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Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy

March 2 - June 9, 2013

 

A controversial exhibition of modern American art, once shut down by the U.S. government in the late 1940s, has been reassembled for a new, two-year national tour. Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy opened to the public March 2, 2013 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma.

In 1946, the U.S. State Department assembled an exhibition of modernist paintings created by contemporary American artists. The intent was to show the world America's artistic coming of age, highlighting the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in the United States. The result was Advancing American Art, an exhibition designed to combat Communism but, ultimately, deemed un-American by members of the U.S. Congress and President Harry S. Truman. (right: Anton Refregier (U.S., b. Russia, 1905-1979), End of the Conference, 1945, Oil on canvas, 32 x 15 inches. Purchase, U.S. State Department Collection, 1948, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, The University of Oklahoma, Norman)

The newly reassembled version of this exhibition, Art Interrupted, draws from the permanent collections of 10 museums, private collectors and other public institutions and includes many of the original works from Advancing American Art.

"We are afforded an incredible opportunity to collaborate with other U.S. museums and organizations to reunite this powerful exhibition of American works," said Ghislain d'Humières, the Wylodean and Bill Saxon Director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. "Visitors will recognize works from the Fred Jones' State Department Collection, as well as many other significant paintings from other collections that have made this important exhibition possible."

"In its time, Advancing American Art attempted to use art as a tool for cultural diplomacy, one that could build bridges between people of various nations," said Mark White, the Eugene B. Adkins and Chief Curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. "Culture, it was believed, could heal some of the divisions created by World War II. The exhibition also attempted to demonstrate the freedom of expression possible in American democracy and the diversity of class and ethnicity that composes American society.

"Ironically, the exhibition fell prey to partisan politics and intellectual posturing as to what an appropriate image of the United States should be. For most of Congress and President Truman, modern art presented a negative view of this country. Our new exhibition, Art Interrupted, seems timely in a period of intense partisan politics and extreme disagreement as to what role the United States should play in the world."

In 1946, J. LeRoy Davidson, who served the State Department as a visual arts specialist, was responsible for developing a set of touring exhibitions to demonstrate not only the diversity of American modern art, but also the power of democracy to nourish freedom of expression. Advancing American Art originally consisted of 79 oil paintings, and the State Department paired it with smaller collections of watercolor, tempera, gouache and other media, with intentions to travel works to Europe, Asia and South America.

Advancing American Art initially met with positive press, such as its premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 1946 and its brief appearances in Paris and Prague. But criticism followed soon after.

William Randolph Hearst's New York-Journal American ran images of the work with sarcastic captions. Conservative artists' groups, unhappy with the exclusion of more traditionally-rendered material, mounted letter-writing campaigns. Congressmen investigated the backgrounds of the artists, many of whom were immigrants or had left-wing leanings, and even President Harry Truman expressed his disdain for modern art in public. The ensuing debacle led Congress to eliminate funding for the project, leaving the art to be auctioned off by the War Assets Administration and Davidson without a job.

The OU Museum of Art was quick to purchase 36 paintings from the State Department and bolster its growing permanent collection.

Representing works by artists from Romare Bearden to Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Loren MacIver, Jacob Lawrence, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, Art Interrupted includes many important figures in the development of American modernism. It also serves, in the end, as a testament to Davidson's goals.

Although his plan to promote the vitality of American art abroad failed, Davidson's project had a second life as the works were dispersed across the nation. In the collections of, primarily, university museums and galleries, including the three organizing institutions, they exemplified the principles for which he had intended them and reached countless Americans in their formative years.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy is organized by the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. The exhibition's organizers are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Auburn University's Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art served as the premiere venue for the traveling exhibition September 8, 2012, through January 5, 2013. After its display at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art through June 9, the exhibition will travel to the Indiana University Art Museum, in Bloomington, Ind. September 13 - December 15, 2013, and the Georgia Museum of Art, in Athens, Ga. January 25 - April 30, 2014.

The exhibition's opening was preceded by a symposium March 1. Speakers addressed both the domestic controversy and the international implications of Advancing American Art. Although the exhibition was the lynchpin for the symposium, it provided a platform for discussing a variety of related issues of political, social and cultural significance. Advancing American Art was the subject of the morning session, and the importance of international cultural diplomacy was addressed in the afternoon. The symposium was co-sponsored by FJJMA and the OU College of International and Area Studies. Guest presenters included Dennis Harper, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Landon Storrs, Associate Professor of History, University of Iowa; Mark A. White, Eugene B. Adkins and Chief Curator, FJJMA; Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service; and Richard T. Arndt, Co-Chair Advisory Council, Americans for UNESCO and Chair, U.S. Steering Committee, Fulbright Association.

 

Selected gallery panel text by Dr. Mark White, the Eugene B. Adkins and Chief Curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art:

"Only in a democracy where the full development of the individual is not only permitted but fostered could such an exhibition be assembled." - William Benton, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.

The year was 1946. Amid an ideological "Cold War" with the Soviet Union, the United States Department of State began an innovative program of cultural diplomacy designed to confront communism. At the heart of this initiative was a project known as Advancing American Art. The government would purchase modern art by contemporary American painters for exhibitions to tour the world. Its objective was to celebrate the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in a democracy while demonstrating America's artistic coming of age.

Within months after Advancing American Art began its exhibition tour, controversy over the program erupted in the American media, government forums, and public discourse. Many observers criticized the paintings and artists selected for the project as un-American, subversive, and communistic. Facing intense criticism by Congress and the President, with the prospect of losing all funding for its cultural programs abroad, the State Department chose to recall the exhibitions and sell the paintings at auction.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy examines the development and swift demise of this ambitious but ill-fated instrument of foreign policy. The exhibition opens March 2 through June 9 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

The story of Advancing American Art offers important clues to a better understanding of the unsettled period in American history immediately following World War II. The public debate the project engendered -- on the value of modern art, government's role in art patronage, and what constitutes a truly American art form -- addressed issues that remain worthy of discussion today.

The canceled tour in 1947 prevented a full consideration of the paintings as singular objects or of the purpose for which they were gathered. Nearly seventy years after the paintings were first assembled, the organizers of the present exhibition -- the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art, and the Georgia Museum of Art -- have worked together to give the artists and the original State Department organizers their due acknowledgement. From a checklist of 117 oils and watercolors sold as war surplus in 1948, Art Interrupted reunites all but ten paintings, for which there are no known locations, in an exhibition that demonstrates again the great worth in freedom and diversity.

Advancing American Art was a key element in a larger program of traveling exhibitions that the State Department's Division of Libraries and Institutes organized following establishment of the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs (OIC) in January 1946. The OIC emphasized individualism and freedom of expression as demonstrable values in its promotional statements on the exhibition. Benton argued that projects of this kind "make an impact among Communists overseas because they illustrate the freedom with which and in which our American artists work."

In response to requests from emissaries abroad for an exhibition of the most progressive forms of American art, visual-arts specialist for the newly formed OIC, Joseph LeRoy Davidson, selected seventy-nine oils for Advancing American Art during the spring and summer of 1946. As curator for the project, Davidson acquired the paintings with appropriations from various federal sources, totaling $49,912. The OIC opted to buy art for a planned five-year tour after determining it was more economical to purchase the works than to borrow.

Galleries and artists from which the purchases were made gave generous discounts, as they were eager to be involved in such an important and patriotic endeavor. Davidson chose paintings both by established and emerging artists in a range of modern styles. Although women and persons of color were represented in low numbers, the roster of artists reflected an American melting pot of cultural heritages including French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Russian, and Spanish backgrounds.

After an inaugural viewing of Advancing American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, October 4 - 27, 1946, the exhibition was split into two touring groups and sent to regions considered political and intellectual battlegrounds between democracy and communism: forty-nine oils were slated for Eastern Europe and the remaining thirty for the Caribbean and Latin America.

The Eastern Hemisphere exhibition traveled from New York to Paris, where it opened November 18 at the Musée d'Art Moderne as part of an exhibition celebrating the creation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The same group of paintings then traveled to Prague, Czechoslovakia, for exhibition at the Umlecka Beseda, a cooperative fine art forum. Advancing American Art was a tremendous success in Prague, receiving popular and critical attention including accolades from President Eduard Bene. Posters illustrating Robert Gwathmey's Worksong advertised Advancing American Art to the Prague public.

The opening on March 6 reportedly attracted more than a thousand visitors. It was then scheduled for additional Czechoslovak venues in Brno and Bratislava. The Eastern European itinerary included Budapest, Hungary, and an undetermined venue in Poland, although political controversy in the United States prompted Secretary of State George C. Marshall to recall Advancing American Art in May 1947.

Thirty paintings were selected to travel to nations in the Western Hemisphere that the State Department termed the "other American Republics," or OAR. This Caribbean and Latin America tour of Advancing American Art premiered in Havana, Cuba in late 1946 at the Club Fotografico de Cuba. After the exhibition closed in January 1947, it moved to the Buscardi Museum in Santiago de Cuba, and then the Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When it closed in Haiti, it was likely intended to travel to Caracas, Venezuela. Instead, the paintings were returned to the United States while the State Department pondered the best way to deal with its collection in the wake of the project's cancellation.

The broad international itinerary planned for Advancing American Art speaks to the political utility the State Department intended for the exhibitions. Like the Voice of America radio broadcasts, they were powerful tools in a war of information Benton waged against global communism in the late 1940s. In addition to venues in the OAR and Eastern Europe, and a planned Asian tour of watercolors, further exhibition sites likely included Africa, since some of the funds for purchases of the art derived from allocations directed to cultural relations with that continent.

Initial favorable reviews in the New York press followed Advancing American Art's showing at the Metropolitan Museum. However, they were soon replaced by negative coverage in national media and in publications with a more conservative readership. William Randolph Hearst's newspaper New York Journal­American, for example, ran a scathing series of full-page photo essays, illustrating the collection alongside sarcastic captions such as "Lunatic's Delight." Syndicated radio commentator Fulton Lewis Jr. pronounced the art "so far advanced that it's completely out of sight and no one in his sane mind is ever going to try and catch up to it." Even the more moderate Look magazine printed a mild rebuke with "Your Money Bought These Paintings," though they "will never be shown in America."

Meanwhile, legislators in Washington began to receive impassioned letters from their constituents, asking why taxpayers' money was used to support such a program. As the public clamor increased, Congress called a formal hearing to review the appropriateness of Advancing American Art. President Harry S. Truman penned perhaps the most damning critique in a letter to Benton in which he decried modern art as "merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people." Two days later the State Department suspended the exhibitions. Congress voted to cut funding for the art program, and Davidson's position at OIC was dissolved.

Not all assessments of Advancing American Art were negative. When the exhibition was recalled, numerous groups of American artists convened to hold an "Artists' Action Meeting," in which they agreed the recall was "a step backward in our cultural relations with other countries." The Association of Art Museum Directors concurred and endorsed "the recent programs of the Department of State in furthering the cause of international understanding by disseminating American art in foreign countries." Additionally, scores of private citizens wrote letters to their elected representatives, praising the program and protesting its cessation. Ultimately, these statements of support had little effect on the government's decision.

The cancellation affected other projects, too. In addition to Advancing American Art, the State Department organized several other traveling art exhibitions between 1946 and 1948, including selections of prints and watercolors by contemporary American artists. Two groups of watercolors are associated with Advancing American Art. One collection of thirty-five works was assembled for exhibition in the "other American Republics" and accompanied Advancing American Art while on display in Paris during the UNESCO month. Among that group were many of the same artists represented in Advancing American Art, but also included Milton Avery, Alexander Calder, Morris Graves, Zoltan Sepeshy, John von Wicht, and William Zorach. The other collection, exhibited here, was intended for exhibition in China and the Far East. The Asia tour never materialized.

As the controversy over Advancing American Art deepened, these watercolors (similarly purchased by the State Department) sat unframed in storage in a Manhattan warehouse. After resolving to sell the oil paintings as war surplus assets, the State Department made the same determination for the thirty-eight watercolors.

While Davidson oversaw the organization of the watercolor exhibition for China, he did not select the works single-handedly as he had done with Advancing American Art. Instead, he relied on experts in modern art for assistance; most prominently, Herman More, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Hudson Walker, president of the American Federation of Arts. Both groups of watercolors encompassed a wider range of styles than Advancing American Art and included more traditional approaches. Interestingly, Davidson deemed them less successful exhibitions than the oils. As he reflected decades later, "The one-man selection probably made it a more exciting show. The watercolors which were selected with committee help were weaker." Notably, Benton faulted that same one-man selection process during Congressional hearings as a major factor in the program's "failing."

After the program was discontinued, Benton decided to sell the collection to recoup expenses and save political face. A legal provision of the federal allocations used to make the original purchases required that the art be declared government surplus and sold through the War Assets Administration (WAA). The seventy-nine paintings in Advancing American Art and thirty-eight watercolors intended for an Asian tour, also canceled in the wake of the scandal, were thus scheduled for public auction via sealed bids on June 19, 1948. Announced in government publications and metropolitan newspapers, the lot of "117 Oil and Water Color Originals by Leading American Artists" went on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art for a month prior to the sale.

Bidders from twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii submitted offerings. The WAA gave preference to publicly funded museums and educational institutions. Among the 148 bidders in the sale, Auburn University (then Alabama Polytechnic), the Georgia Museum of Art, and the University of Oklahoma were the most successful, together acquiring eighty-two lots. Adding to their good fortune, a little known regulation granted tax-exempt institutions a 95% discount off the selling price. Unfortunately for the State Department, instead of reaping a large profit from the sale, after subtracting the original purchase costs the government realized little more than $5000, due to the number of purchasers qualifying for the discount. At Auburn, the sale price for thirty-six works came to $1072 and was termed "the art bargain of the century." The University of Oklahoma paid just under $2000 for its collection of thirty-six works.

Despite its brief life, Advancing American Art served as an important example of State Department policy in the postwar period. Its emphasis on freedom of expression and individualism as key democratic values helped Benton and his staff challenge communist ideology in Eastern Europe and Latin America. It also redefined modern art as a diverse range of expression inspired by the conditions of modern life. The plurality Davidson attempted offered an accurate picture of American art in the 1940s and the racial and political diversity of the United States. In this regard, Advancing American Art had its greatest utility.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy was made possible by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius. This program also made possible, in part, by the Norman Arts Council Grant Program.

Auburn University's Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art served as the premiere venue for the traveling exhibition September 8, 2012, through January 5, 2013. After its display at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art through June 9, the exhibition will travel to the Indiana University Art Museum, in Bloomington, Ind. September 13 - December 15, 2013, and the Georgia Museum of Art, in Athens, Ga. January 25 - April 30, 2014.

 

About Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art:

Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art is located on the University of Oklahoma's Norman campus in the OU Arts District on the corner of Elm Avenue and Boyd Street at 555 Elm Avenue, Norman, OK 73019-3003. Please see the Museum's website for hours and admission fees.

 

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For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


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