The First 50 Years
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The First 50 Years: A National Historical Publications and Records Grant–Funded Project
On June 9, 2009, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) approved $140,400 over two years to arrange, describe, digitize, and make accessible five archives collections that address the administrative and exhibition history of the first 50 years of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim Museum is an internationally renowned art museum that has played a significant role in the history of art and cultural life in the United States since 1937, yet the history of its founding and subsequent missions, as well as the influence of its first directors, have not been fully examined. This project will document the curatorial direction of the museum’s first three directors—Hilla Rebay, James Johnson Sweeney, and Thomas M. Messer—and illustrate the museum’s scholarly and curatorial contributions to the development of modern and contemporary art through its complete exhibition history from 1939 to 1987 and its Reel to Reel audio collection of lectures and symposia from 1952 to 1990. The collections, comprising 469.1 cubic feet, are: Hilla Rebay records (1939–52); James Johnson Sweeney records (1952–60); Thomas M. Messer records (1961–87); Exhibition records (1939–87); and Reel to Reel collection (1952–90).
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was established in 1937 as an institution dedicated to the promotion of nonobjective art as well as to the development, presentation, and preservation of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s personal art collection. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in 1939, to promote the ideals of nonobjective art, present exhibitions from the collection, and interpret them for the general public. Twenty years later, the Guggenheim Foundation opened a new, permanent building designed by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright to house and display Solomon’s collection. Today, the mission of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, and other manifestations of modern and contemporary visual culture; to collect, preserve, and research art objects; and to make them accessible to scholars and an increasingly diverse audience through its network of museums, programs, and educational initiatives.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives was formally established in 1973 to acquire, preserve, disseminate, and provide access to all historical documentation of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the individuals who helped shape the institution’s unique and important role in New York City and the art-historical community. Through its collections, the Archives documents the development of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s private collection, the activities of the Foundation, and the history of the museum from its inception in 1939 as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting to its present incarnation as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The five archives collections that will be processed through this project will focus on materials that provide unique insight into how the Guggenheim Foundation and its museum in New York evolved throughout the first 50 years of its history, setting it on the path to becoming the renowned organization that it is today. They will reveal details of the institution’s history, those who shaped it, and its impact on the twentieth century.
View the press release.
Final Report (PDF)
Hilla Rebay Records
The Hilla Rebay records, 1939–52, consist of 60 cubic feet of individual and institutional correspondence, exhibition, and collection-based photographs, lecture notes, research files, and ephemera, such as exhibition brochures and leaflets.
The materials in the Hilla Rebay records offer a wealth of untouched information regarding exhibition planning; documentation of the conception for and building of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Rebay’s conception of nonobjective painting; and theosophy, and the role of the artist in society. A large portion of the collection of correspondence between Rebay and artists, including Paul Klee, Norman McLaren, Hans Richter, and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others.
Topics that researchers who have visited the Archives are currently exploring include Rebay’s contributions to art historical discourse; early avant-garde filmmaking; the early history of electronic music; and the acquisition of one of the largest collections of Kandinsky paintings in the world; Rebay's role in the rescue of artists and their artwork from the Nazi regime; Rebay’s own political affiliations in the United States and status as a German woman during and post WWII in America; and the history of art in New York between the two world wars. The collection also documents Rebay’s contributions to patronage in America; her support of living artists through scholarship programs; ongoing critique of their work and employment; and Rebay’s involvement with and financial support of artists also supported by the Federal Arts Project such as Fernand Leger, Jean Xceron, Jackson Pollock, Rolph Scarlett, and Ilya Bolotowsky.
June 2011: View the complete finding aid.
James Johnson Sweeney Records
Out of the 39 cubic feet in the James Johnson Sweeney records, 1952–60, five cubic feet have been processed and a finding aid has been placed online. The materials remaining to be processed include additional correspondence between Sweeney, artists, and peer institutions; lender files; newspaper and magazine clippings; and materials related to the planning, construction, and opening of the Frank Lloyd Wright building.
While the James Johnson Sweeney records illustrate his work toward professionalizing the museum and expanding its collection policies, they also provide information on artists with whom he was in dialogue during his tenure at the museum. Sweeney’s correspondence includes communication with artists such as Alvar Aalto, Robert Motherwell, and Jules Olitsky, and gallery owners such as Sidney Janis and Betty Parsons, whose New York City galleries focused on contemporary avant-garde work, including that of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others.
The collection documents the construction of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum building. Sweeney envisioned a much more conservative design than the one developed by Wright. The struggles between the two men over the design and construction of the building, as well as Wright’s struggle with New York’s building code and zoning ordinance are documented here. Also present is documentation of the public reception to the building’s unveiling and subsequent opening.
The collection has been referenced on topics ranging from the examination of conceptions of mysticism in shaping aesthetic and literary creativity during the mid-twentieth century, to the role of Donegal (the area in Ireland from which Sweeney’s family immigrated) in the development of modern art. Despite his thirty-year career in museums and educational institutions across the country and around the world, Sweeney’s contributions remain largely unexplored.
January 2011: View the completed finding aid.
Thomas M. Messer Records
The Thomas M. Messer records, 1961–87, consist of 130 cubic feet and include exhibition-related materials that supplement the exhibition records collection; annual general correspondence; lender files; documents relating to Messer’s outside teaching and writing; and records relating to Messer’s involvement with the American Association of Museums, the Association of Museum Directors, and the International Committee of the International Council of Museums for Museums and Collections of Modern Art. A finding aid for the processed portion of this collection is online.
The significance of the Thomas M. Messer records exists on many levels, but few scholars have yet to use his collection since it remains unprocessed. Messer maintained extensive correspondence with the artists he supported. In these letters, topics such as the artists’ work, theoretical ideas, popular culture, political issues, and museum ideology are addressed.
Documented in artists’ correspondence to Messer, contemporary artists in particular felt that the Guggenheim was their museum and that they had great input over the direction of its exhibition program.
While the focus of Messer’s tenure was, without doubt, a commitment to art and the artists who created it, he and the museum also supported the growth of the American art market, an important sector in New York’s economy. As a result of Messer’s length of tenure at the museum, his records document the broadest range of activities and their far-reaching influence.
February 2011: View the completed finding aid.
The exhibition records selected for this proposal cover all exhibition documentation from 1939 to 1987 and totals 246.1 cubic feet of records. The oldest exhibition records, encompassing years 1939 to 1951, contain information on Museum of Non-Objective Painting exhibitions, as well as those based on Solomon R. Guggenheim’s personal collection. These early exhibitions traveled throughout the United States and Europe and their files contain materials such as detailed checklists, information on individual works of art, and photographs of installation views. The later files document exhibitions held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 1951 to 1987, incorporating materials from curatorial, registrar, public relations departments, exhibition planning, administrative staff, and lenders. A small section of these materials, 17.5 cubic feet, has been processed and placed as a finding aid online and provides an illustration of the various materials available for each exhibition.
The exhibition records are currently the Archives’ most called-upon resource. Other organizations, national and international scholars, and researchers and foundations preparing artists’ catalogue raisonnés need access to the exhibition records on a regular basis. Researchers use contents of the exhibition records to verify the inclusion of specific works present in an exhibition, to determine exhibition run dates, and to identify the curator of a specific exhibition. Access to an artwork’s exhibition history can provide insight into the provenance of an artwork, including its history and value. Exhibition history also documents public and institutional reception to specific artists and artwork. Also of interest in the exhibition records are exhibition proposals, information on the creation of the publication accompanying the exhibition, and artist correspondence.
While the exhibition records document the history of the museum’s exhibitions, they also detail the history of its curators as their records are included in this collection. This is significant since the curators who created the exhibitions are often as important as the exhibitions themselves. The records of Lawrence Alloway, H. Harvard Arnason, Margrit Rowell, Diane Waldman, Angelica Rudenstine, and Linda Shearer, among others are all present. While these curators spent differing amounts of time at the museum, their contribution to the museum’s exhibition program had monumental impact both on the institution and on the development of 20th-century art. Upon leaving the Guggenheim Museum, many of these curators assumed new positions as curators, educators, museum directors, and writers at institutions across the country (Alloway became a writer for The Nation and ArtForum; Arnason wrote the seminal History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture; and Shearer served as the Director of the Williams College Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, in Cincinnati and is now the Interim Director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston). In this way, this collection not only provides documentation of the emergence for many twentieth-century artists and movements but also the foundation for the emergence of art education and other institutions across the nation.
June 2011: View the complete finding aid.
Reel to Reel Collection
The Reel to Reel collection is 21 cubic feet and consists of 675 reel to reel audiotapes documenting museum lectures, symposia, and radio shows from 1952–90. While the collection is completely processed and the finding aid is available online, it remains inaccessible due to the condition of the audiotapes.
The museum’s lectures, many which were originally conceived in connection with exhibitions held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum or related to works held by the museum, were given by Guggenheim directors and curatorial staff, art critics, historians, dealers, and artists. The lectures range from highly academic to those geared toward a popular audience and represent the ideas and voices of the most influential and recognized members of the art and art historical communities. Examples of lectures include distinguished speakers from the academic community (Clement Greenberg, Robert Rosenblum, Lucy Lippard, Sir Ernst Gombrich, Rosalind Krauss, Leo Steinberg, and Michael Fried), practicing visual artists (Joseph Beuys, Robert Motherwell, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Richard Serra ), and Guggenheim directors and curatorial staff.
While the historical and cultural importance of the individual lecture speakers is indisputable, the content reflected in each of the lectures is of equal import. Included in the collection is the lecture “American Painting: After Pop Art” from 1963, presented by Modernist art critic Clement Greenberg (1909–1994). Although Greenberg never published an essay on Pop art, a transcription of a lecture in 1962 expressing his disdain for Pop art was posthumously published in an October 2004 issue of ArtForum. When digitized, the 1963 lecture Greenberg delivered at the Guggenheim will be another commentary of Greenberg’s on Pop art. Likewise, included within this collection are several audiotapes that document the museum’s interest in cross-disciplinary issues and conversations across knowledge systems. In 1969 a lecture was given by B.F. Skinner, a pioneering American psychologist, on “Creating the Creative Artist.” Other past speakers include Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James Michener speaking in 1963 on abstract images, and poets including former Poet Laureate Louise Gluck in 1967.
February 2011: View the completed finding aid.
Listen to audio clips from the collection.
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