HISTORY of the RUTH KELSO RENFROW ART CLUB

Ruth Kelso Renfrow was an activist during an era when women often could best affect social reforms and positive change through their work as members of clubs.  Soon after women received the vote in the 1920’s, Mrs. Renfrow became involved in Eighth District, Missouri Federation of Women’s Clubs (MFWC) which she later served as president.  Being a strong advocate of cultural pursuits and the arts in particular, she and a small group of friends formed the Ruth Kelso Renfrow Delphian Chapter, which became the RKR Art Club of St. Louis on February 5, 1942, at the city’s Art Museum.  One of its goals was "to be a cultural and art appreciative haven," and our affiliation with the Art Museum was grounded in Article II of RKR Art Club’s By-Laws.

The new club, launched just two months after the U.S. entered World War II, became instrumental in war efforts while affiliating with MFWC and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.  Dues were assessed at $1.55 per year, with 55 cents of that amount being sent to Federation.  There were eight members and five guests present for the first meeting on February 19, 1942.  Newly-elected Bem (Mrs. Carl) Neiman, praised Ruth Renfrow as a "shining star" and expressed the hope that the Club would always be a credit to its namesake.  By year’s end there were 25 members.  Incidentally, Mrs. Renfrow never served as President of the organization.

Jacqueline Ambler, employed by the Art Museum as head of its Education Department and Senior Lecturer, was a special friend and mentor to the Club until her retirement in 1966.  She planned and presented the Club’s programs and was our liaison with the Museum, as were her successors, Thelma Stocko and Alexandra Bellos.  Folders Mrs. Ambler kept, including those relevant to RKR Art Club, were donated to the History Museum in 1972.

Topics for meetings were assigned at the beginning of each year, and members studied art at the Museum and around the city.  Each month papers were presented by two members as assigned.  Meetings were held in the gallery pertaining to the program of the month.  In years past, programs and functions included talks by recognized artists, sculptors, educators, and knowledgeable docents.

The early years were filled with major efforts relating to World War II.  The U.S. Treasury Department issued a certificate for Patriotic Cooperation in the War Finance Program, and The National Nursing Council recognized RKR Art Club for "Meritorious Service".  In contributing 300 war service hours during 1943, members sewed for the Red Cross, baked thousands of cookies for the USO, and studied first aid.  They sold $14,000 in War Bonds, recruited nurses, and sponsored a nursing scholarship at St. Louis University.  Due to the shortage of most everything in Great Britain, Club members purchased a $50 satin bridal gown and veil from Stix, Baer and Fuller department store.  The gown was sent to England for use by any bride who would assure that the gown was cleaned and passed on to another waiting bride.  By war’s end, the Club members learned that the wedding dress had been used so extensively that it was "in shreds".

Mrs. Renfrow was named Executive Secretary of the GFWC, Washington, D.C., in the mid-1940’s; and, her work included responsibilities for all foreign and territorial General Federation clubs.  When the war ended she became Goodwill Representative to clubs abroad.  One special project involved collecting and donating 100,000 yards of fabric to war-ravaged Greece where women used the material to make clothes for destitute and orphaned children.  As a thank you gift, they sent Mrs. Renfrow 30 dolls they created from the fabric remnants.  On February 11, 1949, Ruth Kelso Renfrow was guest of honor at the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C. where their Ambassador honored her with the Royal Order of Phoenix on behalf of King Paul and Queen Frederica of Greece.

About the same time, RKR club members were contributing 200 volunteer service hours to the Art Museum’s sales department for a record-breaking exhibition “Masterpieces from Berlin Museums”.  The $50,000,000 (1949 dollars) collection had been discovered in salt mines by American troops near Merkers, Germany.  Some 95 works of art had been taken from Berlin and stored there during the war.

RKR Art Club took to the airways (stations WEW and KFUO) with a series of radio programs encouraging art appreciation during the late 40’s.  Community involvement has been an important facet of Club members’ activities.  Special recognition came from the St. Louis Globe Democrat for RKR Art Club’s efforts to keep George Caleb Bingham’s drawings in Missouri.  Many works of art were given to the Club over the years, including works by painter Fred Conway and sculptor Ernest Trova, which were raffled off to provide funds for artistic pursuits and philanthropic activities.  The Club supplied prize money for many art shows through the Museum, including the popular Missouri Show (featuring MO artists) and through MFWC.

The Club has maintained its faithful support of the Art Museum.  RKR Art Cub was a charter member of Friends of the Art Museum in the early 1950’s and has maintained Club membership with the “Friends”.  For more than two decades, our members served as volunteers at the information counter, hostesses for special Museum functions and teas, and handled sales in Museum Shop.  Because of our ties with the Museum, the Club president was asked to appear in Charles Guggenheim’s 1958 movie “Day at a Museum”.  A copy of that film is held at the Library of Congress.

On the occasion of our 25th anniversary in 1967, a member who was known for her home’s wonderful gardens hosted Mrs. Renfrow, who came from Washington, D.C. to receive an ink drawing by a renowned artist.

The Club, in conjunction with MFWC Eighth District, sponsored several winning student contestants in the Hallmark Contests, supported Girls Town, worked at KETC TV, raised funds for a University of Wisconsin Native American student, collected clothing for Native Americans in Arizona and New Mexico, worked with collections for Missouri School for the Blind, supported Sophomore Pilgrimage, and served at Missouri Botanical Gardens.

In May 1956, Mrs. Renfrow issued a challenge to the Club that would result in Washington University scholarships for dozens of young artists continuing through this day.  The challenge:  If Club members could raise $1000 by year’s end, she would donate a matching amount.  It was achieved in part by parties, special outings supported by spouses of Club members, and raffles of art works.  In January, 1957, Washington University comptroller announced establishment of the Ruth Kelso Renfrow Art Club Scholarship.

For many years meetings were followed by lunch in a lower level dining room; and Club meetings have been held in virtually every available space, changing with the expansion of the Art Museum and the club’s growing membership.

Play Days, held the first Wednesdays in June, have been a tradition since the 1950’s, and for many years were held in Club members’ homes.  Fern deGreef, president of the Club in the 60’s, lived on several acres in South County, where she and her husband kept horses and carriages.  This provided a fun and lovely setting for several June outings.  Play Days have evolved as opportunities to visit many interesting locales: Pere Marquette, most of St. Louis’ large parks, a Chatauqua community in IL, St. Charles’ historical district, and Washington, MO, where members toured Gary Lucy’s art gallery and studio.  There have been bus trips to Kimmswick, St. Alban’s (in ‘93, just before the Big Flood), wineries, historical buildings, and for riverboat lunch cruises.  In recent years, Play Days have included art-oriented visits and programs at the studios of prominent local artists, glass-blowing demonstrations at the Third Degree, and a special tour and program provided by Ivy-Selkirk Auctioneers.  For notable occasions, in the early years spouses of members were involved with fund-raising dances, spaghetti suppers, Bingo nights, and bridge groups.

The Club’s Bridge Roundelay was first organized as a fundraiser honoring founding member Helen Steinkuhle in 1957.  Money was donated in her name to the fledgling Girls Town of Missouri.  Having disbanded for a few years, the Bridge group was revived as a Roundelay in 1973.  Many Club members have made their first visit to ‘RKR’ while part of the Bridge Roundelay.

Through the years our tangible contributions to the Art Museum have included paintings, decorative arts, sculpture, portable canvas gallery chairs, porcelain, educational videos, music for the bicentennial celebration, and members even assisted with a utility bill during lean times.  In observance of the Club’s 50th anniversary in 1992, funds were presented to the Art Museum’s Education Department, and in 2000, the Club helped to commemorate this new millennium with a gift of $2,000.

The annual cash flow was increased when Club members voted to disaffiliate with the GFWC in 2006, thereby enabling the Club to increase financial contributions to the Art Museum.  A major expansion was underway when the Art Club elected to celebrate and recognize its 70th anniversary year, 2012, with a $5,000 donation to the Museum’s Building Fund.  Also in 2012, Helen Penton became the first member elected to serve two years as president since founding member Helen Steinkuhle did so in the 1940’s.

The Club reached a ‘computer-age’ milestone in 2012 with the advent of communications via electronic transmission and the RKR Art Club website, http://www.rkrartclub.com.

In 2013, RKR Art Club presented docents of The St. Louis Art Museum with $3,000 commemorating their 50th anniversary.  With their constancy, time and expertise, the docents continue to help us grow in numbers and in art appreciation, and so enhance our lives each time we gather.
There has been but one Honorary Lifetime Membership awarded by the Club; that to Jaquelin Ambler, in 1965.  Cheryl Benjamin, Associate Educator of the St. Louis Art Museum, has worked with our presidents in the planning and presentation of monthly programs since the 1990’s.  Each of us benefits from her great talent, efforts and enthusiasm.  In tribute to her outstanding contributions to our Club, Cheryl Benjamin was awarded the second Honorary Lifetime Membership to the Ruth Kelso Renfrow Art Club, on March 5, 2014.

We continue to be blessed in our growth and longstanding affiliation with the St. Louis Art Museum...and we are ever-grateful for the wisdom and vision of our namesake, Ruth Kelso Renfrow.


With special thanks for invaluable contributions from former officers, members, and historians:


Ruth Alexander, P.P.* Fern deGreeff, P.P.*
Rosemarie Drinkard, P.P. Sylvia Hampe, P.P.*
Joy Marsh, P.P.* Cam Mayer, P.P.
Gerry Riggio* Jane Straub
Bev Molden* Dot Snyder, P.P.*
Ruth Ann Stross, P.P.  

Edited and Revised 2015
Jan McCurley - Historian

* deceased

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