Eiteljorg Musuem Blog

25 years later | How the Eiteljorg came to be

by Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art | Jan 25, 2014

Harrison Eiteljorg inside his Indianapolis office surrounded by Western art, 1980. Photographer unknown.

This year, the Eiteljorg celebrates 25 years as a cultural institution in Indianapolis. The following excerpt was taken from Frontiers and Beyond, Visions and Collections from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, (Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum, 2005). 

  The history of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art starts far earlier than the day it opened its mahogany doors in 1989. It begins with a young man who went West to invest in coal and found a soul-affirming beauty in the raw, wild landscape and the people who carved out lives there.

It’s impossible to separate Eiteljorg the man from the art collection he so lovingly built up during his life.

The Eiteljorg story – whether one is speaking of the man or the museum – is one of grit and contradictions, of humor and determination, of the courageous cowboy intensely gripping the bucking bronco’s reins and then bouncing off the horse, beaming with good nature.

Hold on and enjoy the ride.

An American Dream
Harrison Eiteljorg personified the American Dream. He was a self-made Hoosier who “had neither the advantages of privilege nor an extensive formal education” (Jeanette Vanausdall), but who recognized an opportunity when he saw one and tenaciously, charmingly, fought to make it his own.

“I had $15 in my pocket when the Depression hit,” Eiteljorg liked to tell people when he reminisced. Twenty years and several opportunities after this devastating national event, Eiteljorg became president and manager of a coal strip-mining concern in Indiana and began leasing coal deposits from Colorado. On his reconnaissance trips, he also began falling in love with the landscape, architecture, people and art of the American West, “a passion that would become an obsession” (Jeanette Vanausdall) and one that would influence the course not only of his own life, but of the life of his hometown, Indianapolis, as well.

By the time Eiteljorg married his second wife, Sonja Tarsey Sims, in 1958, he had been collecting art – not just Western art – for several years, though in a rather unfocused manner. At this time, while there were many collectors, there were fewer museums focused on Western art and less acceptance of the work within the broader range of American art.

Throughout 2014, we will share stories about how the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art came to be, the people who make the institution what it is, the artists whose work add to our world renown collection, and what's ahead for the Eiteljorg's future.

These two paintings on Harrison Eiteljorg's office wall were later donated to the Eiteljorg Museum: 

Frederic Sackrider Remington, American, 1861 – 1909, Baffled Chiefs Leaving the Fort, ca. 1897, oil on fabric support

William Robinson Leigh, American, 1866 – 1955, The Scout, oil on canvas, 1913, 16 x 24 in.

You can find both of these paintings inside the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.


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