This year marks the 95th anniversary of the Carmel Art Association (CAA)—the second oldest continuously operating artist cooperative in the nation and the oldest west of the Mississippi—and to celebrate this milestone, a 95th anniversary historic exhibition and sale benefiting the CAA, entitled “95 Years,” is taking place both in the gallery and online.
Art is at the very root of the development of Carmel, and throughout the city’s history the CAA and its members have been at center stage. It is impossible to discuss the CAA’s legacy without an examination of Carmel’s history—the two are inextricably intertwined—as without the artist members of the CAA, the city’s trajectory would’ve been quite different.
The Carmel Mission drew artists to the area long before Frank Powers and the Carmel Development Company began selling land here around the turn of the century, though his wife, the painter Jane Gallatin Powers, was responsible for a large influx of painters in her time. It began in 1875, when Jules Tavernier, drawn to paint the ruins of the Carmel Mission, moved to Monterey and set up the area’s first art studio. Elizabeth Strong (who was later to be a founding member of the CAA) was the first professional female artist to paint here, coming in the summer of 1878, when she shared studio space with Tavernier. “The Old Master of California,” William Keith, and Raymond Dabb Yelland both came in the 1870s to paint regularly as well, with many other artists following suit. Artists, poets, writers and thespians found inspiration in the ruined adobes, drifting fog, rugged coastline and haunting forms of the Monterey cypress trees. Some came to visit, while others set up camp permanently, but it was the earthquake of 1906 that displaced so many from San Francisco (the art capital of the West) and drove many artists to finally call Carmel their permanent home.
The artists busy at work in Carmel before the quake mostly came from Oakland and Berkeley, and many of them were women. It was a group of women, including Jane Gallatin Powers, who formed the Carmel Arts and Crafts Club in 1905, a CAA precursor. By 1910, this group was bringing world-renowned painters to the area to teach at its Summer School of Painting, a program that lasted into the 1920s. In 1925, after the Carmel Arts and Crafts Club ceased holding their annual exhibition, the city’s lack of a permanent art gallery could no longer be ignored. The Pine Cone Editor W.L. Overstreet went so far as to write a front page editorial about Carmel’s need for a “general art gallery.” Artist Jennie V. Cannon replied in a letter extolling the virtues of having a proper art association and scolding Carmelites for their inability to unite. Cannon was a member of the Laguna Beach Art Association, where an artist cooperative gallery had been running for some time and, over the course of just a few years, had earned enough money to build a new gallery perfectly suited to their needs. Cannon steadily lobbied, discussing the benefits of an association and sharing what she had learned in Laguna Beach and in Berkeley (where she helped found the California League of Fine Arts) with fellow artists and friends Pedro de Lemos, Josephine Culbertson and others, planting the seeds of the CAA. In August of 1927, armed with the information provided by Cannon, Culbertson arranged a meeting to formally discuss the creation of an art association for Carmel. She held the meeting in the home and studio she shared with fellow artist Ida Johnson, known as Gray Gables, which stood at the corner of Lincoln and Seventh. During the meeting, a group of 18 artists and six community members formalized the association and put forward plans for the cooperative. Over a course of meetings that month, the group voted to make Pedro de Lemos president, Josephine Culbertson a vice president, and Ida Maynard Curtis the secretary. Jo Mora and George Seideneck were the first two board members elected. Membership was open to “every working artist in Carmel” and dues were set at $1 annually. The association was not a mere group of small-town artists, in a very short matter of time, it grew to include a group of highly skilled, learned and exceptional talents, a number of whom were nationally known and some, even world-renowned. Some of the most well-known early members included William Ritschel, E. Charlton Fortune, Mary DeNeale Morgan, Armin Hansen, Percy Gray, John O’Shea, Elizabeth Strong, Francis and Gene Baker McComas, Ferdinand Burgdorff, William Posey Silva, and Charles and Catherine Seideneck.
The CAA’s first gallery space in 1927 was a rented second floor room in the Seven Arts Building at the corner of Ocean and Lincoln, which cost the association $30 a month. They were heartened by the attendance their group shows attracted and the success of their sales, but were forced to give up the space just two years later, when the landlord raised the rent in the midst of the Great Depression.
Despite their limited funds, the CAA pursued the opportunity of purchasing a building of their own and, in 1933, found a permanent home on Dolores between Fifth and Sixth. This adobe structure had previously been the home and studio of CAA member Ira Remson, who tragically took his own life there a few years earlier. On a gallery search of her own, Edda Maxwell Heath visited the space with local businessman Barnet Segal (for whom the CAA Segal Gallery is named). She felt the space was too large for her needs, but perfect for the CAA. To prevent it from selling before the CAA could acquire it, Segal purchased the building and loaned it to the association with the understanding that he would eventually be repaid. At $5,500, the price was high, especially given the economic climate of the times, but Heath was determined, organizing fundraisers and sales and the association immediately began to repay Segal.
The new building had room for a single gallery, now known as the Beardsley Gallery. Providing most of the labor themselves, the artists developed the grounds and constructed new galleries, adding multiple rooms to the building. Much of their unique handiwork can still be seen today.
Since 1933, the CAA has flourished at its location on Dolores Street and the local artists who make up this cooperative have continued to make their mark both on the world of art and on the city of Carmel. As long as CAA artists have lived and worked here, they have been interested in preserving the area’s wild and romantic nature and their decisions and influence can be seen all over Carmel. In the early years, they saw the looming threat of commercialization and fought to keep Carmel a small, quaint village immersed in nature. These same artists were also incredibly active members of the community. In 1915, E. Charlton Fortune and Mary DeNeale Morgan donated paintings to a sale benefiting the restoration of the Carmel Mission and Fortune sat on the restoration committee. In 1918 William Posey Silva petitioned to limit the development and paving of Ocean Avenue and worked with other artists to prevent the building of a new city hall and a resort planned for development on the beach at the end of Ocean Avenue. As soon as the association was formed, members banded together for causes to preserve Carmel and in October of 1927, members approved a petition to restrict building height in the town. CAA artist and blacksmith John Catlin (who built the Forge in the Forest) was mayor of Carmel from 1932-1934 during prohibition. He worked to repeal a clause imposed by the Carmel Development Company that would revert a property’s title to the company if alcohol was consumed on the premises–even in a private home. Fellow blacksmith and CAA artist Francis E. Whittaker sat on the city council for 13 years, working hard to preserve Point Lobos and Big Sur. The artists protested parking meters and billboards, they raised funds to build the new high school, they planted trees, preserved dunes and worked to save Carmel Beach. Members Armin Hansen and Paul Whitman founded the Carmel Art Institute in 1937, an institution that provided art education in Carmel for many decades. Many artist members were involved in the Forest Theater Guild, others were involved in the inception of the Bach Festival and the creation of the Sunset Center. The stories of preservation, community involvement and activism among the early artist members are endless and have continued to the present day. One cause that has carried on since the days of Salvador Dalí’s membership in the 1940s, is that of promoting student art. In Dalí’s time, he juried the CAA high school art competition, which was open to students throughout the state. Now known as “For the Love of Art,” the annual event is open to high school juniors and seniors from Monterey County. The juried show gives an average of 70 students the opportunity to take part in a large group show, having their work exhibited and sold in an established gallery.
It is remarkable that a town with so much important history and art has no art museum to share and highlight the many contributions these early artists made, not only to California but to the nation as a whole. Through the years, the CAA has helped to fill that void with its thoughtful publications and incredibly knowledgeable staff, who are happy to educate visitors about the town’s rich art history. Taking it a step further, the CAA has recently formed a History and Legacy Committee with the goal of celebrating the art and lives of late members and preserving the history and legacy of the association for future generations.
As one of the most beautiful places in the world, it was inevitable that Carmel would eventually become commercialized and flooded with tourists. And through the years, businesses and institutions have come and gone, but the CAA has remained a constant, unifying thread that has run since the early days and continues to reflect the town’s original spirit. And despite commercialization, the fights the early artists fought to preserve the overall rustic nature of this quaint town have prevailed and are evident all around us.
It is unlikely that Cannon or any of the artists who were there with Culbertson at Gray Gables on the night of August 8, 1927 foresaw that their association would last into the 21st Century. Yet the association is still vital and vibrant in its 95th year. To commemorate this milestone, the CAA is holding a historic exhibit and sale, “95 Years,” to shed light on the association’s past. The exhibit highlights the work of many of the association’s earliest members and important works by late members from other eras of the CAA’s storied past, including beloved artists recently lost. “95 Years” begins on the association’s birthday, with the launch of a new website featuring all of the works in the exhibit, and will continue through the end of the year, culminating in an in-person gallery show which will run from November 3rd through December 31st. All artworks will be available for sale starting August 8th and can be viewed by appointment prior to the gallery show opening to the public on November 3rd.