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Barr was particularly impressed by his visit to the department of the National Gallery set up by Ludwig Justi (1876-1957) in the former Kronprinzenpalais, situated on the grand boulevard Unter den Linden. The innovative form of presentation, which combined classical museum principles with the concept of the rotating exhibition, inspired Barr just as much as the works of European Modernism that constituted Justi's "museum of the living." Referring to his visit, he later wrote: "Here Picasso, Derain and Matisse rub shoulders with Klee, Nolde, Dix, Feininger, and the best of the modern Germans." In his letters to Justi, he continued to underscore the German museum's model character long after founding the MoMA: "Our institution seeks to fulfil the function of a Kronprinzen-Palais."


Kronprinzenpalais, Berlin, Germany

Together, the artworks, sources of inspiration, writings, models, and ideas that Barr collected in Europe were to provide the material for the course on modern art he gave at Wellesley, which he resumed in the fall of 1928 with overwhelming success. Yet his teaching activities at the college were soon to come to an abrupt end: in June 1929, taken entirely by surprise, he was informed by his mentor Sachs that he had been selected to become the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art.


Three "Old Girls" with Progressive Views
"Women played a central role in the establishment of American museums," Sybil Gordon Kantor wrote in her Barr biography, and "Barr's relationship to women in connection to the MoMA was to underscore this significance." If the male members of Paul Sachs' art network can be called "old boys," then Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) and her friends Lillie P. Bliss (1864-1931) and Mary Sullivan were the "old girls" with extremely progressive views - members of New York's moneyed aristocracy, ambitious, socially committed women who recognized that a gap had crept into in the American museum landscape due to the absence of European Modernism in the institutions. The enthusiasm of the three friends for contemporary art harked back to a time when Alfred H. Barr was only eleven years old: in 1913, the New York Armory Show, the first presentation of modern works of art in the USA, unleashed a sensation. Led by the show's organizer, the artist Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Lillie P. Bliss began expanding her collection to include Post-Impressionist works.


Armory Show, New York, 1913

Her commitment was not always appreciated. A show of modern French painting that she initiated at the Metropolitan Museum in 1921 provoked such controversial reactions that the museum's directors were subsequently resolved not to show any more exhibitions of the kind in the foreseeable future. It was only after the death of her mother that Bliss was able to openly present her collection - the old lady had deeply disapproved of her taste. In the early twenties, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller began collecting works by artists such as Edward Hopper. Like Bliss, she set herself up on the top floor of her townhouse to keep her works away from the attention of her husband, John D. Rockefeller, who financially supported her acquisitions, but "did not share her enthusiasm."

Both she and Mary Quinn Sullivan, the wife of a successful New York lawyer who herself painted and gave art lessons, knew of their friend Davies' passionate commitment towards creating a New York museum for Modernism, a project that had been discussed at length among their circle of friends. Part of the legend surrounding the foundation of MoMA has it that the women, following Davies' death in 1928, were firmly set on fulfilling his wish posthumously.


Mary Quinn Sullivan, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Lillie B. Bliss, alle: Digital Image Courtesy, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

At the same time, however, other motives might have played a more important role. Particularly for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who was to become the closest ally of the future director Barr, patronage of art was coupled with social commitment. While the donations and estates the three friends provided laid the foundation for the institution, their personal commitment contributed to making MoMA into the most prominent museum of the 20th century. "Not only is modern art artistically radical, but it is often assumed to be radical morally and politically, and sometimes indeed it is. But these factors which might have given pause to a more circumspect and conventional spirit did not deter [Mrs. Rockefeller], although on a few occasions they caused her anxiety, as they did us all." Alfred H. Barr's memories of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller don't match the conservative reputation of the Rockefellers in the least - on the contrary, she was especially enthusiastic about Barr's progressive ideas, his plans for the interdisciplinary departments of the MoMA, and his wish to bring contemporary art closer to people in an understandable way. She liked Barr, as she wrote Sachs following their first encounter, and felt that his youth, his enthusiasm, and his knowledge would certainly compensate for his outward appearance, which was not, unfortunately, particularly impressive.

Vincent van Gogh: Sternennacht, 1889, © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Erworben durch: Lillie P. Bliss Bequest
Georges-Pierre Seurat: The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, 1890
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William M. Burden


The young museum's inaugural exhibition already proved to be an immense success: 47,000 visitors came to see the paintings of Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and van Gogh. On the show's last day alone, 5,300 people tried to enter the six rooms of the rented apartment in the Heckscher Building.(exhibition view here) An American institution to the core, MoMA's roots trace back to the avant-garde art movements of Europe. As divergent as the influences on its history may seem, they embodied the intellectual and social upheavals of Modernism that left their mark on the young museum's budding program. Dedicated both to the educational ideals of the American upper class and the social utopias of the Bauhaus, the founding of the Museum of Modern Art marks an unparalleled cultural awakening that not only changed the way in which modern art was perceived, but also that of the entire 20th century.



Recommended reading : Sybil Gordon Kantor, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art , MIT Press, Boston und London, 2002


Translation: Andrea Scrima

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