Watercolor USA and its 55 opportunities for art appreciation

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Alan Shelton visits the Springfield Art Museum’s 2016 Watercolor USA exhibition. The annual show continues until Aug. 28.

Springfield may not necessarily be a mecca for watercolor artists, but it is for their work. Since 1962, painters from across the country have sent their best pieces to the Springfield Art Museum: They’re for Watercolor USA, the museum’s signature event that’s celebrating its 55th show this summer.

“We absolutely have people who come every summer because they know they’re going to see watercolor, and that’s what they want to see,” says Sarah Buhr, curator of art at the Springfield Art Museum. “Whether or not they kind of understand its picture in the larger watercolor scene, I don’t know. But it’s definitely one of the museum’s more-known shows.”

The “picture” she refers to is Watercolor USA’s nationwide notoriety; it’s one of the nation’s top three watercolor shows. But there’s something else that Buhr believes makes Springfield’s show stand out from the crowd. “Of the three big watercolor shows, we’re the only one that’s at a museum,” she says. “… I think there’s something prestigious about that for the artist.”

However, that museum — and subsequently, the show — likely wouldn’t exist if not for a handful of local women.

The story of the Springfield Art Museum

The year was 1926 when Deborah Weisel began leading those women — organized as the Art Study Club — in both art appreciation and civic engagement. According to the Springfield Mirror in 1929, “their purpose was not only to study art appreciation themselves, but to do everything in their power to bring about a love and appreciation of the beautiful in all civic things.” Some examples of those efforts included bond-issue propulsion, and securing the services of St. Louis’ city planner to help create a “Greater Springfield.”

But by 1928, the group felt they were ready for greater things: They held their first show, composed of loans from St. Louis artists, which was viewed by more than 3,000 people during the three weeks it was on display. That response, coupled with its first art donation (which is still on display on the museum), convinced the club’s members that the city wanted more.

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The Springfield Art Museum is shown right before its public unveiling in October 1958. (Courtesy of Keys to Springfield/Richard Crabtree)

That same year, they incorporated as the Springfield Art Museum.

Officers were added, and the Springfield Public Library (now the Midtown Carnegie Library) offered the lobby of its second floor to display artwork loaned from Springfield residents. Later, the museum also operated from office space in the Wilhoit Building and in City Hall.

As years passed, the museum’s collection grew — and so did the workload. In the late 1940s, the museum was turned over to the City of Springfield. Around a decade later, the museum got its very own home: Located at Bennett Street and National Avenue, the building was unveiled to the public on Oct. 5, 1958.

“The museum was designed and constructed at a cost of approximately $125,000 without the necessity of a bond issue or an increase in taxes,” reported the October 1958 issue of “Keys to Springfield,” a monthly publication from the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. “It was paid for by a donation of approximately $50,000 from the Southwest Missouri Museum Associates, a bequest of $20,000 by Mrs. Josephine Boyer Ingram and accumulated savings throughout the years by the City’s Museum Board.”

A new project

Four years later, local art leaders were ready for a new project. Ken Shuck, the museum’s director, and Robert Johnson, its curator of education, began brainstorming about what they could cultivate as a signature show for the museum.

“There was sort of a lack of interest and dedication to watercolors, and so they thought that was once place where they could kind of make their mark,” says Buhr — noting that the men chose the name Watercolor USA hoping to get entries from all over the country.

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“Working rapidly to meet a deadline, Robert Johnson, left, educational curator of the Springfield Art Museum, and Director Kenneth Shuck examine stacks of watercolor paintings to be presented to judges for selection in the exhibition. Impressed by the scope and quality of 950 entries which flooded the museum from 45 states including Hawaii, the judges found enough paintings of high caliber to present two more shows. By removing some of its permanent exhibits, the museum found room for showing 150 of the selected watercolors.” — Springfield News-Leader, March 4, 1962

They were successful. “Even Museum Director Kenneth Shuck was stunned by the avalanche of entries which responded to invitations sent to artists, schools and museums throughout the nation,” reported the Springfield News-Leader on March 4, 1962, opening day of the show’s inaugural year. “Nearly 1,000 paintings rolled in, requiring exhaustive judging efforts by two men who are outstanding painters themselves.”

And while the show gave Ozarkers a new chance to appreciate art, the show also brought national attention to Springfield. That first year was enough to earn the show note in newspapers nationwide, and in states as varied as New Mexico, Texas, Alabama and Michigan.

“The magnitude of what the Springfield Museum has done may be better appreciated when it is realized that it has been under professional operation for only fifteen years, has occupied its own building for less than three years, and is run on a $59,000 budget,” noted George McCue, critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that first year.

The show’s initial success was only an indicator of greater things to come. “…It just sort of grew from there,” says Buhr. A connected group — the Watercolor USA Honor Society — was even launched in 1985 in support of the show, and still exists today.

Selecting the show

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Members of the 1967 jury of selection sit in judgement on an individual entry. (Courtesy of American Artist)

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Visitors tour Watercolor USA in 1967. (Courtesy of American Artist)

Technological advances have brought changes to the show, beginning with the way pieces are selected. After paying an entry fee, artists upload a picture or two of the piece to the internet, where a juror evaluates it. That individual — usually a museum curator or director — is responsible for choosing which pieces ultimately are shown.

“We’ve been using museum professionals mainly because it tends to provide a better show overall because they’re usually thinking of ‘the show,” says Buhr. “Like, this show is a very balanced show. You’re seeing a range of work, different styles, different genres, and that tends to happen with you have a curator or director do it because that’s what they’re used to doing.”

After setting the show online, he or she travels to the museum to choose the show’s award-winning pieces. In 2016, approximately $20,000 cash and museum purchase awards were available; one of the top prizes came in at $3,000.

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Watercolor USA isn’t just framed work. In recent years, Buhr says the museum has encouraged unconventional projects as long as watercolor is the main medium.

There’s no set quota on how many pieces are chosen, so the size of the show varies from year to year. In 2016, 78 entries (out of nearly 500) made the cut. However, while the show has a number of loyal entrants, Buhr says that the number of entries has steadily declined since 2000.

“I don’t think it’s really the type of show that people enter as often anymore,” she says. “Part of the problem is that most artists don’t think of themselves as restricted to one medium,” she says. “So when you say ‘watercolor artist,’ many artists aren’t going to think, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ They probably use watercolor all the time, but they probably also use acrylic, and oil and make sculpture and do digital work. And that’s just one of the tools in their tool box.”

That change and attitude has affected what the museum will accept as entries. Out-of-the-box work such as books, wall art and tapestries are all OK — as long as they features watercolor as the primary medium. “…We want to see work that’s pushing the boundary of what it means to be watercolor,” she says.

The show today

One thing hasn’t changed: Watercolor USA artists have never been restricted to a theme. “Any insistence on a single philosophy or school of thought would have comprised the integrity of the project,” said Shuck in 1968 in American Artist magazine. “If trends were to be set, the artists themselves — not us — would have to do it.

“Our premises were simple: Why expect an artist in sun-drenched California to look at watercolor in exactly the same way as does an artist from New York, or vice versa. … Each are of the country has unique and beautiful ideas to offer, and Watercolor USA just tries to put this American panorama together.”

Those distinct flavors are still seen in the show today. Soft strokes appear alongside pictures that look more like photos, the latter a trend that Buhr says became popular around 15 years ago. Watercolor USA has given her a unique perspective on the trends of watercolor over the years, especially since the museum has been acquiring pieces from each show since it began.

“We’ve been collecting watercolor specifically for 55 years,” she says of a collection that leads to a question: “What sort of story can we tell from those pieces?”

Want to see the show?

Watercolor USA continues until Aug. 28 at the Springfield Art Museum (1111 E. Brookside Dr., Springfield). The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday. Hours vary by day. Entrance is free. For more information, call 417-837-5700.