Charlotte Partridge (circa 1881-1975) was an internationally renowned art educator, the founder of Milwaukee’s Layton School of Art, and Chair of the Federal Art Project in Wisconsin. Her legacy allows us to trace the growth of socially-engaged art practice during the first half of the twentieth century in the United States.
Partridge was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She spent most of her childhood in Duluth, with the exception of a few years when she was enrolled in Dana Hall, a prep school for Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After graduating from the Northern Illinois State Normal School in 1905, she taught second grade at the Whittier School in Oak Park, IL. In 1910, she enrolled in Emma Church’s Chicago School of Applied and Normal Art (later renamed Church School of Art).
In 1914, she joined the Milwaukee Downer College. Between 1914 and 1916 she also taught at the Commonwealth School of Art and Industry in Boothbay Harbor, Maine during summers. In 1920 Partridge left her job as the head of the Fine Art Department at Milwaukee Downer College to start the Layton School of Art at the basement of Milwaukee’s Layton Art Gallery. She was joined in this project by Miriam Frink, an English teacher whom she met at Downer College. Their lifelong professional and personal partnership transformed the school into a leading art institution in the United States. Partridge deemphasized the repetition of stylistic forms of art, duplication, and learning from copying, and instead promoted community engagement, change, and empowerment through art. Partridge called this art in the community. In 1954 Partridge and Frink retired as directors of the Layton School of Art.
Partridge became director and curator of the Layton Art Gallery in 1922 and brought her progressive ideas to bear on the way art was displayed and curated. She transformed the gallery from a depository of collectibles to a place where her ideas of socially-engaged and community-focused art could be practiced. In 1933 Partridge became associated with the Public Works of Art Project that supported the unemployed artists of the United States during the Great Depression. From 1933-1934 she served as the Wisconsin State Chair for the project, and from 1935 to 1939 she was appointed director of the Wisconsin Federal Art Project. In 1940 she produced a Federal Works Agency report that surveyed art institutions and contemporary art in the United States. In 1948, she was instrumental in organizing the Wisconsin Centennial Art Exhibition to showcase the work of local and state artists.
Partridge served in many high profile social and professional organizations. In 1947, as a member of Zonta Club, an international service organization made of accomplished working women, Partridge suggested a novel idea for housing middle-income elderly women in independent living rental apartments called Zonta Manor. In 1966, she began working with the Walnut Area Improvement Council (WAICO), a grass roots organization made up of local African American residents trying to improve their neighborhood. In 1967 she promoted the idea of community gardens as a community organizing tool in order to inspire what was later named “Operation Green.”
Partridge’s contributions were recognized with an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from Lawrence University in 1969. University President Thomas S. Smith called her contributions farsighted, even prophetic, “beyond the field of art into industry and the general cultural and social life of the state.”
- ^ An oral history interview with Charlotte Partridge conducted by Harlan Phillips exists in the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts Oral History Project at the Smithsonian. This collection mentions the birth year as 1882. For more on her biographical information see Personal Papers of Charlotte Russell Partridge, Charlotte Russell Partridge and Miriam Frink Papers, 1862-1980, Milwaukee Mss 167, Wisconsin Historical Society Milwaukee Area Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries (hereafter Partridge papers). See also oral history interview with Charlotte Russell Partridge, circa 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Interviewer, Harlan Phillips, June 12, 1965, accessed February 12, 2016. For details on education (1894-1914), see Box 10, Folder 3, Partridge papers. For family history (1867-1960) see, Box 10, Folder 10-11, Partridge papers.
- ^ When her father died in 1902, the family moved from Duluth to De Kalb, Illinois, where Charlotte and her sister completed their education in the Northern Illinois State Normal School. For details on education (1894-1914) see Box 70, Folder 1, Partridge papers.
- ^ After graduating with a diploma for a two-year course in normal art, Partridge spent a few years teaching at the Francis Parker School and the Chicago Kindergarten College while also working on commercial art and design and attending night school at the Chicago Art Institute.
- ^ Box 11, Folder 8 and Box 12, Folders 1-2, Partridge papers.
- ^ Partridge convinced the trustees of the Layton Gallery to let her use their basement as the location for an art school. Ten friends—most trustees—donated $250 each to pay for remodeling of basement. Charlotte’s brother-in-law loaned $900 to pay for second-hand equipment: lockers, drawing tables, board racks, piano, easels, and a skeleton. Tuition of $175 per year per student and other fees paid for expenses once school opened. Instructors included Gerritt Sinclair from Minneapolis Art School. Miss Church from Chicago gave a series of lectures on the Psychology of Art. Partridge taught Design, composition, and commercial art. Later Helen Hoppin, who graduated from the program, joined in order to teach mechanical drawing and lettering. Dudley Crafts Watson, Director of the Milwaukee Art Institute taught History of Art. Harry Bogner was brought in to teach Architectural drawings and design, and Miriam Frink taught literary appreciation and psychology. Box 16 Folder 6, Partridge papers.
- ^ Partridge and Frink rented their first apartment in 1921 and built a studio cottage together in 1930. They lived in a new home in Mequon built in 1938 and lived there until 1973 when, due to ill health, Partridge moved to the Mequon Care Center. Box 11 Folder 5, Partridge papers.
- ^ In 1954 news spread across the art community across United States that Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink had suddenly retired from their position as directors of the Layton School of Art at Milwaukee. Artists, scholars, and art teachers reacted in shock and revulsion. Newspapers reported that they resigned due to old age, but those who knew the two well were anguished when they found out that the educators did not resign out of their free will. They were actually forced out of their positions by the board of directors. Later Frink would write that their successor, Edmund Lewandowski (1914-1998), was predetermined to take over. One of their friend, Marianne Willisch, an interior designer who was instrumental in introducing German Modernism to Chicago, wrote on February 12, 1954, “I am so deeply shocked and disturbed by what has happened to you…What you two have built up over a lifetime in the Layton School with intelligence, sound knowledge, and vision, what has grown and developed due to your human insight, understanding and kindness is yours by every law of decency and justice. Those who take it from you are committing robbery of particular heinous kind.”
- ^ She changed what was being displayed in the galleries and promoted a certain culture of viewing art, with a goal of creating a discerning public with critical “public taste.” She mounted controversial exhibits. For instance, in 1930, she resisted public criticism by the American Institute of Architects in order to exhibit Frank Lloyd Wright’s work at the Layton gallery, at a time when Wright’s career and reputation had reached a nadir. “Layton Art Gallery,” Box 43 Folder 6, Partridge papers. See also Oral history interview with Charlotte Russell Partridge, circa 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Interviewer, Harlan Phillips, June 12, 1965, accessed February 12, 2016.
- ^ For more on her contribution to the Federal Arts Program see “Federal Art Programs,” Partridge papers.
- ^ “Layton School of Art,” Box 34, Folder 13, Partridge papers.
- ^ She was part of organizations and committees such as the Milwaukee War Memorial Committee, the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, Women’s Advertising Club of Milwaukee, and the Women’s Auxiliary of the State Historical Society. “Layton School Gallery,” Box 48, Folder 16; Box 36, Folder 9; Box 13, Folder 3; and Box 12, Folder 19, all in Partridge papers.
- ^ The organization bettered the neighborhood using strategies such as urban gardening, building facade improvements, painting, yard maintenance, city ordinances, and supervising grievances against errant non-resident landlords and the city. Charlotte Partridge first appears on the WAICO rolls in 1966. She recruited artists Johanna Poehlman and Lois Ehlert Reiss to teach art classes at the community house. A music class was formed. By 1967 she was using the very successful model of community gardens as a community organizing tool in order to produce what was later called Operation Green. As part of this event, WAICO members gave neighborhood garden tours to the public in order to create a sense of community pride and identity. For more see “Walnut Improvement Council,” Box 65, Folder 22-24, and Box 67 Folder 7, Partridge papers.
- ^ “Honorary Degree from Lawrence University, 1969,” Box 10, Folder 9, Partridge papers.
For Further Reading
Charlotte Russell Partridge and Miriam Frink Papers, 1862-1980, Milwaukee Mss 167, Archives Department, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.
Mooney, Claudia. “The Layton Art Collection: 1888-2013, Part 2.” Milwaukee Art Museum: Under the Wings blog, May 14, 2013, accessed February 12, 2016.
Oral history interview with Charlotte Russell Partridge, circa 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Interviewer, Harlan Phillips, June 12, 1965, accessed February 12, 2016.