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Our History

History of Newport Art Museum

A Shared Place for the Arts, Ideas, and Culture

The Newport Art Museum & Art Association is one of the oldest continuously operating organizations of its kind in the country. A group of community-minded artists and intellectuals, spurred on by activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Maud Howe Elliott (1854-1948), founded the organization as the Art Association of Newport (AAN) in June 1912 for “the cultivation of artistic endeavor and interest amongst the citizens of Newport.” A new charter adopted in 1915 expanded the AAN’s mission to encompass all the arts, art education and the establishment of a public art museum.

The Association held its first exhibition in June 1912 and incorporated an art school in 1913. After purchasing the John N. A. Griswold House on Bellevue Avenue in 1915, the organization moved into the house in 1916.

To honor artist Howard Gardiner Cushing, an early member of the AAN, the Association erected the Cushing Gallery in 1920. In 1998 the art school became the Minnie and Jimmy Coleman Center for Creative Studies, and moved from Griswold House to the newly acquired Gilbert S. Kahn Building, completing the organization’s three-building campus. The Association became the Newport Art Museum & Art Association in 1984.

Founding artist members saw themselves as successors to the many generations of prominent American artists who lived, practiced and taught in Newport. These regional artists organized themselves two years before their more famous contemporaries in the colonies at Old Lyme, Connecticut and Provincetown, Massachusetts. AAN founding artists were Elijah Baxter, Charles Biesel, John Elliott, William Sergeant Kendall, Albert Sterner, Helena and Louisa Sturtevant and Leslie P. Thompson. 

William Sergeant Kendall served as the Association’s first president, but the early history and ultimate success of the AAN were largely dependent on the efforts of a few devoted artistic women: Maud Howe Elliott, who served as Secretary and “guiding light” for the early Association; Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an artist, wealthy patron, and AAN council member; and Helena Sturtevant who became the Association’s longest serving director of the art school.

Barely a month after its creation, the Association staged its first exhibition, which included contributions from within the group and from prominent American artists such as Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Frank W. Benson, Joseph DeCamp, John White Alexander, Mary Cassatt, George Bellows, Ernest Lawson and Arthur B. Davies. Among these artists were significant proponents of avant garde art movements: American impressionism (The Ten) and urban realism (The Eight).

Through the patronage of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who exhibited her own work here in 1915 and joined the Art Association’s board in 1916, many important New York artists continued to exhibit regularly at the AAN.  Founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Whitney is recognized as being among the first to appreciate the new American realists of the Ashcan School and she emerged as one of the most forward-looking art patrons of her day.

Just one year after its founding, the Art Association of Newport began offering art classes in 1913. John Elliott, likely at the urging of his wife Maud Howe Elliot, taught the first course, joined by Helena Sturtevant. Albert Sterner and Sergeant Kendall also taught briefly. The following autumn Helena Sturtevant took charge, ultimately becoming the school’s longest – serving director. She diligently and painstakingly developed a first-rate art school with a roster of exceptional teachers and a diverse curriculum.

In the true spirit of art education, Sturtevant was interested in reaching out to diverse groups. In 1922 Sturtevant wrote: “It is not without interest to observe among the pupils, the different nationalities represented, French, Swedish, Swiss, Greek, Portuguese, Armenian, several of them speaking almost no English… From the wharfs of Newport, from a fisherman’s hut at Third Beach, from the farms of Portsmouth and Middletown, from the Army and Navy, from well known families of this place and New York, one common interest brings them here.” 
Early programming also included afternoon teas held in conjunction with exhibits, a lecture series, an annual exhibition of works of art by living American artists, musical afternoons, art studio rentals and social events.

In 1928, Mrs. George Rives left the Swanhurst estate and an endowment for its maintenance to the AAN in memory of her mother, Sarah Swan Whiting. The Swanhurst Summer School of Arts, offering courses in music, dancing and languages, became an integral part of the Association for sixty years, until its sale in 1988.

The Art Association of Newport hired Judith Richardson Silvia as its first salaried professional director in 1975. Silvia brought New York artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, George Segal and Christo to the exhibition schedule. The following decade was difficult as the AAN transitioned from a volunteer-run association to an organization managed by a professional staff. Notably, Frederick P. Walkey, formerly the director of the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, was hired to direct the AAN in 1983. During his time at the helm, the Association changed its name to the Newport Art Museum & Art Association.

Cora Lee Gibbs, a former curator of education at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, took over as director in 1985. During her six-year tenure, the organization grew quickly. Of the many major steps forward during this period, the Museum expanded the size of the Cushing Gallery to include a climate controlled, secure space for exhibition and storage of artworks.

In 1998, Nancy Whipple Grinnell was hired as curator by Judith Sobol and still serves the museum today. So far, Grinnell has magnified the museum’s permanent collection, of both historical and contemporary works, by about 725 art objects. As a devotee of women artists of Newport, Grinnell published a book in 2014 on Maud Howe Elliot, the founder of the Newport Art Association, which eventually morphed into the Newport Art Museum. 

Under the direction of Christine Callahan between 1999 and 2005, the Newport Art Museum raised funds to fully restore the historic John N. A. Griswold House, and launched a multi-year effort to achieve full accreditation by the American Association of Museums (AAM), a distinction that was conveyed in 2007 during the tenure of her successor, Karl Willers. AAM accreditation recognizes the Museum's commitment to accountability, public service, professional museum standards, and excellence in education and stewardship.

Elizabeth A. Goddard was hired as interim director in 2008 and became executive director in 2009. Under Goddard’s direction, the Newport Art Museum continued to serve as one of Rhode Island’s most important cultural resources and enhanced community life as a shared place for the arts, ideas and culture. Goddard retired in February 2015.