Swope Art Museum

I peered closely at the plaques. They contained information about the paintings on display at the Indiana State Museum. The paintings were on loan from the Swope Art Museum. I was intrigued. I had never heard of that museum. In Terre Haute? I will have to visit.

The Swope Art Museum is located on 7th Street, just around the block from Main Street in Terre Haute. The story of how the museum came to be is a curious one. A local businessman, Sheldon Swope, left almost all of his money for the establishment of an art museum.

The caveat? The museum must remain free to the public and always have at least one woman on the board. (This was in the 1920s! Progressive by even today’s standards.)

Was Swope an art collector? Nope. His reason for bequeathing his fortune to a foundation dedicated to creating and maintaining an art museum remains unknown. But he planned for the largesse in 1903, decades before he death in 1929.

After his death, his estate was liquidated and left to accrue interest. In 1939, the planning and accumulation of art for the museum commenced. The art museum opened in 1942 in an Art Deco building that Swope had owned in downtown Terre Haute.

John Rogers Cox, an artist himself and the museum’s first director, set out to collect works by up and coming artists. Cox had a good eye. Many of these up and coming artists turned out to be quite important artists, such as Grant Wood and Edward Hopper.

The museum focuses on American regionalists, Indiana impressionists, Terra Haute artists, the Hoosier Group, art from the 1930s and 1940s, and Western art. Many of the names of artists showcased in the museum appear in collections elsewhere: William Merritt Chase, John Ottis Adams, Janet Scudder, William Forsyth, T.C. Steele, and George Winter.

The museum also hosts special exhibits like a current one celebrating local legend Eugene Debs (Remembering Debs) and local artists (the 72nd Annual Wabash Valley exhibition). You can check out the art of one of the Debs exhibit contributors, J.B. Daniels, on the side of a nearby building. Daniels painted Debs and his dog, Babe, on the side of a yellow building just a block down the road from the museum.

And while you are in Terre Haute, be sure to check out the Clabber Girl Museum just across Main Street and the Eugene V. Debs House a few blocks away. Both are excellent museums.

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