One of the oldest continually operating arts organizations in the country, the Buffalo Society of Artists started in 1891 to promote and expand the awareness of Western New York artists—the same mission we embrace today.
Founded in April, 1891, the Buffalo Society of Artists is one of the oldest art organizations in Western New York and in the United States. The first exhibit was held on November 14, 1891, with nearly 200 works by 50 exhibitors. It was held in the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy galleries, located in the old Buffalo and Erie County Public Library in Lafayette Square. Thereafter, for over 120 years, one, two or more annual exhibits have been held locally, with prizes given. From its inception, the Society accepted both exhibiting artists and non-artists as members. In January 1894, the Society was incorporated by Ammi Farnham, Alice Russell Glenny, George B. Bridgman, Amos Sangster, Rose Clark, Mark Maycock, Eugenie Hauenstein, John Rother and William Arthur. The original incorporation papers are still on file in the Erie County Clerk’s Office.
Early exhibits included the works of members and well-known non-members, such as Theodore Robinson, John Henry Twachtman, William Merritt Chase, Aubrey Beardsley and even French impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Society member Charles Burchfield exhibited regularly. When the Albright Art Gallery was being built in 1905, the Buffalo Society of Artists declined the Gallery’s invitation to merge with it, which would have meant losing its name and identity.
Between 1900 and 1930, the Buffalo Society of Artists exhibitions were culturally and financially successful and important events on the social calendar. With the onset of the Depression, the Society focused on the plight of unemployed artists. It also held its celebratory dress balls and its monthly studio visits. In the 30’s, due to disputes adherents of “Modern” art broke from the proponents of “Academic” art to form the Patteran Society, which ultimately disbanded. In 1935, the Buffalo Society of Artists, deemed by many as more “Academic” in its approach to art, filed expanded incorporation papers via Alex O. Levy and Josephine Lewis Nicholls (wife of artist Burr H. Nicholls). The Society’s purpose in this filing was, “to encourage the production of creative art in Buffalo and its immediate vicinity, to help bring the general public to a better understanding and appreciation of art, to generate among both artists and laymen a justifiable pride in the achievements of local artists, to foster among the artists themselves a spirit of good fellowship and of loyalty to one another and to the aims of the Society.” In 1938, the present day custom of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals was begun. In 1943, proceeds from Society exhibits were used to buy war bonds.
After World War II, the Buffalo Society of Artists continued annual exhibits including the Thumb Box exhibits of small works, begun in the 1890’s At the Allentown “courtyard” exhibits some artists’ works routinely sold out. In 1963, photography was exhibited for the first time. From 1905 to 1977, exhibits had been held periodically at the Albright Art Gallery. In 1977, the Gallery no longer chose to sponsor any local artist group, ending the 75-year relationship, choosing. That same year, the Society led by Virginia Tillou, staged a successful protest against a brick wall that would have obscured the base of the McKinley Monument in downtown Buffalo.
Beginning in the 1970’s, both the “Academic” and “Modern” branches of art came to be more fully represented in the Society. Also in the 1970’s, the value of American art began to be realized in the national and international art market and the work of Society members from earlier years began to attract attention. Antique and art gallery owner, Dana Tillou held a successful retrospective of Alex O. Levy’s artwork. Other artists “discovered” and commanding respectable prices through national and international dealers were Alexis Fournier, Clare Shuttleworth, Burr H. Nichols, James Francis Brown, Jane Peterson, Frank Penfold, Charles Reiffel, Edward Dufner, Walter Garver, Isabel Ross, Amos Sangster, Paul Bernard King, Eugene Speicher, Jonas Lie, Harry Leith-Ross, Frederick Devoll, Louise Upton Brumback, Roy Martell Mason, Florence Julia Bach, Charles Cary Rumsey, Virginia Cuthbert, and Ethelyn Cobb Pratt. Other “rediscovered” artists are continually being added to this list.
For well over 120 years, members of the Buffalo Society of Artists have produced and exhibited their art annually, semi-annually and more. They have continued through prosperous and lean times, weathering controversy from within and without, serving their muse. All the while, they have had the courage of their artistic convictions, producing their own unique original art. As the wheels of the art world move forward, the work of our earlier fellow members is finally being given the recognition it deserves. This delayed success and ultimate recognition of artistic merit should be enough to encourage us all to persevere.
A Brief History, Buffalo Society of Artists, 1891–1991, written by Albert L. Michaels and Russell Ram, and published by President’s Books, scrapbooks and records submitted by outgoing presidents, can be found at:
- The Archives Room at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center
- The Buffalo History Museum
- The E.H. Butler Library at Buffalo State SUNY College
- The Daemen University Library
- The Central Branch of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
- Lockwood Memorial Library at University at Buffalo SUNY College
- The Henrietta G. Lewis Library at Niagara County Community College