Frances P. Taft, Revered Teacher, Noted Scholar, Discerning Arts Patron


Art historian, teacher and arts advocate Frances P. (Franny) Taft is a study in excellence. This longtime Cleveland Institute of Art professor has done more than introduce generations of students to the history of civilization: She has conveyed her own sense of wonder at the world and the power of art to make life more meaningful.

"I love art history," she has said. "I can't bear that almost everyone in the United States doesn't understand it. It's not physics."

Taft, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, found her calling in fits and starts. She discovered art history at Vassar College, when she had to take a survey course as a prerequisite for her studio classes. She discovered teaching during World War II, when the Navy assigned her to teach codes and ciphers. A woman whose credo is "Do what you love" soon learned that she loved what she was doing. She went on to teach illustration and biology while working on her master's degree in art history at Yale (1948). Within two years of her move to northeastern Ohio, she found a home at the Cleveland School of Art (later the Cleveland Institute of Art), where she has remained for more than 50 years. When the school became a five-year, degree-granting institution and needed to offer more liberal arts courses, she became an expert in pre-Columbian culture.

Her academic research would take her throughout Mexico as well as Central and South America to visit archeological sites and meet the leading scholars in her field. Before long, she turned to other related cultures, further south.

It was in Peru that Taft's journey began to feel like a completed circle. On her arrival at the sacred mountains of Machu Picchu, she spotted a plaque that credited Yale professor Hiram Bingham for his 1911 discovery of the fabled "Lost City." Bingham was a man she had known from her childhood in New Haven. Her mother had dated his brother.

If Taft were the boasting type, she could shamelessly drop names of countless artists, scholars and dignitaries she has encountered. Many were people she met through her husband of nearly 60 years, attorney and former Cuyahoga County commissioner Seth Taft, himself the grandson of President William Howard Taft. But most of her lifelong connections have resulted from her proclivity for networking, which she mastered decades before the term was coined. Her self-effacing humor, wisdom and candor engender instant respect.

Nowhere has she cemented more lasting friendships than within her beloved Vassar College community. She has served her alma mater in countless ways, including the presidency of its alumnae and alumni association. In 2001, that group honored her with its first Award for Outstanding Service. Vassar is one of dozens of organizations that have benefited from her astonishing ability to raise money.

Closer to Cleveland, she has maintained long-term board commitments to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Laurel School, the Cleveland Archeological Society, Karamu House, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Arts Prize. At the Cleveland Institute of Art, Taft is treasured as a natural resource. Not only does she continue to teach, she serves as an unofficial resident historian. The school honored her with a coveted Award for Excellence in 1994.

Taft, who continues to paint and sketch, remains passionate about her field. An avid collector, she has filled her Pepper Pike home (designed by Arts Prize winner Robert A. Little, F.A.I.A.) with works by her former students and colleagues. Next to each work is a card with a title and the artist's name, creating an exhibition any museum would covet. This one, of course, has an open-ended run.

The one-time college athletic star still participates in sports. Despite diminishing cartilage in some critical joints, she continues to compete, nationally and successfully, in tennis.

Nor has she curbed her wanderlust. She has documented visits to more than 30 countries, with each trip recorded in the illustrated journals that line the shelves of her study. Committed to the pursuit of lifelong learning, she celebrated her 80th birthday exploring the Galapagos Islands with her husband and her four grown children and their families.

When the Cleveland Arts Prize honored Franny Taft in 1995, the citation praised her civic involvement, arts advocacy, scholarship, arts patronage, extraordinary teaching skill and infectious enthusiasm.

Her own assessment is more modest. "I'm an historian," she says. "We need historians. People forget."

—Faye Sholiton

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •