The Erie Art Museum was founded in 1898 as The Art Club of Erie, by a group of Erie artists led by Mrs. Lovisa Card-Catlin. The Art Club programmed the Art Gallery located in the new Public Library on Perry Square until the 1940s, when it relocated, along with the Erie Public Museum (which had occupied the basement of the Library) to the Watson-Curtze Mansion at 356 West Sixth Street. In 1956, the Art Club acquired the adjacent Wood-Morrison House, at 338 West Sixth Street, which, along with its carriage house, became known as the Art Center of Erie. Following a successful membership drive, and the institution of the United Arts Fund Drive, the organization hired its first professional employee, Director John L. Vanco, in 1968.
As the Erie Art Center, the organization expanded to include year-round exhibition and education programs (1969), instituted an active program of collecting and a traveling exhibition program (1973), added a darkroom (1973), frame shop (1975), and artist studios (1977). Having outgrown the Sixth Street buildings, the organization created the ClaySpace ceramics studio (1981), a theater (1982) and artist studio rental spaces (1983) in the ArtWorks building at 1505 State Street. A facility search led to the relocation of the galleries and offices to the 1839 Old Custom House at 411 State Street in October 1983. At the same time, the organization changed its name to Erie Art Museum and purchased the former Ashby Printing Company buildings at 423 State Street and 10 East 5th Street, which became known collectively as the Erie Art Museum Annex. The storefront at 423 State was developed to house the Frame Shop, including a small gallery facing the street. Later, the eastern portion of the first floor became a performance venue, and a classroom and gallery (2003) were added on the second floor.
Programming continued to include an ambitious schedule of changing exhibitions. The traveling exhibition program, which started with Graphic Work of the Vienna Secession in 1973, enjoyed great success with exhibits such as Art of the Comic Book (1975), the PhotoNationals (1980 & 1983) and ClayNationals (1983 & 1985). In 1986 the Museum assembled the first museum collection of contemporary baskets in the world. The Tactile Vessel collection, assembled with the advice and assistance of designer and crafts advocate Jack Lenor Larsen, traveled around the country to other museums for six years. In the meantime, the Museum also mounted nationally significant exhibitions of American art pottery, beginning with Frederick Hurten Rhead: An English Potter in America (1986), and continuing with Teco: Art Pottery of the Prairie School (1989), A Peculiar Vision: The Work of George Ohr (1996), and Poems in Clay: Arthur Osborne’s Plastic Sketches for the Low Art Tile Company (1999).
Performing arts programming was formalized with the institution of the Contemporary Music Series in 1982, which focused on jazz, new music and world music, with a special emphasis on composer/performers. The Erie Art Museum Blues & Jazz Festival was inaugurated in 1993 and almost immediately became one of the best-loved annual events in the community. In 2002 the Museum was named a Regional Folk Art Support Center, part of a network of centers designated by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. This led to the institution of the Old Songs New Opportunities program, which prepares former refugees for careers in daycare, while employing their native songs in enriching the early childhood education of the community’s children. This program was initially generously supported by the Erie Community Foundation and, in 2012, was recognized with a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services. The Kids As Curators exhibition program, in which the Museum works with three different middle school groups each year, was initiated in 2005 with the support of the MetLife Foundation.
The Museum joined with the Erie County Historical Society in 1990 to create a collaborative organization that became known as Discovery Square. Among the accomplishments of the collaboration were the creation of the expERIEnce Children’s Museum (1995), and significant upgrades to a group of historic buildings occupied by the Art Museum and the History Center on the block bounded by State, French, 4th, and 5th Streets.
In 2010 the Museum opened a new building that ties together five historic buildings into a single 80,000 square foot complex, providing a new, visitor-friendly entrance, tripling the public space and providing new galleries, classrooms, and visitor amenities, such as a gift shop and café. This $9 million expansion project created a new 10,500 square foot building that has been certified for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design at the Gold level—the first LEED-certified building in the City of Erie. In 2011 the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded the Erie Art Museum the nation’s highest honor for museums, the National Medal for Museum and Library Service.