New York’s Museum of Modern Art Opens to the Public

The scholarship and passion of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., backed by Rockefeller money and prestige, put previously despised radical art at the center of American culture.

Summary of Event

Americans were first exposed to radical art, from post-Impressionism to cubism to expressionism, at the famous independent exhibition held in New York’s Sixty-ninth Street Armory in 1913 (known as the Armory Show). Armory Show (1913) Only a few independent collectors appreciated the new styles, however, and American artists who adopted them had next to no support. In the 1920’s, American museums and the American rich collected European old-master art as a counterweight of “culture” to the disturbing forces that were transforming American society. European art after Impressionism was almost impossible to find in the United States, and only a few zealots collected the most innovative work being done in Europe. Even Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso were dismissed as frauds or madmen. [kw]New York’s Museum of Modern Art Opens to the Public (Nov. 8, 1929)[New Yorks Museum of Modern Art Opens to the Public (Nov. 8, 1929)]
[kw]Museum of Modern Art Opens to the Public, New York’s (Nov. 8, 1929)
[kw]Modern Art Opens to the Public, New York’s Museum of (Nov. 8, 1929)
[kw]Art Opens to the Public, New York’s Museum of Modern (Nov. 8, 1929)
[kw]Public, New York’s Museum of Modern Art Opens to the (Nov. 8, 1929)
Museum of Modern Art (New York)
Modern art
[g]United States;Nov. 8, 1929: New York’s Museum of Modern Art Opens to the Public[07350]
[c]Arts;Nov. 8, 1929: New York’s Museum of Modern Art Opens to the Public[07350]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 8, 1929: New York’s Museum of Modern Art Opens to the Public[07350]
Barr, Alfred H., Jr.
Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich
Goodyear, Conger
Sachs, Paul

The idea for the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) came from three women who collected post-Impressionist art and who wished to spread appreciation for it in the United States. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was concerned that American interest in art after 1880 was entirely private and that her children’s generation would have no chance to experience an art appropriate to their own time. Lizzie P. Bliss, Bliss, Lizzie P. heiress to a textile fortune, had been guided to modern art by Arthur B. Davies, Davies, Arthur B. one of the organizers of the Armory Show. Mary Sullivan Sullivan, Mary was a former design teacher and a collector of work by such avant-garde figurative artists as Picasso, van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Georges Braque. The women knew that in Europe, such state-run museums as the Tate Gallery in London and the Luxembourg in Paris showed advanced art of the recent past and the present, from which the best works might be chosen for official government collections. The position of modern art in the United States, they believed, would be much more secure if an American museum existed to give modern art the imprimatur of accepted taste.

Rockefeller, Bliss, and Sullivan began to discuss backing a museum devoted to such art in the winter of 1928-1929. They would lend the museum art until its director could set a firm course and begin a collection. In May, 1929, they asked wealthy industrialist and art collector Conger Goodyear to chair a committee to establish the museum. Goodyear had recently been forced out of the presidency of the Albright Gallery in Buffalo because he had spent five thousand dollars of the museum’s money on a painting by Picasso. He quickly assembled a panel of art patrons and historians. In June, on the advice of committee member Paul Sachs, a professor of art history at Harvard University, the backers approached Sachs’s former Harvard student Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to direct the museum.

Barr was the most brilliant and impassioned of the museum professionals whom Sachs steered toward modern art. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Barr studied art history at Princeton University and Harvard University. He was one of the first American historians to visit the Bauhaus in Germany and the Soviet Union’s art academies. Believing in a liberal, forward-looking idea of historical evolution, he was convinced that the greatest radical art of his day was as inevitable an expression of the modern world as the Gothic cathedral had been of the Middle Ages.

Sachs made Barr view modernism in the art historian’s usual terms of value: connoisseurship, the description of how particular artists made their works beautiful, and the evolutionary idea that styles were created along a time line of direct influences. This view put Barr in line with the conservative, art-appreciation outlook of Rockefeller and her friends. Barr, however, loved much more radical art than Sachs did and was willing to look for examples of the creative spirit outside painting (in architecture, product design, and films). He became convinced that his real mission was to make modernism popular among tomorrow’s millionaire art buyers—the students Barr taught at Harvard and at Wellesley College. Only in that way could modernism get its full due as a cultural expression.

Barr’s ambition of making modernism popular matched the hopes of Rockefeller, Bliss, and Sullivan that their own tastes could be shared with the public. Despite Barr’s youth and scholarly unworldliness, Rockefeller accepted him as the new museum’s director in July, 1929. His first exhibition for the museum, titled Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and van Gogh, was made up of paintings loaned by the founders and other supporters. None of the shown work was abstract—indeed, all the artists had died before the emergence of cubism—and such works were already being collected by Francophiles in the American upper class. The works displayed, however, broke sharply with old-master definitions of art prevalent in the United States. Although conservative by Barr’s standards, the display of works by “the founders of modern painting” would be a springboard from which he could launch shows of the more demanding art that followed them. The museum’s exhibitions would serve as an education in the development of modernism.

When the Museum of Modern Art opened in rented space in a New York office building on November 8, 1929, it marked a milestone in respectability for avant-garde art. Forty-seven thousand people visited the exhibition during its month on display. Newspapers and art journals announced that the paintings shown had “converted” antimodernists by their beauty. The social exclusiveness of the museum’s backers reassured viewers that a taste for the modern was an acceptable thing. Most important, the works of artists whose place in art history was beyond question but who had been kept from American audiences by museums’ reactionary attitudes were finally presented to a starved public.


Barr and Rockefeller’s new museum quickly developed along the lines both had hoped. Barr went to Europe and convinced museums, collectors, and artists to lend to the institution. He mounted shows of increasing scope and artistic daringness, notably Vincent van Gogh (1935), Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism (both 1936), and Picasso: Forty Years of His Art (1939). Lizzie Bliss’s bequest of her collection and other trustee gifts in 1931 made possible Rockefeller’s ambition to build a permanent public collection of the work she loved best. At the same time, Barr mounted shows devoted to, and began collections of, aspects of art in genres other than painting. These included modern architecture (1932), industrial design (1934), classic films (1935), and photography (1940). The museum moved into its own building in 1934 and acquired a new, radically modern headquarters on former Rockefeller property in 1939.

Barr intended his museum to be a teaching institution first and foremost. The erudite catalogs that accompanied his shows explained how the radical works on display had developed naturally from the art that had preceded them. Even a form as incomprehensible as abstraction had a pedigree, and its artists were as accountable to the connoisseur’s taste as any old master. Such an approach reassured viewers without making the art itself any less revolutionary. Barr’s personal charisma attracted young, well-placed academics and art lovers, including Philip Johnson, Edward Warburg, Dorothy Miller, and Beaumont Newhall, to the museum’s staff. The publicity department’s handling of exhibitions of van Gogh’s paintings and of James McNeill Whistler’s “Mother” added to the museum’s reputation for shocking, brilliant innovation.

Because of the high social status of MOMA’s backers, affiliation with the museum could be a strategy of social advancement. A taste for avant-garde art became fashionable in New York, and MOMA’s shows of modern architecture and design changed the upper class’s idea of what its homes were supposed to look like. Barr himself was instrumental in helping the radical German architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe find teaching posts in the United States after Adolf Hitler came to power. By the 1940’s, for MOMA’s audience, radical style became what Barr believed modern art itself was: a sign of liberal (but not destructive) historical progress.

The museum’s impact on artists themselves, and thus on the nature of art, was more ambiguous. American painters were offended that the first show had featured French art. Barr himself always tried to show American work, but he was constrained by the trustees’ preferences and by his own feeling that the future lay with European abstraction. Barr’s background in art history, which led him to judge art based on stylistic development and formal beauty, tended to discourage him from looking at art as a means of social change. The uproar that occurred when the museum showed politically radical murals in 1932 (some pillorying MOMA’s own backers as capitalist oppressors) made it act more cautiously. Moreover, the institution could always be faulted for conservatism when it showed potentially subversive art, such as Soviet films or Bauhaus product designs, as works of beauty without regard to their social import.

The new audience for modernism created by MOMA led to new dealerships and galleries for avant-garde art, a development that exposed American painters to new inspiration and gave them more outlets for their works. The museum’s importance in the art world, however, led to fears that MOMA, its backers, and the dealers were colluding to push certain styles on the art market. MOMA, after all, set itself up as the halfway house where modern art would be judged for its lasting merit and consequently its sale value. While doing so, MOMA was often dependent on the personal purchases of the trustees, who were building up the museum’s small permanent collection. Accordingly, American artists of all stylistic persuasions distrusted the museum as much as they learned from it.

Alfred Barr’s museum was transformed by the success he brought to it. By 1939, Barr had created a complex bureaucracy of scholars, publicists, and business administrators. His painstaking scholarship (which put him behind schedule and over budget) and roving interest in all the modern arts came to be seen as a hindrance to the museum’s mission and stability, and, in 1943, Barr was removed as director of the institution. After an interim period, he was given the new, less powerful post of director of collections. Although his influence on MOMA’s taste remained great, his idea of a free-ranging educational museum was slowed by institutional realities.

Although the Museum of Modern Art became a museum in the more conventional sense, conserving the aesthetic values of a particular institution, its example forced other museums to take contemporary art seriously. New York’s Metropolitan Museum itself began buying newer art (some from MOMA’s overstock) and eventually joined the bidding war for new talent that hit museums after World War II. The scholarship of Barr and his MOMA staff showed historians and curators how to write about radical art responsibly. The great role that museums came to play in the creation of art would not have been possible without the Museum of Modern Art. Museum of Modern Art (New York)
Modern art

Further Reading

  • Barr, Alfred. Defining Modern Art. Edited by Irving Sandler and Amy Newman. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978. A collection of Barr’s catalog prefaces and other Museum of Modern Art publications. Together, these pieces make a laconic, somewhat repetitive argument for the historical inevitability and aesthetic merit of most branches of modern art. Includes chronology and index.
  • Bee, Harriet S., and Michelle Elligott, eds. Art in Our Time: A Chronicle of the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004. Presents historical photographs and documents, many of which have never been published before, to tell the story of the establishment of the museum and its growth since that time. Published on the occasion of the museum’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Includes a chronology.
  • Chase, Mary Ellen. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. New York: Macmillan, 1950. Biography of the woman who led the effort to create the Museum of Modern Art. Respectful and conventional treatment discusses the museum in the context of Rockefeller’s philanthropy and love of art. Includes index.
  • Kantor, Sybil Gordon. Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: The Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001. Combines biography with institutional history in examining Barr’s career and his vision for the museum. Draws on interviews as well as Barr’s personal correspondence.
  • Lynes, Russell. Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Atheneum, 1973. One of the best accounts of the museum up to 1970, solidly based on research and interviews. Emphasizes social status as an aspect of the museum’s appeal. Discursive style makes timing of events somewhat hard to follow, but includes a chronology of museum exhibitions as well as an index.
  • Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Missionary for the Modern. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. Accounts for Barr’s devotion to modernism and traces his relations with museum backers and staff more fully than does Lynes’s account (cited above), but otherwise follows Lynes’s interpretation closely. Overworks the idea that Barr followed in his father’s footsteps as a kind of preacher. Includes endnotes and index.
  • Meyer, Karl E. The Art Museum: Power, Money, Ethics. New York: William Morrow, 1979. Provides valuable background on the kinds of institutional pressures faced by MOMA in its maturing years, although dated as investigative reporting. Includes bibliography and index.

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