Art and Women’s Suffrage in the Commonwealth

By Nancy Alexander Simmons

Imagine a Virginia Commonwealth University without VCUarts . . . or Richmond without the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. That could have been reality if not for Adèle Goodman Clark.

Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Clark came to Richmond with her parents in 1894 and began studying art in the early 1900s with Lilly M. Logan, who ran an art school. Clark won a scholarship to the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts [the Chase School of Art] in 1906. When she returned to Richmond, she began teaching at the Art Club of Richmond. There, she met and began a friendship with the well-known Virginia artist, Nora Houston.

Clark and Houston established an art studio together called “The Atelier.” They are credited with training “a generation of artists, including Theresa Pollack,” who later founded the art school (now VCUarts) at Virginia Commonwealth University. Pollack credited these women with her career as an artist and wrote,

When I was a child growing up in Richmond there was no art gallery or museum, no art in the colleges and no art school—except the Richmond Art Club, founded by Adèle Clark and her friend Nora Houston.

Clark and Houston also founded the Virginia League of Fine Arts and Handicrafts and worked to raise money to reestablish the Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts. Consequently, the Richmond Academy of Arts—the forerunner of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts—was founded in 1930.

At the same time that she was an activist for the arts, Clark was an activist for woman suffrage. She was one of the organizers of the Virginia Equal Suffrage League. As an artist, Clark raised awareness of woman suffrage by taking her easels to a street corner in downtown Richmond. When people stopped to watch her paint, Clark would talk to them about suffrage and hand out flyers. After the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, the Equal Suffrage League became the Virginia League of Women Voters, and Clark became its first chair and, later, its president from 1921 to 1925 and from 1929 to 1944.

Clark continued her advocacy of art by serving as the state director for the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s. In this role, she identified jobs for artists in Virginia, oversaw the painting of murals on public buildings, established new art galleries across the state, and displayed artists’ paintings in institutions that were supported by local and state taxes. In the 1940s, Clark taught art classes to disabled or convalescing children in Richmond. She also was instrumental in establishing the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Despite her support for woman suffrage, at the age of 90, Clark, perhaps surprisingly, publicly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in Richmond, saying,

This [ERA] is an appalling amendment. It reflects the thinking of fifty years ago. They are fighting a battle that has already been won.

Clark died in Richmond on June 5, 1983, at the age of 100.


Categories: Issues, Local, National

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