PHOTO: Political buttons and other campaign materials are part of the Mercantile Library collection on the UMSL campus. Photo by Cate Marquis for The Current ©

By Mary Chickos, staff writer for The Current

A Speaker Series in honor of the founders of the Mercantile Library and the 250 Anniversary of the founding of St. Louis had a presentation November 2 at 2 p.m. in the Instruction Room of the Mercantile Library featuring a lecture by Dr. James Ott. A small group gathered for the presentation, which discussed the Art Worlds of the Gilded Age. Dr. Ott, a native St. Louisan, is a professor of art history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

He discussed the material from his book “Manufacturing the Modern Patron in Victorian California: Cultural Philanthropy, Industrial Capital, and Social Authority” and his slide show detailed the histories of material culture and art collecting from 1700 to 1950.

He passed around this book to the group, which is one of the most important books on Gilded Age art patronage written in many years. It gives a much needed perspective on American art and patronage of the late 1800s. On the west coast this was reflected in California’s rich cosmopolitan heritage in the age of gold mining.

Cultural philanthropy included San Francisco’s Mercantile library of 1856 which had a collection of rare books, periodicals, museum artifacts and picture galleries.

Dr. Ott also showed slides of Woodward’s Garden (1869), which had a zoo, aquarium, plant conservatory and art museum similar to Forest Park. He also showed pictures of the 14th Industrial Exhibition, Mechanics Institute Fair Pavilion and exhibition of paintings at the San Francisco Art Association on Pine St. (1891). In addition, he showed slides of plaster casts from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts of the 1800s. These galleries provided aesthetic entertainment to their patrons and some of these galleries were restricted, private collections, mostly on the east and west coasts.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park in New York City was shown as a new building near 82nd St. in the New York Post February 14, 1879. The Metropolitan Museum of Art became a cultural education center with trustees that was closed on Sunday for religious purposes as well as for limited budget and tight security. The permanent collection was on the second floor of the museum. Eventually New York became an art market with an overview of artists and works that were there at the time.

The Mercantile galleries were some of the first art galleries in the country. “Museums were tomb-like spaces back in the day.” Trustees were interested in having the public support the arts and so shopping and art viewing were put together in commercial spaces much like we see today at modern art fairs.


© The Current 2014