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Our History

The Marion Art Center, Inc. was officially incorporated in August 1957 as a non-profit community cultural organization dedicated to promoting the visual and performing arts. Prior to that time, two endeavors were undertaken by Marion townspeople that officially joined to form the Marion Art Center.  One group was the Hornblowers, which consisted of young members of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal church in Marion.  The Reverend John J. Albert was very interested in the theater and formed a group of actors to put on plays in the summer as a fund-raiser for the church.  They were held at the Music Hall, a building donated to the Town of Marion by Elizabeth Tabor, an early town benefactor.  Katy and Ted Babbit Jr. and Hilliard “Hilly” Lubin were early actors with the Hornblowers.  Meanwhile, friends Betty Prewitt and Aileen Lubin (wife of Hilly Lubin), acknowledged that Marion was a wonderful place to bring up children, but that artistic activities were missing.  They decided to put on an art show in the summer of 1956 and secured permission to use an empty lot across from St. Gabriel’s Church for it.  They called it the Clothes Line Exhibit, and there was so much interest that they were encouraged to proceed with more art shows.

The local Universalist church and rectory next door, located on the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets and built in 1830, had remained empty for many years after membership dwindled and the church was closed.  Andrew and Dorothy Patterson of Marion decided to purchase the property, which included the church and rectory, so that the foreman of their plant could live in the rectory.  The Prewitts, Lubins, and Babbitts spent an evening together and decided to approach the Pattersons and offer to fix up the church if they could rent it for $1 a year in order to form an art center to put on plays and hold art exhibits.  The Pattersons agreed, and thus began the Marion Art Center in 1957.

Volunteer work crews fixed up, cleaned, and painted the church.  The volunteers approached many local hardware stores and asked for donations of paint.  They mixed all the paint into a large barrel and the resulting color was a gray that they called “hardware gray.”  Ted Babbitt Jr.’s family company donated a furnace for the building.  Everyone pitched in, including young children, to help make the building work as an art center for the Town.

After a series of major renovations, including the most recent Bell Tower restoration finished in 2010, the building functions well for the various activities that take place here. The Marion Art Center Theatre houses the permanent collection of portraits painted by Cecil Clark Davis, Marion’s most famous artist.   Because of the generosity of several patrons over the years, most especially Betsy Arms and Lib Davis, the Marion Art Center also has in its possession most of the diaries, letters, and photographs as well as guest book, address book, and other personal effects of  Cecil’s.  The permanent collection is curated by former Executive Director Wendy Bidstrup. 


Self Portrait – Cecil Clark Davis


( 1877 – 1955 )

American women artists have long been neglected by the art world in general. Today, critics and the general public are taking a serious look at the female artists of the early twentieth century and recognizing the considerable talents these “modern American women.” Cecil Clark Davis (1877-1955) was one of them. She grew up in the heartland during America’s coming of age. Her father, John Marshall Clark, was a successful Chicago industrialist, investor (partner of Alexander Graham Bell) and Collector for the Port of Chicago during the World’s Fair of 1893. Her mother was a concert pianist who played at Carnegie Hall as well as at the Sippican Hotel in Marion, Massachusetts, where the family had a summer home.

One of the earliest influences on Cecil’s life was The Columbian Exposition of 1893, a celebration of the quadra-centennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. It was to be an exposition of the best of the USA. Experts in their fields assembled to create the “White City”; Stanford White, architect; Augustus Saint Gaudens, sculptor; John Singer Sargeant, painter; Henry James, writer; and many more. Some say it was the greatest gathering of minds since the Renaissance! Cecil knew these visionaries and many more who spent summers in the little town of Marion, Massachusetts.

As a young teenager, Cecil wandered freely throughout the various exhibits. When Mrs. Potter Palmer opened the Women’s Pavilion, she did so in the company of a good many of the world’s greatest suffragists. Cecil heard speeches about women’s rights, the condition of children, the homeless and other progressive ideas. She shared their opinions and began her life as a “modern” woman.

She had an innate talent for art and was encouraged to pursue painting by her doting father. Once she wanted a pony and a cart but was told she was too young. She took her sketchbook and charcoal to the local jail and convinced the guards to let her draw the prisoners. She sold the drawings to the Chicago Tribune and made enough money to buy the pony and the cart!

She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and with several artists including John Singer Sargeant, but always insisted that she was self-taught. She painted over 500 portraits ranging from society ladies and gentlemen to humble servants and gardeners. She won many prizes in salons world wide.

Cecil was a tomboy. She excelled at many sports especially tennis, golf, soccer and horse back riding. She was bold, adventurous, high-spirited and had a will of iron. She shocked people by appearing in public without a hat or gloves. At posh New York dinner parties, when the meal was over and the ladies withdrew to the parlor, Cecil stayed in the dining room and smoked with the men!

She was tall, slender and lovely, resembling the famous “Gibson Girl” made popular by one of her best friends, Charles Dana Gibson. No longer did American women look to Europe for standards in style or beauty. A blush of tan on her cheek was the healthy glow of a day out sailing or playing golf. She captured the heart of Richard Harding Davis, the world renowned war correspondent and author, described as the most handsome, stalwart, sought-after man in America! In 1899 she finally agreed to marry him, but insisted that it was to be a platonic marriage, and that they would live as brother and sister. Richard agreed to this odd pact, and the wedding was held in St. Gabriel’s Chapel in Marion on May 4, 1899. Ethyl Barrymore was her maid of honor. C.D. Gibson was a groomsman. It was an international event. They traveled together all over the world, returning home to “The House in the Lane” in Marion. Ten years later they were divorced. Undaunted, Cecil continued to paint, travel and play as a single, independent, worldly woman. 

Her circle of friends included artists, writers, musicians, actors, political leaders and dignitaries around the world. She knew kings and queens, barons and emperors.

After her divorce, Cecil devoted herself to her painting and to her large number of dogs.  She died at the age of 78 in 1955.  The Marion Art Center is proud to own many of Cecil’s paintings in its permanent collection.

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