Friday, August 19, 2011

The Copley Society and the Quest for a Home

“If you’re going to be an artist in Boston, you’d better ask the Copley Society how to get started,” states as anonymous letter written to a young art student in 1968.  The same advice continued to be given after the Boston Art Students Association was founded nearly 90 years before the letter was sent.
One of its students, Alice Spenser Tinkham, avidly promoted the idea of establishing an alumni association, which she hoped would foster support among graduates as they aspired to make a name for themselves in the bustling art world. She and her colleagues soon founded the Boston Art Students Association, or the BASA. Under the leadership of its first president, H. Winthrop Pierce, the original members of the BASA achieved their goal by sponsoring exhibitions, lectures on important artists, seminars in art history, talks and demonstrations on techniques in painting and drawing, life classes, and special gatherings of art-minded people. The exhibitions asserted the society’s significant role as a promoter of American art and culture, while the special gatherings drew a great deal of attention to the BASA as a prominent player in Victorian Boston’s thriving social scene.
The year was 1879, and the original School of the Museum of Fine Arts was located in Copley Square, where the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel now stands.
The former building of the MFA | 138 St. James Avenue, Boston, MA

By 1891, membership was no longer restricted to those who were associated with the Museum school; it became open to all those who enjoyed and supported the arts. Artists and patrons alike flocked to the original pageants and plays hosted by the BASA, helping to enrich Boston’s cultural life. In addition, exciting costumed artist festivals enlivened public spirits and raised funds to continue the exhibitions, scholarships, and educational activities that had come to define the association. These memorable social events often made their way onto newspaper headlines. In 1901, as a prelude to the Fair Children exhibit that opened in February, the organization hosted a “Private View.” Guests came from places as far away as Montreal to not only see the art, but also to see and be seen themselves. The crowd included everyone from artists and art collectors, to popular actresses and diamond-clad socialites. To be seen at the event was a mark of prestige, well worth the $5 price of admission. It was an enormously successful and glamorous evening to be sure, but the real testament to the success of the exhibit was the large attendance of the general public: 21,660 people in total. That same year, the BASA decided it was more than a purely student-oriented organization, and thus changed its name to the Copley Society of Boston. The new name was adopted in honor of John Singleton Copley, one of America’s earliest noted painters.

John Singleton Copley | Self Portrait | 1780 - 1784

Despite its blossoming reputation, the Copley Society had no home of its own at first. Early meetings of the BASA were held in the schoolrooms of the MFA and in the Crowninshield Studio, a detached building on the museum’s land. During its incorporation in 1888, the BASA met and held classes in a studio on Branch Street on Beacon Hill. Then, in 1893, the association daringly leased the Winslone Skating Rink on Clarendon Street. The rink was transformed into beautiful exhibition halls with various rooms for studios, meetings, and classes. It was renamed Grundmann Studios in honor of Otto Grundmann, the greatly admired artist, teacher, and first head of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The spacious new galleries, called Copley and Allston Halls, brought about an exciting new era of great popularity and tremendous success. Between 1895 and 1916, twenty-one loan exhibitions were hosted at Co|So, a number unheard of at smaller galleries in America before that time. The opening receptions for these exhibits remained well-regarded and well-attended high points of the Boston social scene.  The Copley Society even began hosting magnificent annual costume balls known as the Twelfth Night Revels and the Artists Festivals. For these events, Boston’s oldest families came dressed in stunning authentic costumes to mingle with artists and students. Two of these unforgettable affairs took place in the Museum of Fine Arts, while the rest were held in Copley Hall.
By 1920, the Copley Society found itself homeless once again.  Grudmann Studios was torn down in order to accommodate the extension of Stuart Street. This, however, did not stop the Society from continuing to sponsor exhibitions and events of the highest caliber. Without a gallery to call its own, the Society utilized the rooms of the Boston Art Club to host fine exhibits such as the notable “Watercolors by Winslow Homer, Dodge MacKnight, and John Singer Sargent” of 1921. In 1932, the Copley Society found a new home on 296 Commonwealth Ave, a joyous event commemorated by a Washington Memorial Exhibition, and co-hosted by the MFA. The 1940s brought war and, consequently, difficult times for Co|So. Making the best of the grim situation, the Society hosted a Submarine Warfare Exhibition in 1945, which succeeded in reawakening public interest in the association.  Membership began to grow once again. During this period, the gallery headquarters changed numerous times before the organization settled in at 491 Boylston Street.  Members continued to exhibit their work, lectures were given, and musical and theatrical performances continued to entertain the public as they had in previous years. In 1955, the Copley Society made yet another move to 153 Newbury Street, inching still closer to its current location.  Two years later, the Copley Society made its historic and final move to 158 Newbury Street, its first permanent home.
No matter where Co|So and its associated exhibits and events have taken place, the original goals of its founding members remain as vital and valid to the art community today as they did in 1879.  The Copley Society has hosted some of the finest exhibitions in the history of American art, of artists both nationally and internationally known. This was surely what inspired the same author of the 1968 letter to proclaim, “The Copley Society, in truth, has become not merely of Boston, but of America.”
Current home of the Copley Society of Art at 158 Newbury Street
For images of the early history of the Copley Society, visit the Archive of American Art. Stay tuned for part two of the Copley Society history.
Source: The Copley Society Archives at the Boston Public Library

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