Halpert, Edith Gregor (c. 1900–1970)

views updated

Halpert, Edith Gregor (c. 1900–1970)

Russian-American art collector and dealer who introduced contemporary American art and American folk art to the realm of commercial galleries. Born on April 25, around 1900, in Odessa, Russia; died on October 6, 1970, in New York City; daughter of Gregor and Frances (Lucom) Fivoosiovitch; married Samuel Halpert, in 1918 (divorced 1930); married Raymond Davis, in 1939 (divorced).

Edith Gregor Halpert was born around 1900 in Odessa, Russia, but moved to America with her widowed mother and older sister in 1906. They settled in New York, where Edith attended Wadleigh High School in Manhattan. She enrolled in the National Academy of Design when she was only 14 by convincing the instructors that she was 16. Sometime between 1914 and 1918, Edith stumbled upon modern art for the first time at the galleries of Alfred Stieglitz and Newman Montross. Although discouraged from studying modernism by the instructors at the academy, she developed a strong attraction to the style.

While at the academy, Edith met Samuel Halpert, and they were married in 1918. Edith did not pursue a career in art after her marriage, feeling that one artist in the family was enough. In 1917, she began work in the advertising department of Stern Brothers department store. By 1918, she had moved into a management position with the firm of Cohen Goldman where she worked as an efficiency expert. Halpert remained with Goldman until 1920 when S.W. Straus & Co. hired her as a personnel manager. She eventually became a member of the board, earning $6,000 a year plus bonuses. With this unheard-of salary, she was able to turn her attention back to her first love: art.

In 1925, Halpert moved to France to reorganize the Galeries Lilloises, a department store in Lille. There she observed the vast difference between the freedoms and appreciation given French artists by their public and that of American artists. Upon her return to the States, Halpert was determined to open a gallery that would give modern American artists a much-needed outlet. Though she fought an uphill battle against public opinion, Halpert proceeded with her plans and, on November 6, 1926, opened the Downtown Gallery of Contemporary Art in Greenwich Village. The first gallery of its type, the Downtown featured artists who were otherwise ignored by most dealers. Among those she showcased were Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, John Marin, Ben Shahn, Charles Sheeler, Niles Spencer, Max Weber and William Zorach.

During the 1920s, Halpert spent time at the Perkins Cove art colony in Ogunquit, Maine, where she was introduced to American folk art. A shrewd businesswoman, she realized that there would be a market for the furniture, portraits, and various other artifacts that currently resided in the barns, attics and cellars of America. With Holger Cahill, the future director of the Federal Arts Project, she began to collect these forgotten pieces of Americana and introduced American folk art to the Downtown Gallery. She was likewise instrumental in collecting artifacts for other exhibits and collections. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller approached her for assistance in assembling the collection of American artifacts instilled in Williamsburg in 1940. Halpert also assisted Electra Havemeyer Webb in gathering works of American art for the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

Taking her artistic insight a step further, Halpert introduced the concept of municipal art exhibits to many of America's larger cities. She organized the first municipal art exhibit in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1929, and in 1934 she convinced New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to endorse a municipal exhibition at the Rockefeller Center. She also worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to promote shows by project artists.

Halpert's desire to erase the color boundaries in the artistic community resulted in the Downtown Gallery being the first commercial gallery in the United States to present an exhibition of black artists. La Guardia and Eleanor Roosevelt were among the show's sponsors. In 1952, Halpert took another innovative step when she established the Edith Gregor Halpert Foundation. The organization lobbied for the rights of the artists to control their own work and published a code of relations between museums and living artists. The foundation also endowed universities with paintings they could sell to raise money for scholarships for art students.

A tireless worker for her cause, Halpert was honored in 1959 with the curatorship of the Moscow-bound National Art Exhibition, a show of American artists from Thomas Hart Benton to Marca-Relli, sponsored by the State Department. The show was extremely successful, and during its run Halpert often delivered lectures in Russian.

Edith Halpert's first marriage ended in divorce in 1930 after a long separation. She married for a second time in 1939, but that union was also terminated a short time later. In the late 1960s, her health began to fail, and she had difficulty promoting her artists, resulting in some deserting for other galleries. Halpert died on October 6, 1970 of cancer at New York Hospital. Her art collection was auctioned at a value of $3 million.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland