Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Museum of Modern Art Collage

Museum of Modern Art - History and Importance

Opened: 1929
Museum of Modern Art Timeline


While most recognize the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as the premiere institution for showcasing the avant-garde art of the 20th century, it was not the first to do so. In 1908, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz set up a gallery, 291, to showcase paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs by daring European and American artists. Katherine Dreier, with the help of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, established the Société Anonyme in 1920 and exhibited modern art, and in 1927, collector A. E. Gallatin opened his Gallery of Living Art, devoted to "fresh and individual works by living artists," such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Fernand Leger, and Piet Mondrian.

Despite these small interventions in the art world, museums remained conservative organizations, many not even recognizing modern art as valid, or valuable, enough to even hang in their galleries. In 1928, a group of wealthy art enthusiasts and philanthropists, including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, set out to change the traditional museum. They developed the idea for a small museum whose primary purpose was to be "encouraging and developing the study of Modern arts . . . and furnishing popular instruction." The women established a foundation to raise funds for a museum in New York.

The so-called "daring ladies" partnered with A. Conger Goodyear, a well-known collector and curator, who formerly headed the board of trustees of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY, which was known at the time for its impressive showings of modern art. Frank Crowninshield, the founding editor of Vanity Fair, and collector and socialite Josephine Boardman Crane also joined the board. Goodyear recruited Paul J. Sachs, a Harvard professor and art historian, and when Sachs was asked to nominate a museum director, he recommended Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who was a student of his and had recently curated a groundbreaking modern art exhibit at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum.

MoMA's first home was on the 12th floor of the Hecksher Building, at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.

Before opening, Sachs gave the museum its first gift - nine prints and drawings by German Expressionists, including Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Pechstein, and Georg Scholtz. On November 7, 1929, shortly after the stock market crash known as "Black Tuesday" that started the Great Depression, 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, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat and van Gogh, consisted of several paintings - all on loan - by the European Post-Impressionists. The inaugural exhibition lasted from November 7th to December 7th, 1929, and attracted a total of 47,293 visitors. 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.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Early Years

As the Museum of Modern Art's first director and founding curator, Barr was integral in expanding the founders' vision of an educational institution. Before beginning his stint at MoMA, Barr travelled through Europe and Russia, collecting books and information on modern art. He was particularly taken with the Bauhaus ideas in Germany as well as the Constructivists in Russia. The ideas and the relationships he forged with artists would serve him well during his tenure at the museum and informed his ideas about the museum as a laboratory for modern art, film, and architecture.

In the early years, the exhibitions Barr curated largely relied on loaned works of art, but Barr envisioned a permanent collection at MoMA, one consisting not only of painting and sculpture but also 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 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, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., ordered Diego Rivera's mural (entitled Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future) commissioned by his father for the new RCA Building 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, but with Barr's help, they forestalled any protests.

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. Significantly, between the early-1940s and mid-1960s, Miller curated six different shows devoted to modern American artists, most notably the 1952 15 Americans, which showcased several prominent Abstract Expressionists, thus cementing the movement's importance.

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.

Barr's diagram of modern art's evolution, created for the 1936 catalog, <i>Cubism and Abstract Art</i>

Importantly, Barr also promoted artistic realms beyond painting and sculpture as well. In 1932, MoMA established the Department of Architecture under the chairmanship of architect Philip C. Johnson, who would remain at the museum in various capacities for several decades. The department was eventually combined with the Department of Design and through many exhibitions popularized Bauhaus ideals of art and design.

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Barr also curated a series of exhibitions that explored so-called "primitive" art (read Primitivism in Art), including African Negro Art (1935), Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa (1937), and Art of the South Seas (1946), which he saw as an important factor in the development of modern art. Additionally, he brought attention to self-taught artists and even exhibited children's art.

During the 1930s, Barr curated an impressive number of groundbreaking shows at MoMA, including a Vincent van Gogh exhibition in 1935, Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism in 1936, and a Bauhaus show in 1938. 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. In the exhibition's catalog, Barr crafted a magisterial narrative of modern art through the rise of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, and Dada. His formalist approach to the successive avant-garde movements became foundational not only for MoMA but for the study of modern art more broadly.

MoMA Expands

MoMA in 1939 - in same location as current building

In 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 Street. 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 Pablo 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. Also in 1940, MoMA created the first curatorial department devoted to photography. Noted photographer Beaumont Newhall was named its first curator, and in 1947 Edward Steichen became the department's director.

In 1943, Steven Clark was appointed the new chairman of the Board of Trustees. Clark and Barr sparred over several administrative and curatorial issues, and as a result Barr was fired as MoMA's director. The same year board member and former curator at the Wadsworth Athenaeum 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, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of art, was well-known for his love of antique and contemporary Mexican artists. Unlike Clark, d'Harnoncourt respected the role Barr had played at 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, who was also the director of the Department of Architecture, to redesign MoMA's garden, which became the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.

In order to keep their collection up-to-date and relevant, in 1948 MoMA agreed to sell older paintings by more accepted modern masters to the Metropolitan Museum to create new space for an ever-expanding collection of new, more modern artists. The deal ended in 1951 when the Board of Directors, led by its new chairman John Jay Whitney (and with the help of Barr), decided that MoMA should keep the older works in the permanent collection.

MoMA and Abstract Expressionism

Before World War II, Barr faced criticism for not recognizing local modern art. In 1940, 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 European artists over American ones. Indeed, Barr was initially reticent to accept works by the Abstract Expressionists, but the museum purchased Jackson Pollock's She Wolf in 1944, and a Theodoros Stamos painting was accepted as a gift in 1947. In 1948, the Museum also purchased one of Willem de Kooning's black and white abstractions.

Even though Barr was MoMA's Director of Collections after the war, there is little evidence to suggest that he was personally instrumental in launching the museum's post-war favor toward Abstract Expressionism. In fact, it was MoMA curator Dorothy Miller's 15 Americans show that opened in 1952, which showcased Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, William Baziotes, and Bradley Walker Tomlin, that signaled the museum's acceptance of the so-called New York School.

MoMA in the Cold War

During the Cold War, the American government, both overtly and covertly, promoted American art and culture abroad in hopes of countering Soviet propaganda. Over the years, there were rumors that MoMA and the C.I.A. entered into a secret agreement to do just that, but as critic Louis Menand argues, the evidence is largely circumstantial. As Menand points out, the leaders of MoMA, including Nelson Rockefeller, Rene d'Harnoncourt, and by this time Barr, were "on the same page.... [they] did not have to be encouraged to use American art to promote the nation's image abroad."

In 1958, under the aegis of the museum's International Council, Dorothy Miller curated The New American Painting, an exhibition designed to expose new American art to a European audience. The show visited eight European countries over the course of a year, showcasing seventeen different American artists and forever changing the way Europeans viewed American art. Included in this highly influential and educational show were the artists de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko, Pollock, Philip Guston, Still, and Barnett Newman among others. The Director of the International Program, Porter McCray, reported that "the paintings created a sensation; whether enthusiastically, hesitatingly, in the form of back-handed compliments or real hostility, it was acknowledged that in America a totally 'new' - a unique and indigenous - kind of painting has appeared, one whose influence can be clearly seen in the works of artists in Europe as well in many other parts of the world."

MoMA in the Postmodern Era

Perhaps a historical coincidence, Alfred Barr officially retired from MoMA in 1967, at a moment when, most art historians agree, a profound shift occurred in art making, ushering in the Postmodern era. While Barr may have departed, the steady diet of European and American modern masters, including Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and Rothko, continued through the 20th century.

MoMA underwent massive renovations between 2002 and 2004. On May 21, 2002, MoMA closed its doors at West 53rd Street 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 Street with a new design and an $8 hike in admission fee (going from $12 to $20).

In 2011, MoMA reconfigured its new galleries in an attempt to bring the story of modern art up to the present and included Conceptual and Process Art, Performance, and Video work. The spirit of Picasso no longer reigns supreme in the galleries, and instead the trajectory of modern art leads to Conceptual art and more spectacle-based installations. As art critic Roberta Smith observed about MoMA revamped atrium, which houses large-scale works and performances, "the atrium is both a measure of the Modern's new vitality and a symptom of something more than a little scary about where contemporary art is headed, or where the Modern is taking it. (Hint: Conceptual Art in the new Cubism.)"

Just a decade after their new building opened, MoMA again set out to expand. They acquired the American Folk Art Museum next door, and then controversially decided to partially demolish and rebuild the space. Thus, a new residential tower was erected by architect Jean Nouvelle which will contain more gallery space and dramatically increase the number of works the museum can show. The museum's chairman explained, "We don't want to forget our roots in terms of hanging the greatest Modernist collection, but the museum didn't emphasize female artists, didn't emphasize what minority artists were doing, and it was limited on geography....Where those were always the exceptions, now they really should be part of the reality of the multicultural society we all live in." The new MoMA will reopen to the public in the fall of 2019.


When museums were considered to be the secular churches of human civilization and built to resemble the classical architecture of the Greek Parthenon, complete with expansive stairways and daunting pillars, the Museum of Modern Art rooted itself into city life and became as much a part of Manhattan as the average apartment or office building. Its original design and placement 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. Over the years and through many expansions, MoMA's footprint has grown, and while its high ticket prices alienate some of its more local clientele, it continues to deliver the story of modern art with a collection unsurpassed by any modern art museum in existence.

In addition to its roster of notable curators, MoMA has also nourished a host of writers and artists over the years, including poet Frank O'Hara who was a curator, as well as Lucy Lippard and Roberta Smith, and several artists, including Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, Scott Burton, Howardena Pindell, and Robert Mangold, worked in various capacities in the museum. Later Allan McCollum and Jeff Koons also worked there. Mangold recalled, "Well, being around the works that were here helps delineate what interests you and what doesn't interest you. When you're around them all the time, it's like living with one of the great collections of painting or sculpture. And you sharpen your sense of what interests you and what you want to do and what doesn't interest you. So, that's important."

The Most Important Art in Museum of Modern Art

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Museum of Modern Art Venue Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
Available from:
First published on 24 May 2019. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]