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The Story of the Norfolk Society of Arts

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Among the many good things from the NSA, a lecture series dating back to the 1950s.

The Norfolk Society of Arts celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

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A high point of the 100th birthday party for the Norfolk Society of Arts was the presentation of a new artwork to the Museum. Each curator had nominated a piece, and NSA members voted by secret ballot. Here's the backstory on the winner.

While Alex Mann was our Brock Curator of American Art, he had a quest for a specific romantic landscape painting. Just as New York museums have great depictions of Niagara, he was looking for a world-class painting of Virginia's own great wonder, Natural Bridge. After years of looking, one became available after long being held in private hands. Thanks to the NSA, Mann's wish is fulfilled. You can click the image to enlarge.

View of Natural Bridge, Virginia was painted by Jacob Caleb Ward around 1835. Ward was a Hudson River School contemporary of Thomas Cole, and he made the long journey to the site to be able to sketch and study it first hand.

As a final note, Mann has moved on to a new position at the Smithsonian. He said he told his new colleagues about the painting and showed them pictures, and that they already want to borrow it for an upcoming exhibition.

Which make us want to say thanks 100 times.

Most known nowadays as hosts of a long-running lecture series, NSA members have long been generous supporters of this Museum.

The group played a key role in the establishment of this Museum and has been with us ever since. From the induction-loop system that helps boost hearing aids in the Kaufman Theater to a renovated conservation library, from a digital assets management system to funding Norfolk Public Schools tours, from support of the Jean Outland Chrysler Library to the underwriting of collection catalogues, the NSA has been steadfast in their support.

The Norfolk Society of Arts had its genesis in the Irene Leache Art Association, named for one of Norfolk's early teachers and founded by her student and friend Annie Wood. To expand beyond just graduates of the Leache-Wood Seminary, founders opened the group to men and women and took a citywide name. When the Norfolk Society of Arts name was officially adopted on Jan. 16, 1917, the stated purpose was twofold: "To stimulate and further the interest in art in Norfolk and to establish an art museum."

Among the first new members of the NSA were Florence and William Sloane, textile mill owners and art connoisseurs from New York. In World War I, the NSA created a Service Club for enlisted men stationed in Norfolk. Financed by Florence Sloane, the venue near Mowbray Arch and Fairfax Avenue held dances, teas, and nightly open houses during the war. In 1920 this NSA headquarters became The Arts Building.

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A scene from the 1959 NSA Fall Exhibition, El Greco to Goya. Click any image to enlarge.

NSA Members successfully lobbied city officials to fill in unclaimed land at Smith's Creek at the mouth of the Hague, and the spot near Lee Park and West Duke Street would be the future site of any future museum. In 1923 the NSA started a Museum Building Fund, and by 1926, Florence Sloane was in charge of raising funds to build the new "Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences."

A 1927 exhibition by two women artists (and attended by nearly 10,000 visitors) led to the first artworks purchased for the newly approved museum. The NSA bought a small sculpture, Harriet Frismuth's Play Days, and Helen Turner's painting Lilies, Lanterns, and Sunshine.

The Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences opened to the public on March 5, 1933. Florence Sloane served as its first Director (and her husband was the first chairman of the all-male Board of Trustees). Sloane volunteered in the position for 12 years. Other than janitors and groundsmen funded by Depression-era government programs, almost all of the NMAS's workers were unpaid.

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From 1917, Florence Sloane and her sister doing Red Cross sewing on behalf of the war effort. Photo courtesy Hermitage Museum and Gardens.

Soon after the Museum opened, it was drawing annual attendance of 40,000. Today, the Chrysler draws more than 200,000 visitors each year.

The NSA's annual lecture series, active since the 1950s, has brought more than 300 notable speakers to Norfolk for free public talks. Among the lecturers have been artists, curators, authors, conservators, gallerists, historians, collecting experts, architects, appraisers, professors, designers, ambassadors, journalists, critics, and the directors of nearly every leading North American museum.

Also of note:

  • Starting in 1969, members of the NSA ran the Museum Shop for more than two decades. Much of the current product mix springs from their template of always offering jewelry, notecards, books, and items of interest to schoolchildren.
  • Almost all of the presidents of the NSA have been women. The group's first leader, in 1917, was Mrs. Lucien D. Stark (Mary Bell White Stark). The current NSA president is Diedre "Didi" Granger.
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From 1971, a photo from a Norfolk Society of Arts Lecture. From left to right, Mrs. William P. Oberndorfer, President, Society of Arts; Dr. Ramon Illarramendi, Consul, Venezuelan Embassy, Washington, D.C.; Mrs. William P. Chilton, Chairman, Arts Committee, Norfolk Society of Arts. Image from the Jean Outland Chrysler Library.