of the Institute, and their annual or lifetime membership fees helped replenish the organization’s funds.

Though the papers noted that attendance towards the end of the exhibition was not a high as at the beginning (and hinted that in the future the admission fee should be dropped), the Institute was brimming with excitement at the end of the year as they closed up the exhibit. Their inaugural show had been an unprecedented success, they had begun a state art collection, and they had even facilitated the sale of a number of pieces to local collectors. As they turned their attention towards their remaining mandate to educate the public, the board was flush with enthusiasm and announced an ambitious program. They would hold a weekly lecture series, extended over a twenty-week period, with a new speaker each week covering a unique topic. Only the legislative hall at the City and County Building would do for these lectures, which promised to discuss matters both practical and theoretical relating to the visual arts. A stereopticon, a type of primitive slide projector, and images of ancient and modern art were ordered to facilitate the lectures.

“Quaking Aspens” by John Hafen

The first scheduled lecture, under the title “Art Awakenings,” was given by H.L.A. Culmer on April 5th. From there things quickly went down hill. When Professor Byron Cummings, of the University of Utah, gave a lecture on Greek architecture a week later, it was sparsely attended. The Institute lost their place at the City and County building and had to find a home at the laboratory building at the University of Utah. A number of speakers cancelled and when Elizabeth McCune gave her lecture on silk manufacturing on May 19, the Institute announced it would be the final in the series.

The Institute still had ideas for expanding art education in the state, and planned a summer school for teachers that would run the month of June and cost $3. This too came to naught, though. Regrouping, the Institute decided to incorporate themselves into already existing programs; Horne, Culmer and Paul began giving lectures as they traveled the state, and they participated in a statewide teacher training session in July. At the end of the year, thirty-one lectures had been given, more than had originally been planned. But what they had gained in quantity they had lost in diversity, as twenty-seven of the lectures were given by Culmer, Paul and Horne.

In September, the Institute began circulating ideas for the next exhibition. Since the organization’s bylaws forbade them from holding the annual exhibit in the same place two years in a row, various cities, including Ogden, Provo, Logan and Manti, began vying for the opportunity to host the Art Institute. Logan, which had three colleges, was eventually selected and the board announced that they would hold the exhibit for one week in the gymnasium of the Brigham Young College. No admission would be charged.

In the first part of November Culmer traveled to Logan to begin preparations. He was joined by Mary Teasdel, who had recently returned from her studies in Paris and who had been appointed to take taken the board position vacated by J. B. Fairbanks earlier in the year when he joined a Brigham Young Academy exhibition to South America.

At the second annual exhibition of the Utah Art Institute an estimated 6000 people (a third of the likely entertainment-starved population of Cache County) visited. Lectures givien by Culmer, Paul, Elliott, Horne and Teasdel were all well attended, most of the students of Brigham Young College, the Agricultural College and the Presbyterian colleges attending.

Peasant Woman Knitting by Mary Teasdel

Outside organizations, like the Daughters of the Revolution , excited by the success of the first exhibit, offered prizes of their own for this second exhibition. When it came time to award the state purchase award, the awards committee ran into a problem. They were divided between John Hafen’s “Quaking Aspens” and Mary Teasdel’s “Peasant Woman Knitting.” Hoping to solve the dilemma by splitting the award and purchasing both pieces, they consulted the Attorney General, who felt that according to the bylaws such an action would be deemed illegal.

The committee reluctantly settled on Hafen’s work, but couldn’t let the Teasdel go. Horne, who was becoming a consummate advocate for Utah artists, stepped in. She began soliciting new memberships (and one can’t help but imagine her going door to door, bouquet of posies in hand), and when Thomas Kearns and Alex Tarbet paid $100 each to become lifetime members and T.G. Webber, L.S. Hills and Mr. Carlson subscribed for annual memberships, a total of $250 was raised, the Teasdel became part of the state collection, and both artists went home with more money than they would have if the award had been split.

Due to Horne’s efforts, this procedural difficulty resulted in a happy ending for all involved. In the following years, though, things would not be so easy, and future disputes would pit fellow artists against each other in the courts, and place Horne’s bill on the legislative chopping block.

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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