It was the middle of the Great Depression. A group of forward-minded Boiseans seized the moment anyway to tend to the city's cultural life.
A group of 30 residents led by Cornelia Hart Farrer, Laura Moore Cunningham and others began meeting to talk about art. Their meeting spot: The Crystal Lounge at what was then the new Hotel Boise, known today as the Hoff Building.
Many were artists themselves who wanted an exhibition space. They founded the Boise Art Association in 1931.
The group held the city's first formal art exhibition soon after at the First National Bank (now the Empire Building at 10th and Idaho). The show included their work and pieces borrowed from friends and neighbors.
The group eventually partnered with the city and the Works Progress Administration to build the museum in Julia Davis Park on land given by the city. The museum, then known as the Boise Gallery of Art, opened in 1937.
Museum pioneer Farrer, who lived until 1991, kept close ties with the museum for the rest of her life.
She was a founder of the first Art in the Park event in the mid-1950s. Now one of the museum's signature events, it began modestly as an option for local artists who didn't make it into the annual Idaho Artist Exhibit. Artists hung their pieces on clotheslines strung on trees.
Like other Boise institutions such as Bogus Basin, the Boise Art Museum is homegrown at its core.
Volunteers kept the museum running during its first three decades. The museum hired its first professional staff in the mid-1960s. It began to develop its permanent collection in the decades that followed. Works by the celebrated Idaho artist James Castle were among the museum's early acquisitions, said curator Sandy Harthorn. The museum's collection of Castle's art is one of the largest in the world.
Fred Pittenger, a well-known Boise doctor whose sequoia tree (another Boise icon) still grows on the grounds of St. Luke's, was one of the museum's first donors. He gave his collection of Asian works in the 1960s, including several netsukes, or carved figures.
Staying true to its grassroots beginning, BAM developed an education program for the public and underwent building expansions in 1972, 1988 (when it became Boise Art Museum) and 1997.
The museum collection now includes 3,500 works, said Harthorn. It has a growing collection of 350 ceramic items, begun with a donation of 166 works from former Boise State professor and artist John Takahara.
Many of BAM's pieces have become iconic in their own right. Those include Deborah Butterfield's steel horse sculpture, "Democrat," named for one of her own horses, and the large enamel mural, "The Bright Land," made in the 1970s by John Killmaster. It hangs on the building's exterior.
Something to look forward to: The installation of a new 12-foot-tall horse sculpture made of cast bronze, steel and wood by Brad Rude. It will join the collection in early June, said Harthorn.
Special exhibit: To celebrate Boise's Sesquicentennial, Boise Art Museum presents the URBAN exhibition of works featuring Boise city sites. Artists include Jan Boles, Charles Gill, Michael Miller and Karen Woods. It opens on May 18.
670 Julia Davis Dr.
Anna Webb: 377-6431