In 1865, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White became cofounders of Cornell University, and White became its first president. White continued to use his influence and resources to help build an art collection for the University after his retirement in 1885. Through his friendship with General Rush C. Hawkins, a Rhode Island–based collector, White arranged for a gift of an extraordinary painting by Gari Melchers, The Communion. A prominent American expatriate painter, Melchers exhibited the work in the Paris International Exposition in 1889, where it won the Grand Prix for the American section. It was there that White first saw the painting, which left a lasting impression. The major work was given to Cornell by Hawkins in 1911 and was proudly displayed in the south vestibule of Goldwin Smith Hall. Its placement was supervised by Melchers himself and Professor Olaf Brauner, whose daughter was to marry Herbert F. Johnson. The painting is now on view at the Johnson Museum.
President Deane Malott (1951–1963) was inspired to found an art museum for Cornell by the first extensive gift of art to the University, bequeathed by William P. Chapman, Class of 1895, in 1947—a distinguished collection of three thousand prints, including works by masters of the medium from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. In 1953, funds for the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art were donated by White’s nephew, Ernest I. White, and the building that had served as the residence for A. D. White and his family during his presidential tenure was converted into exhibition galleries.
By the early 1960s the Museum was experiencing serious problems with the facility, including inadequate storage space, security issues, and difficulties with lighting, temperature, and humidity in the galleries, and plans for a new building began in 1964. In the winter of 1967, a major event for the A. D. White Museum was ART: USA, a major exhibition of American paintings organized by S. C. Johnson and Sons, Inc. That year, Herbert F. Johnson, Class of 1922, gave $4 million for the construction of the new museum building, with the condition that the chosen architect be “the Frank Lloyd Wright of our time.” Shortly after the appointment of Thomas W. Leavitt as director of the Johnson Museum, Ieoh Ming Pei was selected to design the building.
The Johnson Museum opened its doors on May 23, 1973.
Excerpted from “A History of the Museum” by Cathy Rosa Klimaszewski, the Harriet Ames Charitable Trust Curator of Education, in A Handbook of the Collection (Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1998), 11–27.