BY Sam Thorne in Profiles | 06 JAN 17
Featured in
Issue 184

The Making of a Museum

Recently released online, MoMA’s vast exhibitions archive shakes up the modernist canon

BY Sam Thorne in Profiles | 06 JAN 17

New York’s Museum of Modern Art recently, and quietly, unleashed a deluge of images: 33,000 installation shots, spanning every exhibition organized by the institution since it opened in 1929. Freely available on MoMA’s website, this must be the most expansive digital account of any museum’s exhibition history currently available. But these mostly black and white photographs – did MoMA really not switch to colour until the 2000s? – are only one part of the story. They are flanked by thousands of out-of-print catalogues, typewritten artist lists and press releases. This amounts to a compendious autobiography by, what Martha Rosler called, the Kremlin of 20th-century modernism: the place where some of the most powerful myths of western art took form.

But spend a little time raiding the archive and some of the familiar tales begin to lose focus. Stories of ineluctable progress and canons get shaken up. What emerges is sometimes odd and frequently surprising, especially in the museum’s early decades, when MoMA’s exhibitions were at their most unpredictable. Given that its collection started life with less than a dozen works on paper, and that there was no permanent collection display for the first 25 years, this was necessarily the case. In lieu of significant holdings, the nascent museum leaned heavily on reproductions and posters. The 1930s saw a string of exhibitions presenting colour reproductions of works by artists from Paul Cézanne to Diego Rivera, but also pioneering shows of real-deal paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso (the latter is a talismanic presence, included in something like an eighth of the museum’s 3,500-odd exhibitions to date). Early on, there was also an inquisitive probing of folk art, anonymous makers and ‘modern primitives’. With plainspoken egalitarianism, the design exhibitions attempted to create and educate new consumers: see, for example the 1938 exhibition ‘Useful Household Objects Under $5’. Three years later, inflation must have struck, as the sequel was titled ‘Under $10’.

Many mid-century projects extended beyond the gallery walls, including the Art Lending Service, which proffered artworks for rent or purchase. (You could borrow a Georges Braque for $12 a month!) Conceived by the energetic Victor D’Amico, who founded MoMA’s Department of Education, from the mid-1930s there were dozens of exhibitions with titles such as ‘Chinese Children’s War Pictures’ (1944) and the annual ‘Children’s Holiday Circus of Modern Art’, which toured to India. (As founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. wrote to his trustees at the time: ‘If the product is good its duplication and distribution can be endless.’) There’s a flavour of try-anything whimsicality to these pedagogical enterprises: the Children’s Art Caravan, for instance, conceived as roaming from inner-city slums to distant villages, or well-kept secret the Art Barge, a decommissioned naval vessel that remains moored off Long Island to this day.

Oddities are punctuated by flashes of familiarity, moments from decades ago that feel close to our current time. These days, criticisms of museums’ cosiness with celebrity and the entertainment industry are familiar, but, as early as 1968, MoMA organized an exhibition of film stills featuring Greta Garbo; even before that, there was ‘Bambi: The Making of an Animated Sound Picture’ (1942). While youth may not yet have been so precisely branded – à la ‘Younger Than Jesus’ at the New Museum, New York, in 2009 – there was still an occasional cleaving to the generational, with shows like ‘46 Painters and Sculptors Under 35 Years of Age’ (1930). And, in 1956, MoMA presented an exhibition about graffiti in Paris, more than 50 years before LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art was widely panned for curating a street art show.

There is also, of course, the roll-call of exhibitions whose shadows remain long: the op art survey ‘The Responsive Eye’ (1965); K.G. Pontus Hultén’s 1968 ‘The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age’ (its metal-bound catalogue is a treat); Kynaston McShine’s conceptual art exhibition, ‘Information’ (1970), along with dozens of others. But these mingle with the less well-remembered. I was happy to stumble across the misleadingly titled ‘One-Eyed Dicks’ (1970), a short film of photos taken by automatic cameras triggered during bank robberies. Other titles are wonderfully oblique. It would be difficult to imagine sneaking ‘Always the Young Strangers’ (1953) past a marketing department today or, for that matter, Edward Steichen’s series of photography shows ‘Diogenes with a Camera’ (1952–61). But pity the curator who, scratching their head for inspiration, finally made do with ‘Five Unrelated Photographers’ (1963). The muse does not always strike.

More than several shows in this archive explore the margins of the visible. I love the melancholy accent of a 1969 exhibition that simply comprised stills from early films that had disintegrated or been lost. Elsewhere, one 1966 project sought to bring together ‘wondrous and beautiful images’ whose realization was contingent on the photographic medium. In a sense, this feels like the guiding impulse for MoMA’s mammoth undertaking. The exhibition’s title? ‘Once Invisible’. 

Lead image: 'Children's Holiday Circus of Modern Art', MoMA, New York, 1945-46. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.