Unearthing CAC History at the Smithsonian Institution


The author at the manuscript room of the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art.

From the CAC Vault: Unearthing CAC History at the Smithsonian

Published in the Spring 2012 CAC Newsletter

© By Eric Merrell, CAC Historian

When the history of the California Art Club (CAC, founded 1909) began to intrigue me about a decade ago, the club’s known past was partial at best. Entire decades were denuded of information. Sometimes tantalizing rumors survived, such as those of a CAC art collection and library. As I was drawn further into the Club’s storied history, I decided to try and put it all back together.

Taking what was already in the CAC Archives, I began to organize it into a history section on the CAC’s website (www.californiaartclub.org/history). This way it was much easier to get a broad picture of the Club and missing areas became readily apparent. As I documented past presidents and members, exhibitions and old CAC haunts, I zeroed in on places where other history might be hiding.

One of the first spots I started to dig was at the Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Research Library at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where I found numerous exhibition catalogues. Founded in 1913 as the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art (LACMHSA) in Exposition Park, the museum split into two entities about 1961 – LACMA, opening at its current location on Wilshire Boulevard, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles continuing on at the original location. The club’s Annual Exhibitions were held at LACMHSA for at least 25 years straight, from the 5th Annual (1915) through the 29th Annual (1938).

I soon found myself searching other past CAC venues such as the Greek Theater in Griffith Park (a dead end), the Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Park (a few extant items), and Glendale’s Brand Library (three annual exhibition catalogues); I also contacted club members who had participated in these past events. Yet another source (that has yet to be exhausted) is the Archives of the Los Angeles Times. Antony E. Anderson (1863-1939), the first Times art critic and an Honorary CAC Member, reported quite thoroughly on club exhibitions for many years, going so far as to list artists, painting titles and descriptions of the works. Anderson’s successor at the Times as art critic, Arthur Henry Thomas Millier (1893-1975), was also an Honorary Member and continued the in-depth reporting.[1]

During my forays I came across a brief listing on the website of the Archives of American Art, a part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Titled “California Art Club guest register and scrapbooks, 1927-1961” and accompanied by a short description of the contents (“1.5 linear ft.” worth), I was curious to see what these archives contained. However, the only way to access them was to travel to Washington D.C. and make an appointment to visit the Archives in person. The trip would have to wait.

When I was given a solo exhibition at The Forbes Galleries in New York City during the summer of 2010 for my paintings of the California desert, I saw an opportunity. Since I was traveling to New York for the opening of the exhibition, it would be easy to take a train from New York to D.C. afterwards. With such a diminutive online description, I didn’t think it would take too much time to go through the archives, so I generously allotted myself three full days in the city. With the extra time I could check out the myriad D.C. museums.

On my first day at the Archives, I quickly realized that the brief online description was a hefty understatement. During their tenure as “scrapbook chairman” – Florence Adler [1882-1954] maintained it from about 1945-51, Greta Ammon through 1955, and then Emily Kelsey through 1960[2] – decades of newspaper clippings, California Art Club Bulletins, pamphlets, member rosters and more had been attached, affixed, and poured into the scrapbooks. When these custodians had run out of space, the next item was simply tacked the on top of the last, creating multiple layers one could lift up and leaf through. Since the Archives only allows photocopying of loose-leaf material, photography was the only option – but the petite two mega-pixel camera I brought with me was sorely outmatched by the task.


Newspaper clipping from the Archives of American Art showing CAC exhibiting at Bloomingdale’s in New York City (NYT, March 12, 1944).

Luckily, there was a camera store between my hotel and the Archives, so I rented a powerful digital camera with a good lens. Now, instead of shooting one newspaper clipping (that may or may not be in focus), I could include an entire scrapbook page worth of clippings in one shot. Over the next two days I photographed everything I could – eventually totaling over 800 high-resolution images, some 20 gigabytes worth of material. Marisa Bourgoin, the Richard Manoogian Chief of Reference Services at the Archives, along with her many assistants, was a wonderful help. I spent the entire three days in the Archives, but since they closed at 4:30 pm, I would head across the street each evening to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

After returning home, it required numerous days to process the raw files and then sort the multitudinous images; but I’ve begun to fill in a lot of information: the CAC Archives now has two additional decades of the Bulletin (1942-1961), plus exhibition pamphlets, clippings detailing events, parties, meetings, the gold medals, club presidents, and the busy activities of members. Overall, it gives us a much clearer picture of the club during the period after their fifteen-year tenure at the Hollyhock House.

I can now verify that rumor about the CAC library and art collection: Antony Anderson did donate five hundred volumes from his personal collection to form the nucleus of a nascent library about 1927 or early 1928. Supplemented by donations by other club members, the Antony Anderson Library, named for its benefactor, numbered nearly one thousand volumes.[3]

The club also at one point possessed a small art collection: one painting by William Wendt (1845-1946) and another by Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949), though neither painting is named.[4] The collection grew when someone named Corinne Wood donated The Yellow Tea-Pot by John Hubbard Rich (1876-1954),[5] and later it also apparently included a fourth donated painting, one of the “finest works” of Charles J. Bensco (1894-1960). [6] Unfortunately, both the Anderson Library and CAC Art Collection have gone missing over time.

The next piece to the puzzle? Once everything has been gleaned from the first D.C. foray, a return visit to the Archives may be in store. One of my predecessors as CAC Historian during the 1950s was artist and art historian Ferdinand Perret (1888-1960), who worked for decades to create the Perret Art Reference Library. This collection, consisting of “thousands of reference works, art reproductions and material collected from newspapers and magazines,” was donated to the Smithsonian in 1945. The entire library covers a broad range of art history including European, American, California, Spanish colonial, and much more, and comprises NINE TONS of material.[7] I imagine that I’ll discover some CAC history buried in there somewhere.



[1] Honorary Life credits: Anderson, elected Feb. 27, 1910, Los Angeles Times; Millier: 1964 CAC Roster

[2] Box 3/5, “Scrapbook “1945-’6-’7-‘8’-‘9” (Adler); Box 5/5, Scrapbook “September 1953 – December 1961” (Ammon, Kelsey), CAC Archives, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.

[3] Artist’s Library Planned, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1927; Art Library His Gift, Hollywood Magazine, January 6, 1928

[4] March, May 1949 CAC Bulletins

[5] October 1954 CAC Bulletin

[6] November 1960 CAC Bulletin

[7] Ferdinand Perret, Art Research Expert, Dies, Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1960

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