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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Freer for All

Charles Lang Freer, c. 1916
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Today, January 3, marks the 106th anniversary of Charles Lang Freer tremendous gift to the American public. On this day in 1905, Freer, a wealthy railroad car manufacturer, offered to donate his vast art collection of artworks from American, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Near East artists to the Smithsonian. Freer’s collection consisted of over 2,250 objects, including James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room. In addition to his collections, Freer also offered $500,000 to build a museum to house the art and an endowment to care for works.

Though the Smithsonian was initially reluctant to agree to Freer’s gift, with help from President Theodore Roosevelt, the Smithsonian Board of Regents and US Congress formally accepted Freer’s gift on May 5, 1906. Freer’s main motive for sharing his collection was to make it available for the public and for scholars. As such, Freer’s will stated that only objects in his personal permanent collection could be exhibited in the Freer Gallery and that pieces of his collection could not be displayed elsewhere.

Whistler's Peacock Room, c. 1930
Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Freer Gallery of Art opened May 2, 1923. Within its first month of operation 32, 648 people visited the new museum. Freer’s vision of sharing his collections with the public has grown into reality over the years. The Gallery’s wonderful exhibits and website have broadened access to the museum’s collections. Additionally, the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center connects collections across the Institution, allowing visitors to research about Freer and his artworks in more inclusive forum.

Courtney Esposito, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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