Several friends and I have season tickets for the Rosamund Gifford Lecture Series, sponsored by the county library. This series, which has been in existence for decades, brings in a variety of authors every year; in the years since I’ve been living in Central New York, guest lecturers have included Erik Larson, Bryan Stephenson, Elizabeth George, and Colson Whitehead. Hundreds of people attend these lectures, and the authors inspire me to read more, and, more importantly, to read books that I might not choose on my own. I find each series meaningful in the ways in which they inspire intellectual conversations as well as curiosity. This concept of bringing in lecturers is not new to Syracuse; before the Civil War, guest lecturers such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison helped promote the abolitionist movement. Other lecturers furthered women’s rights and temperance.
But these opportunities to expand their knowledge became increasingly important to women as the 19th century wore on. Privately-run “Young ladies'” academies opened up in Syracuse by the 1850s, and New York state began to establish public-schools in the decades after the Civil War; some colleges, including Syracuse University, Cornell, and Elmira College also admitted women by the 1870s. But, while many young women eagerly took advantage of these chances to become better educated, most families had neither the financial resources nor the desire to educate their daughters beyond secondary school. Besides, daughters were brought up to become wives and mothers; they were expected to run a household and rear children, not to pursue careers outside the home. Yet, many women found themselves less than satisfied with domestic activities (particularly if they were unmarried).
In the early 1870s, the astronomer Maria Mitchell gave a series of lectures that proved to be an inspiration to a group of women in Syracuse. Eager to expand their own education, in 1875 they founded the Social Art Club, stating that its “object is to discuss practical and feasible means of improving conditions of women in America.” Their founding document went on to point out, though, that they would avoid two controversial issues – women’s suffrage and free love (no readings of Victoria Woodhull for this group). Instead, each year the membership would choose a subject to explore, such as “Women in Artistic Fields”.
Meetings were held monthly at members’ homes or at more public locations (such as in 1880 at the new high school) and each member served as either the hostess or the presenter. Each presenter examined a subtopic, such as the work of one particular artist, and the lecture materials of the presenters were quite impressive. In the age before public libraries or the internet, gathering information about particular artists was challenging, but these women proved themselves to be diligent researchers, as their notes in the files at the Onondaga Historical Association demonstrate.
A very important activity of this club was organizing art exhibits, usually of the art work owned by the members. Several of the members came from prominent and wealthy families, such as the Giffords and the Crouse family (two important names locally even today), and they had the means to travel to Europe and New York and purchase art. In 1882, for example, as members of the club began to plan their annual exhibition, they collectively owned “161 framed pictures and 93 unframed pictures”. Members of the club were eager to share their collections with the community, hoping to educate others about art. Eventually, many of these pieces of art, which included Durer engravings and works by lesser known artists of the Italian Renaissance, became the seeds of the Syracuse Museum of Art (now known as the Everson Museum).
Other club topics included “Oriental Art”, “French Literature”, and “India”, but the club also responded to world events over the years. One lecture in the 1920 season was “The Wise Protection of Art Objects and the Devastation in France and Belgium”, reflecting the effects of the Great War.
One of the leaders of the Social Art Club from its founding was the seventh of the eleven children of businessmen Henry Gifford, Frances. Born in 1838, she never married, but devoted her energies to promoting education. She was a close friend of Mrs. Russell Sage, a philanthropist in her own right. One of Frances’ younger sisters, Isabella, was a sculptress who spent most of her life working in Florence, Italy, and Frances along with another sister, Helen, frequently travelled to Europe to visit; Isabella, in turn, introduced her sisters to many other artists and art-lovers. Her travels deeply influenced Frances Gifford, and she became deeply committed to educating the Syracuse community in art, history and literature. She remained active in the Syracuse Literary Art Club until shortly before her death in 1923; upon her death, her considerable estate was distributed to a variety of arts organizations. Her niece, Rosamund Gifford, continued her work in the arts and the community, particularly working with the local library and the zoo.
The activities of clubs such as the Social Art Club kept the arts alive in Syracuse, and provided an important means for women to keep their own intellectual lives vibrant. Their work behind the scenes has added to the quality of life for thousands of people in Central New York.