The art of banking

The art of banking


P.W. Huntington’s last will and testament begins with legalese. Item 1 revokes previous wills. Item 2 directs executors to pay any of his debts (there were none, befitting his lifelong devotion to fiscal prudence).

P.W. Huntington’s last will and testament begins with legalese. Item 1 revokes previous wills. Item 2 directs executors to pay any of his debts (there were none, befitting his lifelong devotion to fiscal prudence).

Item 3, however, offers a glimpse into the Huntington Bank founder’s passions. It reads: “I give, devise and bequeath to The Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts the water color painting by W.T. Richards.”1

It’s unclear why P.W. listed this painting first in his will, before any other bequests to family. But from this detail and other public displays, it’s clear P.W. was devoted to supporting the visual arts and that he worked as diligently to build central Ohio’s creative culture as he did to build its financial cornerstones.

As the legend goes, Mary Louise Deshler was the wife of John Green Deshler. In 1878, Mary fell ill. After leaving her bedside for a brief walk in downtown Columbus, John Deshler suffered a terrible fall and died shortly thereafter from his injuries.

Mary Louise quickly drafted her will.2Item 1 gave “to P.W. Huntington in trust Ten thousand dollars to be held by him and invested & re-invested at discretion until a corporate art association be formed in the City of Columbus, Ohio. …The object of this bequest is to provide for an art gallery & building in Columbus, for the promotion of art & the cultivation of the taste of the rising generation.”3 Item 2 provided for an additional $35,000 and property to be donated to the same cause.

The Deshler family fiercely contested the will, getting courts to reject it at least five times. Family members felt that Huntington persuaded the sick Mary Louise Deshler to allocate her endowment to the art gallery. There was also no precedent for charities receiving gifts or trusts of this kind.

As a man of influence, P.W. persuaded Ohio’s Legislature to change the law. On May 7, 1878, the General Assembly passed an act “to provide for the administration of property given for the promotion of science, art, and like purposes.”4 In essence, Huntington helped create the cultural nonprofit as a legal entity. As a result, the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts was the first such organization chartered in Ohio, paving the way for thousands that followed.

The legal battle was ultimately decided in favor of the Deshler descendants and the gallery ultimately received no direct money or property from this particular bequest. However, Chris Duckworth, Columbus Museum of Art’s publications director, wrote, “The idea was born…. and culminated with the opening of the Museum so many years after Mary Louise Deshler, on her deathbed, conceived of an organization that would display and otherwise further the fine arts, especially in Columbus.”5

P.W. Huntington was among the founding trustees, along with other prominent Columbus individuals such as Alfred Kelly, William B. Hayden and Francis C. Sessions. He served as board president from 1902 to 1904.6

His son, F.R. Huntington followed in these footsteps, serving as president from 1923 until 19277(B.G. was also a noted supporter).8 F.R., an artist himself, was pivotal in the gallery’s evolution to full-fledged museum. Elfie DiBella, the former senior vice president and director of community affairs and a 27-year Huntington Bank veteran, said, “(F.R.) spearheaded the campaign that raised the money to build the current museum, which was the first real museum space, largely by making personal solicitations.”

DiBella added that F.R. helped form the museum’s permanent collection by solidifying the donation of the Howald Collection, which, when donated, was one of the nation’s most significant modern art collections. It features paintings by Machine Age masters including Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and Marsden Hartley along with works by Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.9F.R. also helped secure a large collection of works by noted Columbus painter George Bellows, a close friend.

In the following generation, Huntington CEO Frank Wobst also served as museum board president and had a similar commitment to the Columbus Symphony. Wobst had grown up in Dresden, Germany’s cultural center and wanted to elevate his new Columbus community to a similar stature.10

The museum’s mission statement mentions the kind of multigenerational support exemplified by Huntington and art’s broader and lasting value in our society:


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The present Columbus Museum of Art was built on land once occupied by Mary Sessions’ house. Credit: Columbus Metropolitan Library

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Columbus Museum of Art today. Credit: Courtesy of Indrian

Columbus Museum of Art is built for the community by the community. Generations of families have invested in the Museum through gifts of time, talent, and treasure. In a city-on-the-rise that aspires to offer extraordinary quality of life for citizens and an attractive environment for industry, art stimulates inspiration and innovation. From the quality of our collections and exhibitions to the quality of life in our community, we strive for the ideal — celebrating the diversity of our people and our city.11

Huntington’s commitment to the museum, and to the arts in general, continues today. Former CEO Tom Hoaglin and his wife, Ann led the museum’s recent “Art Matters” capital campaign. The Hoaglins and Huntington Bank each gave at least $1 million toward this campaign to renovate and expand the museum. The new wing these gifts financed was unveiled Oct. 25, 2015.

Across all regions, support for the arts rounds out the bank’s commitments to community investments that include affordable housing, critical needs and financial education. In western Michigan, for instance, Huntington supports arts organizations including ArtPrize, the Interlochen Center for the Arts, the Muskegon Museum of Art and the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. Huntington believes that “education and arts organizations do much to enrich the quality of life in our communities,” and looks to continue its 150-year legacy of boosting the cultural cachet of the Midwest.12