OBERLIN COLLEGE HAD BEEN accumulating art ever since the 19th century missionaries it produced began donating works they picked up while traveling in Asia. That collection grew exponentially in the early 1900s with donations from the likes of Cleveland School of Art vice president Charles F. Olney, who gifted a staggering 8,000 pieces from his extensive holdings. Oberlin grad Dr. Dudley Peter Allen, a noted Cleveland physician, and his wife, Elisabeth Severance Allen, provided funds to build the Allen Memorial Art Museum. The Italian Renaissance structure was designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Since it opened in 1917, the Allen has built a collection praised by art experts and aficionados. Museum director Andria Derstine credits the museum’s major growth spurts to donors and alumni. The first she mentions is Chicago businessman and Oberlin grad R.T. Miller Jr. “He was someone who was very interested in having the museum purchase works of art, not simply wait to receive works of art as a gift,” she says. In 1940, Miller began donating $25,000 a year to the museum so it could buy masterpieces such as Hendrick ter Brugghen’s “Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene” and Michiel Sweerts’  “Self-Portrait.” 
Those purchases continued to be complemented by gifts of art. Among the most important were 24 paintings donated by Maidenform bra company co-founder Enid Bissett and her husband, Joseph, between 1955 and 1968. Works by the likes of Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso “form the core of the museum’s holdings in European modernism,” according to the Allen website.
Perhaps the most interesting figure in the museum’s history is Ellen Johnson, an Oberlin alumna who started working at the college as an art librarian in 1939 and rose through the ranks to art-history professor — one who developed friendships with artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg during her travels to New York and Europe. She bequeathed approximately 300 works, along with her Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, to the school upon her death in 1992. A gallery in a ’70s museum wing designed by renowned postmodern American architect Robert Venturi bears her name.
The last decade has been devoted to maintaining the museum and building its staff. Contractors completed interior renovations, including a thorough cleaning and conservation of the sculpture-court ceiling paintings, and an endowed curatorship in Asian art was added, bringing the number of full-time professionals to 12. Derstine says their recent focus has been developing exhibits and programs that will attract visitors.
“We’re just really looking forward to, hopefully, getting the public into the museum,” she says. Admission, she notes, is free — just as it has been since 1917.