Walter Blodgett Organist, Conductor and Curator, Cleveland Museum of Art, 19081975


Walter Blodgett played 1,080 organ recitals during his 31-year tenure as curator of musical arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
A champion of new music, Blodgett initiated a Contemporary Music Festival to complement the museum’s annual May Show, and he commissioned organ music from composers as diverse as the conservative Normand Lockwood and the daring 1966 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Donald Erb. Blodgett encouraged guest artists to perform 20th-century pieces, and he hosted appearances by John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Andre Marchal and other celebrated musicians.

To support his ambitious programs, Blodgett and a group of wealthy friends founded the Musart Society. As a joke, the whimsical curator also chartered two imaginary organizations: the Cleveland Guild of Page Turners and the Society of Professional Organ Recital Technicians (SPORTS). 

In addition to his work at the museum, Blodgett was a church musician, teacher, lecturer and writer. His areas of expertise included baroque music, organ construction, English literature and mushrooms. When the McMyler Memorial Organ was located in the museum’s Garden Court, Blodgett modified the pipes and designed an organ bench with a high back rail to prevent players from falling off the balcony. When the instrument was rebuilt in Gartner Auditorium, the inventive resident organist worked closely on the design with Cleveland organ builder Walter “Chick” Holtkamp Jr. 

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on May 28, 1908, Blodgett began playing the organ for church services before he was old enough to wear long pants. He completed undergraduate degrees in piano and English at Oberlin College, then went abroad to study church music in England, organ in France and organ design in Germany. He held several temporary organ posts in Chicago before coming to Cleveland in 1931 to direct the music program at Epworth-Euclid United Methodist Church. He subsequently served as organist and choirmaster at First Unitarian Church, St. James Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

At St. James, he presided over a fine instrument designed by Walter Holtkamp Sr., and he presented an annual choral festival that featured Cleveland premieres of numerous classical and contemporary pieces. During his 25 years at St. Paul’s, Blodgett commissioned the superb organ that Holtkamp Sr. regarded as his masterpiece, and he developed an outstanding choir that performed major works with members of the Cleveland Orchestra.

In the 1940s, Blodgett reviewed concerts for the Cleveland Press. From 1957 to 1962, he taught at Western Reserve University. After retiring from the museum in 1974, he served briefly as dean of faculty at the Cleveland Music School Settlement.

Famous for composing witty letters, Blodgett wrote a classic about the “Docile (?) Cherubs” of the St. Paul’s Children’s Choir that was printed in the church bulletin and recalled with affection at his memorial service. Following Blodgett’s death on October 25, 1975, he was memorialized by Plain Dealer music critic Robert Finn as “one of Cleveland’s uniquely great figures, a man of warmth and charm and a musician who did much over a span of many years to improve the quality of this city’s musical life.”

—Wilma Salisbury


Cleveland Arts Prize
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