Harmon Museum and Art Gallery in Lebanon, Ohio

December 28th, 2019  |  Published in December 2019

Big is not always better.  Look no further than Lebanon, Ohio’s Harmon Museum and Art Gallery, 105 S. Broadway, not well known, but with distinctive offerings.

The greatest joy, according to executive director Victoria Van Harlingen, is seeing residents, new residents and visitors come to the museum, drop their jaws and go ‘Wow.’  “They didn’t know we had this,” she said.

Warren County Historical Society, founded in May 1940, not only manages the Harmon Museum and Art Gallery, but also the  Glendower antebellum mansion (c 1845 – 1865), a fine example of residential Greek Revival architecture, nearby, and the Lebanon Conference & Banquet Center, formerly the post office built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.  In addition, John Milton Williams, the original owner, named the mansion after Welsh prince Owen Glendower in 1845.

The mission of Warren County Historical Society is to preserve and present the heritage of Warren County and Ohio through art and artifacts. Its vision is to be the premier art and culture institution in Warren County.  Van Harlingen added that the Society and Harmon Museum honor the pioneers who came before the current generation.  And, it does in full measure.

The museum has one of the largest collections of art between Cincinnati and Dayton according to Van Harlingen.  There are over 400 artists whose work ranges from portraits, landscapes, photography, folk art, drawings, prints, etching, engravings, silhouettes, miniatures to sculpture.  The museum also boasts the second largest collection of Shaker artifacts in the world and a nationally recognized research library housing Shaker journals, trustee documents, written music and agricultural notes as well as historical and genealogical records pertaining to Warren County where the museum is located.

Harmon, which opened in 1961 is a brick building of three stories, 28,000-square-feet with four art galleries:  a contemporary, folk, classic and exhibition gallery where work of noted 20th and 21st century Ohio artists are showcased. There’s a wide variety of artwork by Frank Duveneck’s students shown in the museum.  C. T. Webber, Rudolf Tschudi, Thomas Sully and Henry Mosler come to mind.

Harmon was originally known as a history museum with art on the walls.  Local art teachers went through the vault.  They found treasures no one knew they had, including those hanging.  One teacher has now become the head curator – Michael Coyan, a professor of art history.

Marcus Mote, (1817 – 1898), a Quaker, moved to Lebanon, Ohio where he established a studio in 1844.  His work included landscapes, still lifes, religious paintings, portraits and photographs.  Of note, he painted portraits of at least three governors including Jeremiah Morrow, Tom Corwin of Ohio and Oliver Morton of Indiana.

Mote was a natural artist; Quakers did not do craven images.  His work appeared at Glendower and also at Harmon. When he moved to Indiana, his true legacy was convincing the Richmond school system to include drawing eight years before the state of Indiana mandated drawing as part of the school curriculum.

Eli Harvey, (1860 – 1957), was a Quaker from Ogden, Ohio, who became a leading American sculptor. He studied sculpture at the Art Institute of Cincinnati in 1884.  Of note, he created the elk for the Order of the Elks, the eight-foot-tall sculpture of a bear which became the mascot for Brown University, and the greyhound made after his pet dog for the Greyhound Bus Company.  Harvey donated some of his collection to Harmon.

Coyan said these just scratch the surface of the art collection which includes paintings, etchings, engravings, gouaches, lithographs  in addition to folk art in the Sylvia and Dan Outland Gallery.  He donated a 16th century Japanese pen and ink sketch.  Former students as well as patrons of the museum contribute art work as well. In its second year, exhibitions are now held during a six-week period.  They range from oil painting to blown glass to contemporary art.

There is even a contemporary art gallery with a maquette of St. Michael and the Archangel by Robert C. Koepnick, a prominent Dayton sculptor (1907 – 1995).  Koepnick was head of the Sculpture and Ceramic Department at the Dayton Art Institute for many years and founded the Dayton Society of Painters and Sculptors in 1938.  Koepnick was well known for his ecclesiastical pieces in a variety of media.  Coyan said the gallery also has other artists’ works in oil, acrylic, watercolor and encaustic.  These include Charlie Harper, C. F. Payne, John Ruthven and Robert Fabe, all with Cincinnati connections.

Judge and Mrs. J. A. Runyon were patrons of the arts with a large private collection.   Gene and Rosemary Chute taught art at Lebanon High School for 31 years and were instrumental in developing a solid program.  Their influence remains to this day.  Prominent students include Wesley Bausmith, art editor of the Los Angeles Times.  Coyan and volunteer Sylvia Outland were students of the Chutes as well.  Coyan said, “Their care and program were such gifts.  Once we got into college, we were vaulted into junior classes.”

Administrators from area museums such as the Cincinnati Art Museum often visit Harmon, which loaned its Horace Harding (c 1794 – 1857) portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Best to the CAM.  Does Harmon compete with smaller museums?  Not really is the answer.  The staff just thinks the museum isn’t well known, despite some of its pedigree.

William Elmer Harmon (1862 – 1928) was a Lebanon real estate developer and philanthropist who became the owner of the largest real estate company in the United States and built most of Brooklyn, New York.  “What does everyone want?” Harmon asked.  “Land is my answer,” he said, so he went for it.  His company Wood, Harmon & Co. expanded to 28 Midwestern cities and as well as to the East.  But he never forgot Lebanon.

Harmon complained there was no place to play when he was a child, according to the website.  He donated Harmon Hall, a recreational facility, and Harmon Park.  His generosity extended to 50 Harmon Parks across the country.

The Harmon Foundation, established in 1922, gave money for parks, scholarships for Boy Scouts, a pension fund for nurses and money for African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s.   In 2021, Harmon Museum plans an exhibit of some of Harmon’s art collection, currently in a variety of locations to commemorate his 160th birthday.   He collected art particularly from the Harlem Renaissance.

Finances, however, are the biggest challenge.  The museum operates in the red.  With three, soon to be four, historic buildings, updates to roofs, air conditioning, lighting replacements and electrical fixtures are factors.

Donors provide money for some of the needed repairs, but there isn’t staff to write grants.  With a small budget and staff of five, people such as Van Harlingen, Coyan, and John J. Zimkus, education director and historian, wear many hats.  People often donate items to the museum.  Zimkus said, “I also decide what’s history by throwing it out.  We were the county’s attic for years.”  Van Harlingen added, “That’s how we found the treasures.”

Visitors number 20,000 to 25,000 annually with more than 57 active volunteers, who donate time, talent and treasure to the museum.  Zimkus said, “They allow us to get things done.”

Coyan, close to educational retirement, always finds something to do at the museum.  Articulate and knowledgeable from a long teaching career, he said “When tours come through here, we give them a sense of place.  I look at paintings with new eyes with each tour.”

“Step back in history,” said Coyan.  In addition to art, a variety of pieces are on display at Harmon.  A visit to the Shaker collection reveals many pieces of antique furniture and artifacts.  The Union Village Shaker Settlement was a community of Shakers founded at Turtlecreek Township, Ohio in 1805.

The Maag Gallery of Innovation has a 1908 Buick car and one of the most intact carriages from 1827.  Ron Maag was a state senator from Mason, Ohio.  Another gallery is filled with farm tools representing Warren County farmers and their hard work.   A fourth is the Village Green with retail shops ranging from an apothecary to a tinsmith.

Harmon will also move a log cabin from Lebanon Correction Institute to just outside the museum next spring.  William Beedle and his family came to Turtlecreek Township in 1795 and built a log block house for security against Indian attack.  Then, they built the first log church in Warren County and two log houses, one which remains standing and will move.

Van Harlingen said that Warren County is the second largest growing county in the area in addition to Butler County.  “There is wealth, education and youth here,” she said.  “We don’t have the retail base. The younger people are tired of fighting their way to Cincinnati to see art.  They can come here and have a drink at the Golden Lamb.”

Harmon’s education programs broaden the base of knowledge.  Lunch and Learns feature a historical talk and hot meal serving 80 to 100 people on the second or third Wednesday of every month.  Zimkus said, “People don’t recognize what we are here.  Once we get them in the door, they are hooked.”  He is presenting “Beedle Station and the Shakers of Union Village” on February 12, 2020.

The museum hosts coffee with a curator featuring a different aspect of art for 90 minutes on Saturdays, “Be Seated! The History and Styles of Chairs” is one topic for January 18.  Another theme is “The Art of the Frame” on February 15.

Next year, which is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the museum’s theme is “Women Leading the Way.”  There will be special exhibits and talks featuring women artists from Lebanon.  For example, artist Gertrude Russell Briggs did a portrait of Mary Harmon, William Harmon’s mother, still in the museum.  Briggs went on to found the Phoenix Museum in Arizona.

–Laura Hobson

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