Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, declared at the 1955 American Federation of Arts convention that American art museums were in an "age of innocence" until after 1925. Rich was referring to the lack of professionalism and concrete philosophies in the country's art museums, which had tended simply to follow European models. The American Federation of Arts, founded in 1909 by Elihu Root, had dedicated itself to developing American art, but the European nature of American art collections was reinforced when tariff laws eliminated duties on art entering the country, thus stimulating the growth of public and private collections that contributed to museum collections. During this time, American art museums purchased most of their acquisitions using tax deductible donations.
In 1920, the United States had only a few art museums that were comparable to Europe's best. The directors were generally retired artists, professors, or museum corporate officers who operated on the basis of personal dynamism or the whims of benefactors, and applied little scholarship to their work. At the time, the American arts establishment of dealers, collectors, and museums considered impressionist artists skeptically, post-impressionists out of the question, and American works second-rate. Old concepts of the fine arts and the "casual age" of museum keeping began to end when Paul J. Sachs of Harvard's Fogg Museum developed a course in museum management that he taught from 1916 to 1955, thereby creating professional museology and a new generation of strong American directors and curators intent on renovating art institutions and collections.
The photographer Alfred Stieglitz helped gain acceptance for modern art and photography through his New York galleries from 1908 to 1946. The famous 1913 Armory Show in New York, Boston, and Chicago, recognized over three hundred artists, most of them American and many whom the art establishment had rejected. About this time, the Art Institute of Chicago began to expand its holdings with works by European modernists and previously neglected American artists. A. E. "Chick" Austin curated the first group show of surrealist art in the United States at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1932.
Sachs worked with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lizzie P. Bliss, and Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan to charter the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1929. MoMA's President A. Conger Goodyear and Director Alfred H. Barr recruited members from other cities to foster interest in contemporary visual and industrial arts with traveling exhibitions beginning in 1932. Other independent arts organizations evolved, including the Boston Museum of Modern Art (now called the Institute of Contemporary Art) in 1936, the Museum of Modern Art Gallery of Washington in 1937, and the Modern Art Society in Cincinnati (later called the Contemporary Art Center) in 1939. At first, most of these were modeled on the Kunsthalle, mounting temporary exhibitions, rather than building permanent collections.
New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art opened in 1930 with Juliana Force as director of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's collection of approximately six hundred works. The Whitney Museum's mission was "gaining for the art of this country the prestige which heretofore the public has devoted too exclusively to the art of foreign countries and of the past." The Whitney began an annual show of contemporary art in 1932. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in New York in 1939, followed in 1942 by Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, which featured modern art rescued from Europe on the eve of World War II.
Roosevelt created the Public Works of Art Project in 1933 to pay weekly wages to more than four thousand artists, who produced some fifteen thousand works that same year. The Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, established in 1934, took over public projects; it was renamed the Section of Fine Arts in 1938 and the Public Buildings Administration in 1939. Harry Hopkins's Works Progress Administration (WPA) organized the Federal Art Project, headed by Holger Cahill, which commissioned artists to bring art out of the museum by creating murals, reliefs, and other works in railway terminals, airports, post offices, and schools. The Federal Art Project's goals included educating art students, expanding programs beyond cities, and researching America's cultural heritage. The WPA also helped expand and maintain museums around the country.
During the 1930s, efforts in the development of art museums were led by philanthropists, professional museologists, and the federal government; these projects paralleled the preservation of old historic houses and public places for living history museums. Americans discovered and learned to value their country's culture and history as never before during the Depression.
Lynes, Russell. Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art. 1973.
O'Conner, Francis V. Federal Art Patronage, 1933–1943. 1966.
Pach, Walter. The Art Museum in America. 1948.
Blanche M. G. Linden