The curator, William R. Valentiner, had returned to Germany during World War I. During this time, the Met hosted the loaned collection of magnificent medieval object collection of Board president J. P. Morgan (1837-1913). Milliken had a first-hand opportunity to study these pieces (the show remained until 1916). That year, 1916, the Morgan pieces became part of the Metropolitan and Milliken was promoted to Assistant Curator. With the United States entry into the War the following year, Milliken enlisted serving as a ground officer in the 282nd Air Squadron in England. Following his discharge, he became curator of decorative arts at CMA, a post he held until his retirement from the museum in 1958.
He published his first article for the museum the same year as his employment, "French Gothic Sculpture in the Museum," in the Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Milliken's first major acquisition for the museum was the 1922 small ivory plaques. He has so impressed board president and wealthy collector Jeptha Homer Wade II (1857-1926), that Wade purchased them personally and made them a gift to the museum. The following year Milliken purchased the Spitzer Cross enamel and the Stroganoff ivory in 1925, all with the assistance of Wade. After Wade's death, Milliken purchase the nine spectacular Guelph Treasure pieces (one was later exchanged in a purchase deal for the Gertrudis Altar). Milliken was appointed director of the Museum in 1930, but retained his position as curator of Decorative Arts. He set about to make the Museum one of the major art centers in the nation and one particularly attuned to the public. Milliken hired the innovative art education curator, Thomas Munro the same year. During the Depression, Milliken headed the Public Works of Art Project for the mid-west ("Region 9"), part of the federally funded WPA. He instituted the "May Show," an annual exhibition of local design arts which connected Cleveland industry and commerce with the Museum. In the 1940s, Milliken was awarded an Honorary M.A., Princeton University in 1942 and Doctor of Fine Arts at Yale University in 1946. He retired as director in 1958 and was succeeded by Sherman E. Lee.
In retirement, Milliken organized the "Masterpieces of Art" exhibition for the Seattle World's Fair of 1962. He was Regents Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1963. Milliken planned to publish a book "Stories Behind the Museum Collection," a 254-page history of the Cleveland Museum, which he wrote around 1970 but never issued. He wrote two autobiographies, one in 1975 and a second in 1977. After his death in 1978, a William Mathewson Milliken Scholarship Fund was established at the Cleveland Institute of Art. His papers are held by the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Milliken represents the genre of American art museum director who achieved prominence solely through personal experience. With neither a degree in art nor any graduate degree, though from a privileged background and conversant in four languages, Milliken developed a connoisseur's eye for objects in the medieval area through buying trips and training while working on the job.
Cleveland Art Museum Director William Milliken, fabulously rich Leonard Hanna, photographer Jerome Zerbe and several other socially prominent residents of the Western Reserve were 'gay blades'. But if they were reasonably discrete, unlike Winsor French, Kenyon Bolton or Alec Robinson, they hadn't resorted to the expedient of marrying or having childern. Instead they either moved to, or lived a part of each year in, Europe and New York, meeting and befriending in the process other young pilgrims escaping the intolerant provinces.
Milliken is buried at Bridgeport, Conn.
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