From the Archives: First Ceramic National Exhibition

Today we launch a new blog series, From the Archives! The Everson’s archives document its long history, beginning with the institution’s founding as the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts in 1897 and extending through 122 years of exhibitions, programs, and events, as well as the building of a collection with over 11,000 objects. In this series, we will share photographs, correspondence, exhibition materials, and other ephemera that tells the story of the Everson. Our first From the Archives find is material relating to the first Ceramic National exhibition in 1932.

In 1932, Anna Wetherill Olmsted, director of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, established the first annual Robineau Memorial Ceramic Exhibition in honor of local ceramist Adelaide Alsop Robineau, who passed away in 1929. Olmsted intended the exhibition to provide a venue for American ceramists to present their work as well as provide the Museum with the opportunity to become a center for American ceramics. Known today as the Ceramic Nationals, these juried exhibitions ultimately sparked a major national interest in ceramic art and paved the way for museums around the country to collect and exhibit the work.

Olmsted wrote of her plans to establish a center for ceramics in a letter to Samuel Robineau, Adelaide’s widow, in 1931: “It has seemed to me that, as we own an outstanding collection of modern porcelains, it would be interesting to try to work towards making a ceramic center here in Syracuse.” In the letter, she briefly outlines her idea for an annual exhibition with a jury of well-known ceramists and a number of cash prizes.

Despite a lack of funding and appropriate exhibition space—the Museum’s entire exhibition budget in 1932 was $419 and it rented space on the top floor of Syracuse’s Carnegie Library—Olmsted pulled together a successful exhibition featuring artists from New York State. The exhibition opened in May 1932, and Olmsted displayed the work atop sateen-covered folding tables borrowed from the local YMCA. $50 prizes were awarded to Charles Harder for a copper red jar and Walter Suter for his sculpture Fountain Figure, and honorable mentions went to several others, including Ruth Hunie Randall, Marion Fosdick, Arthur E. Baggs, Guy Cowan, Russell Barnett Aitken, and Carl Walters.

The exhibition received an enthusiastic response from the ceramics community and letters poured in from artists around the country imploring the Museum to make the next exhibition a national.

Funded by a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Everson photographed and digitized a significant portion of its American ceramics collection and Ceramic National Archive. The searchable database, which went live in 2016, provides artists, collectors, curators, scholars, and students the opportunity to engage directly with the full history of the Ceramic National exhibitions.

-Steffi Chappell, Assistant Curator

Image captions

  • Installation photograph, first Ceramic National exhibition
  • Front and back of a postcard Olmsted mailed to ceramic artists living in New York State to drum up interest in the exhibition
  • Installation photograph, first Ceramic National exhibition