Thursday, April 9, 2020

Watkins: Education for All

By Megan Spainhour

In 1880, before his death, a Nashville businessman and philanthropist made a wish. Samuel Watkins, according to his will, had left $100,000 and property at the corner of High Street (6th Ave) and Church in Nashville to the State of Tennessee for the establishment of a school that would teach the “business of life” to people in need.

Portrait of Samuel Watkins (1794-1880), founder of Watkins Institute. THS Photograph Collection

Home of Samuel Watkins in Nashville. Louise Littleton Davis Papers Collection

That school opened its doors in 1885 as Watkins Institute. The Institute, which provided the city’s poorer youth with the opportunity to acquire an education, was Samuel Watkins’ vision brought to life. The basement and the first floor of the building was rented out to provide revenue for the school. On the second floor was a library and the third floor contained a lecture hall.

Joseph Stineford Carels- librarian for Watkins Institute for 20 years, approximately 1900. Library Photograph Collection

In 1889, the three commissioners of the school, John M. Lea, William P. Cooper, and James Whitworth, started the Watkins Institute Free Night School with three classes–Elementary, Primary, and Technical–which lasted for a term of four months. Due to the overwhelming response to this new program, more courses and programs were added.

Program for Watkins Institute promoting the Watkins Night School's tenth annual session, 1897. Manuscript Files

In the 1930s, as the Great Depression lingered, citizens flocked to Watkins Institute to get an education that would help them become employed.

By 1979, the school added Interior Design and Art degrees to its curriculum. In 1885, the Watkins Film School was added. With its focus on visual arts, Watkins was renamed the Watkins Institute of Art and Design in 1994.

Watkins Institute building on Church Street, approximately 1970’s. Louise Littleton Davis Papers Collection

With more than 130 years of continuous educational service to its credit, Watkins operates as an independent, nonprofit, four-year, nationally accredited college of visual arts. It has educated and fed the fire of creativity for many contemporary artists. Notable alumni include “Big Eyes” painter Margaret Keane, Hollywood Script Supervisor Tracy Scott, and Nashville Tennessean editorial cartoonist Tom Little.

Each fall, Watkins students sell their art, crafts, and handmade artisan goods at the annual Southern Book Festival.

Recently Watkins has come under controversy for its decision to merge with Belmont University. In this merger, Watkins will leave its current building on Rosa Parks Blvd, once again transitioning to a new chapter.

Illustration of Watkins Institute, Church St., 1887. Library Photograph Collection

Watkins Institute at 6th and Church Street, approximately 1890. Library Photograph Collection

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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