Mrs. King announced that Mrs. Wilhoit, Miss Weisel, and Miss Trimble would present a bill before the State Legislature asking for permission to levy a city tax to build and support a museum in the new Civic Center proposed by the Bartholomew Plan.
-Minutes from the meeting of the Board of Directors of the Springfield Art Museum, November 22, 1934
[Image of Civic Center proposal courtesy of History Museum on the Square]
The Springfield Art Museum is one of Springfield’s oldest institutions, and it went through many phases of financial and physical development before construction on our current facility began in the 1950s. The first 25 years of the Museum’s life were marked by many highs and lows: while it succeeded in fostering an appreciation of the arts and education in Southwest Missouri, it had to run its exhibitions and programming on a shoestring budget for many years. In 1946, the Springfield Art Museum was officially deeded to the City of Springfield after City Council approved a special tax that would, among other things, provide consistent financial support for a city museum.
By this time, the Springfield Art Museum was almost two decades old and had been operated tirelessly by its self-appointed Board of Directors, including its initial founder, Deborah D. Weisel. Though Weisel’s title was only General Secretary, she effectively acted as curator, head educator, development officer, and publicist. Since the incorporation of the Museum in 1928, the Museum supported itself through donations and membership dues, keeping the cost of entry and activities as low as possible for the people of Springfield.
As the Great Depression began to wane, Weisel strove to enact legislation that would help stabilize the Museum’s operating budget, allowing the board to hire an executive director and full-time staff. To do this, she solicited the advocacy of two local state senators, Edward A. Barbour, Jr. and Allen McReynolds. Both were democrats (rare for the region) and lawyers, and they often collaborated with each other on legislation. Both Barbour and McReynolds have long a history of supporting the arts throughout Missouri. For example:
- Allen McReynolds (1877-1960) represented the 28th district as a Missouri state senator from 1935-42. He was from Carthage, and grew up studying law under his father. Primarily a lawyer and a historian, McReynolds was heavily involved in the arts and culture of Missouri, even serving as vice president of the Missouri Historical Society from 1925-36 and president from 1937-41. He acquired a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by itinerant Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham for the Historical Society. Regarded as worthless after being badly damaged in the 1911 fire at the Jefferson City capitol building, the painting was rescued by Senator Michael E. Casey of Kansas City, who had it cleaned and repaired. When Casey died in 1949, McReynolds acquired it and had it further repaired and authenticated at the Nelson Gallery (now Nelson-Atkins Museum). The Bingham painting, a reverent copy of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Jefferson, survived in good condition and is now in the collection of the Missouri State Historical Society thanks to McReynolds.
- Edward A. Barbour, Jr. (1896-1970) represented the 20th district as a Missouri state senator from 1935 to 1942, having been elected and reelected at the same time as McReynolds. Like McReynolds, Barbour studied law after his father and worked as a prosecutor for the majority of his career. Barbour happened to meet another famous Missouri artist, Thomas Hart Benton, in 1935. Benton came from a long line of Neosho politicians, and his brother Nat, a lawyer, introduced him to Barbour. This meeting was fortuitous, as Barbour had been recently interested in commissioning a mural depicting Missouri history. Benton agreed to the project if funding could be secured. Barbour presented his Senate Concurrent Resolution 6 on March 5, 1935, which proposed to honor Benton by having him paint an elaborate mural inside the capitol building in Jefferson City. The resolution passed, and Benton began painting “A Social History of the State of Missouri,” a theme which he was encouraged to interpret freely. The finished product became very controversial among some representatives and citizens, who complained the murals “weren’t pretty enough” or portrayed the “wrong aspects” of Missouri’s history. Benton responded to this criticism by stating that the mural was “not beautiful but truthful, and that by being truthful they were beautiful.”
Interestingly, Deborah Weisel approached McReynolds and Barbour just a couple of weeks after they were first elected to office in November of 1934. Barbour himself lived on East Walnut Street in Springfield, and it is possible that Weisel was acquainted with the two men before or during their campaign. She knew, in any case, that they would be amenable to aiding small regional museums and wasted no time in seeking out their advocacy for her cause. The bill allowing cities to levy a small tax for museums was presented to the Missouri Senate for the first time in February of 1935, and SAM board meeting minutes indicate that Weisel went to Jefferson City for the occasion.
The Springfield Art Museum wasn’t able to take advantage of the new tax levy for another ten years, but the City of Springfield adopted it just in time for the Museum to finally hire an Executive Director in 1947. Of course, anyone who has driven up Boonville knows that the Civic Center plan of which Weisel was a proponent never came to pass, but the Springfield Art Museum nevertheless found a lovely permanent home in Phelps Grove in 1958. The largest gallery was named after Deborah Weisel to commemorate her epic commitment to the museum.
After Winslow Ames was brought on as SAM’s first executive director, Weisel was finally able to tender her resignation from the Board of Directors after twenty years of service. She must have been extremely satisfied that her primary mission—ensuring that the Springfield Art Museum would continue to be provided for after her departure—came to pass. She died just a few years later, in 1950.
Springfield owes its rich arts culture to Weisel’s hard work, and it is very possible that the Springfield Art Museum would not have been able to develop as much as it has over the decades if not for Weisel’s keen political savvy. By the same token, we owe just as much to the state and city officials who routinely took pains to support the arts in Missouri throughout their careers.
To learn more about Deborah Weisel’s life and work in Springfield, check out this interactive timeline made in conjunction with our exhibition, Art Crusader: The Enduring Legacy of Deborah D. Weisel.
-Kiri Mack-Hansen, Research Assistant