Organized in March 1883, through the efforts of May Wright Sewall and 17 other women, the Art Association of Indianapolis incorporated in October 1883, with Albert E. Fletcher, son of Calvin Fletcher, serving as its first president. Its mission was to promote and study art in Indianapolis, a goal to be achieved through an annual exhibit, an art school, and a permanent museum.

A woman sits in a chair in front of a wall covered with framed pictures.
Interior of the Herron Galleries, ca. 1900s Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

The association’s first exhibit in November 1883, consisted of 435 paintings by 137 different artists and was held in the English Hotel. Its permanent collection began with the purchase of two paintings from that exhibit: Running For An Anchorage by Harry Chase, and The Anxious Mother by Percival DeLuce.

From 1883 to 1896 exhibits were held in the Masonic Hall, the old Plymouth Church, and the H. Lieber Company Galleries. Then exhibits shifted to the Propylaeum (1896-1902) and John Herron Art Institute (1906-1969). Among the more notable early exhibits were an annual show by Indiana artists begun in 1908, a 1910 showing of works by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (attended by 56,000 people), and a 1912 exhibition for the Association of Women Artists, an organization founded as platform for professional women artists.

A stone building that looks like a large mausoleum.
The John Herron School of Art, 1910 Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

In January 1884, the Art Association opened an art school in a parlor at the Denison Hotel with Charles P McDonald of the Chicago Art League as headteacher, although financial difficulties forced its closure the next year. For much of the 1890s, the Art Association managed the second Indiana School of Art founded by T. C. Steele and William Forsyth in 1887. Then, in 1895, the association received a bequest of $225,000 from the estate of John Herron to build an art museum and art school in his memory.

In January 1902, the Art Association purchased a house on the corner of 16th and Pennsylvania streets for $50,000 and opened the John Herron Art School. Increased enrollment prompted a temporary move to the Union Trust Building and construction of a larger facility. Designed by the Indianapolis firm of Vonnegut And Bohn, the john herron art institute, housing both an art school and a museum, opened on November 20, 1906.

Aerial photo of the museum.
Indianapolis Museum of Art, ca. 1970s Credit: The Indiana Album: Indiana Landmarks Postcard Collection View Source

Initially housed in two rooms in the museum, the art school moved into its own building in 1907. The school was rebuilt in 1928 through a gift of $200,000 from Caroline Marmon Fesler, daughter of the founder of the Marmon Motor Car Company and president of the Art Association from 1941 to 1947. Designed by renowned Philadelphia architect Paul Phillipe Cret, the new building opened in 1929. Recognizing that the school’s needs were expanding beyond its resources, the Art Association turned the school over to Indiana University in 1967.

In 1906 the association’s art collection consisted of fewer than 100 paintings. Under the guidance of Wilbur D. Peat, director of the museum from 1929 to 1965, the collection expanded by many thousands of items, necessitating extensive remodeling and reconstruction of the building in 1940-1941. In 1966 the Lilly family donated the 44-acre Oldfields estate, located at 1200 West 38th Street, to the Art Association. After turning over the John Herron Art Museum building to the Herron School of Art (a division of Iupui), the Art Association of Indianapolis officially became the Indianapolis Museum Of Art in 1970 with its relocation to the Krannert Pavilion.

Revised February 2021

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