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Cutting A Broad Swath Through American Culture

Terre Haute's Swope Art Museum is a tiny bastion of American art on the western edge of Indiana. The impressive regional museum occupies a proud Renaissance Revival building in downtown Terre Haute, just a half-block south of an intersection so significant that a century ago it was known as the Crossroads of America.

Before he passed away in 1929, the building's owner-Terre Haute jeweler Sheldon Swope-made provisions for the commercial property to become an art museum whose collection would be funded through his estate.

Cornerstones Of The Collection

That collection now comprises 2,000 works of American art, including 19th- and 20th-century paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. The museum's holdings of regionalist work include paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, and Grant Wood.

But the collection is "not just paintings by Hopper and by Wood and Benton," insists Swope's executive director, Brian Whisenhunt. These are "important paintings by these artists, which is important to distinguish."

Bucking The Trend

The bulk of the museum's earliest acquisitions may be credited to John Rogers Cox, the museum's first director. At a time when most museums were purchasing European art and antiquities, Cox's patronage of contemporary American art-in tandem with the acquisitions made by a handful of other visionaries in the 1940s-validated those artists and secured their place in the canon of art history.

The Swope collection has breadth as well as depth in particular areas. It represents artists working in the second half of the 20th century collection-from representational painters Raphael Soyer, Moses, and Fairfield Porter to Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell to Pop artists Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana, and Andy Warhol.

A Vault Of Indiana Art

The museum's collection of Indiana artists is particularly strong. Arranged along the apricot-colored walls of the Swope's elegant ground-floor gallery are landscapes by members of the Hoosier School and artists from the Wabash Valley. The fin-de-siecle décor sets the tone for these paintings, while the chrome curves on the second floor usher the viewer into the 20th century.

Along the way, there are such treats as a landscape by African-American painter William Edouard Scott, who left Indiana to study with Henry Tanner in Paris; a sculpture by Paul Manship, whose Prometheus graces the Rockefeller Center skating rink; and a once-controversial mural by Terre Haute artist Gilbert Wilson, which is based on Melville's Moby Dick.

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