SynopsisSince its inception in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art has continually redefined the idea of the museum in contemporary Western culture. Originally conceived by its founders as a place for Modern art to come and go (because what makes up modernism is constantly changing), MoMA, as it is commonly known, established a permanent collection in 1952 and has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-19th-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
The idea of a Museum of Modern Art was once considered by critics to be an oxymoron. Its very existence posed the question: How can there be a museum (a permanent institution housing the heritage of human civilization) for Modern art (which embodies the ideal of always moving forward and constantly changing)? Rather than shy away from this paradox, MoMA has embraced its contradictory nature by appealing to both the history of Modernism and the legacy it continues to leave in the 21st century.
From Conception to RealityIn 1928, a group of wealthy art enthusiasts and philanthropists including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan (who were known in social circles as "the daring ladies,"), developed the idea for a small museum whose primary purpose would be to educate the public on Modern art, and so they established a foundation to raise funds for a museum in New York.
The "daring ladies" partnered with a well-known collector and curator named A. Conger Goodyear, who formerly headed the board of trustees of the Knox-Albright Gallery in Buffalo, NY, known at the time for its impressive showings of Modern art. Goodyear recruited Paul J. Sachs, a Harvard professor and art historian. When Sachs was asked to nominate a museum director, he recommended Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who was a student of Sachs' and had recently curated a groundbreaking Modern art exhibit at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum.
Another prominent member on the museum's founding board of trustees included Frank Crowninshield, the founding editor of Vanity Fair.
Before opening, the trustees received an initial gift from Sachs of 8 prints and 1 drawing. (Itemized list of initial gift below.)
On November 7, 1929, shortly after the stock market crash known as "Black Tuesday," The Museum of Modern Art opened to the public. Housed in six gallery rooms on the 12th floor in midtown Manhattan's Heckscher building, the Museum's first exhibit consisted of several paintings - all on loan - by the European Post-Impressionists van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin and Cézanne.
The Heckscher building was MoMA's home for a little over two years before moving to a rented space on West 53rd Street, the same address where the museum now stands.
The inaugural exhibition lasted from November 7th to December 7th, 1929, and attracted a total of 47,293 visitors.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Early YearsAs the Museum of Modern Art's first director and founding curator, Barr was integral in expanding upon the founders' vision of an educational institution. In addition to the Post-Impressionists, Barr was a huge fan of the German Bauhaus school of art, as well as the work of Pablo Picasso.
In MoMA's first year, Barr exhibited ten different shows in the small space, including one devoted to Painting in Paris, showcasing the works of Picasso, Matisse, and the other modern "Old Masters."
Barr envisioned a permanent collection at MoMA, consisting not only of painting and sculpture, but of photography, film and architecture. He subsequently established six different curatorial departments: Painting and Sculpture, Drawings, Prints and Illustrated Books, Film, Photography, and Architecture and Design.
In 1933, a young, formally-trained curator named Dorothy Canning Miller came to the attention of Barr. Miller was curating The First Municipal Art Exhibition in a space donated by the Rockefeller family. Just one year earlier, a Diego Rivera mural (entitled Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future) commissioned by John D. Rockefeller for the new RCA Building was destroyed because Rivera, a staunch Marxist, refused to remove the face of Lenin from the mural. Miller's show was at risk of being boycotted by participating artists due to the destruction of Rivera's mural, so Miller recruited Barr, and together they interceded to prevent any protest of the show.
Barr hired Miller in 1934, and she became Barr's closest confidant at the Museum. Miller also happened to be the first professionally-trained curator hired by MoMA. Between the early '40s and mid '60s, Miller curated 6 different shows devoted to Modern and Abstract American artists, most notably the 1958-59 exhibit The New American Painting, which toured throughout 8 European countries.
Barr's chief responsibility as Museum Director was to advise the board of trustees on their purchases and acquisitions for the Museum. Barr proved to be extremely savvy in this arena, as MoMA spent a grand total of $1000 on all its purchases between 1929 and 1935.
During the 1930s, Barr curated an impressive number of groundbreaking shows at MoMA, including a van Gogh exhibition in '35, Cubism and Abstract Art in '36, and a Bauhaus show in '38.
The Cubism and Abstract Art exhibit in particular was a monumental achievement. Orchestrated by Barr, the show received an impressive number of works by Picasso, Arp, Mondrian, Delaunay and Braque, among others, all on loan. The exhibition's catalog, written by Barr, was also quite impressive given its ambitious task of critiquing and deconstructing the significance of all Modern art movements to date: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Constructivism, Bauhaus and Dada.
MoMA ExpandsIn 1937, the Museum moved its location to a set of offices and basement galleries in the Time and Life Building in Rockefeller Center. Two years later, on May 10, 1939, MoMA opened to the public at its permanent home on West 53rd St. The new building was designed by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, Modernist architects best known for their innovative, Bauhaus-influenced "International Style."
In 1939, Nelson Rockefeller (son to Abby and John D.) was appointed as MoMA's new president. Nelson was a flamboyant publicist and promoter, and was instrumental in obtaining the funds necessary for the Museum to move into its new home.
MoMA gained international recognition in 1939-'40 with its Picasso retrospective - arguably the most impressive Picasso showing the world had ever witnessed - which reinterpreted the significance of Picasso's contributions to art history. For the exhibit, Barr lauded Picasso as the greatest artist of the modern era.
In 1943, a new chairman of the board of trustees was appointed, named Steven Clark. Clark and Barr did not agree on several administrative and curatorial issues, and as a result Barr was fired as MoMA's Director. The same year James Thrall Soby was hired as a new Assistant Director, and he created a special advisory position for Barr with far fewer responsibilities.
One year later, MoMA appointed Rene d'Harnoncourt as its new Director. D'Harnoncourt was well-known for his love of antique and contemporary Mexican artists, and his curatorial work with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unlike Clark, d'Harnoncourt respected the role Barr had played for the Museum and the two men got along amicably.
David Rockefeller, Nelson's younger brother, also played a significant role in the Museum when he took over the role as MoMA's president. Possibly David's greatest contribution was commissioning Philip Johnson (thought to have coined the term "International Style" along with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, although some have attributed the term to Barr instead) to redesign MoMA's garden, which became the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.
Also in 1948, the respective collectors and directors of The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art came to an agreement wherein MoMA would gradually sell off many of its paintings to the Met for $191,000 so that MoMA could continue to make room for new artists. This deal ended in 1951, but soon after this the Board of Directors, led by its new chairman John Jay Whitney (and with the help of Barr), decided that MoMA would not sell its art to other museums, and instead would establish a permanent collection. This collection was finally established in 1952.
MoMA's Reluctance to Abstract ExpressionismArguably one of MoMA's greatest shortcomings was its initial reluctance to purchase the works of artists in the "New York School." Although Barr and the other curators were unquestionably favorable toward avant-garde styles of Abstract art, MoMA was late to recognize on a large scale the contributions of Abstract contemporaries like Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, among many others.
In 1940, a group of New York artists calling themselves the American Abstract Artists, led by Ad Reinhardt, picketed MoMA and distributed leaflets emblazoned with the heading "HOW MODERN is THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART?" They were opposing the Museum's tendency to favor Modern European rather than American art.
One notable exception occurred in 1944 when an early work by Jackson Pollock entitled She-Wolf caught the attention of a young art historian named Meyer Schapiro, who at the time sat on MoMA's Board of Acquisitions. Despite great resistance from the other board members, Schapiro managed to convince them to purchase Pollock's work, believing that it aptly reflected the cultural climate of a time overshadowed by war and human suffering.
MoMA eventually played a key role in promoting the Abstract Expressionism movement, but not until 1958-59, when the Dorothy Miller-curated show The New American Painting visited 8 European countries over the course of a year, showcasing 17 different American artists and forever changing the way Europeans viewed American art. Included in this highly influential and educational show were the artists Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman and several others.
MoMA in the Postmodern EraAlfred Barr officially retired from MoMA in 1967, which is apt considering that it was around this time (ca. 1970) that art historians generally agree the era of Modern art came to an end.
MoMA has continually tried to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to both Modern and Contemporary art. Outside of Paris and Barcelona, MoMA is home to the finest permanent collection of Picassos in all of existence, which alone would be enough to confirm MoMA's legacy in the Modern era. Yet in order to remain relevant, which has become increasingly difficult for museums in the era of art fetishization and billionaire art collectors, the Museum has diversified how it considers and acquires new works for its permanent collection.
In addition to building its ever-expanding permanent collection with new works by some of mid-century "Masters" like Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly, MoMA has also acquired works from contemporary Conceptualists like Sol LeWitt and Martin Kippenberger.
MoMA underwent massive renovations between 2002 and 2004. On May 21, 2002, MoMA closed its doors on West 53rd St. and opened a temporary home in a former staple factory in the Queens borough of New York City. The Museum's redesign was led by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, who had once briefly worked for Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school. On September 27, 2004, MoMA reopened on West 53rd St. with a new design and an $8 hike in admission fee (going from $12 to $20).
LegacyWhen the Museum of Modern Art opened its permanent home in 1939, the building and location of the museum alone were making a profound statement about the role of art in our culture, and the museum's place in modern society. Museums were typically (and still are to some degree) grandiose in appearance, considered by many artists and historians to be the secular churches of human civilization; they resembled the classical architecture of the Greek Parthenon, complete with expansive stairways leading up to the entrance, daunting pillars, and cathedral-esque foyers capable of inducing agoraphobia. Instead, MoMA was wedged between other buildings on a crowded midtown block, the Museum rooted itself into city life and became as much a part of Manhattan as the average apartment or office building. This made it feel more accessible to the public, and far less stuffy or ostentatious than other museums. MoMA has forever changed the way people experience museums.
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