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Museum of Modern Art -- A History

MoMA's success story began during the Golden Twenties in Berlin. Inspired by the city's arts scene, the museum's founding director came up with a new concept for exhibiting art.

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Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMA's founding director

Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie , the New National Gallery , has more to thank than its good relationship with the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) for being given the honor of hosting the first foreign exhibition of a MoMA collection. MoMA’s mid-town Manhattan home is currently being renovated and rebuilt. A branch -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Queens (MoMA QNS) -- located in the New York borough of Queens is carrying on the work of bringing art to the public and administrating acquisitions and exhibitions.

Part of the renowned collection has been sent off on tour, including 200 works that can be seen at the Neue Nationalgalerie starting on February 20th. MoMA itself is due to reopen at its address on 53rd Street in Manhattan in 2005. The new exhibition space will be twice as large as before. The architect commissioned with the project is Yoshio Taniguchi of Japan.

MoMA is perhaps the world’s most renowned museum for modern art. But the days when MoMA had the reputation of being the most progressive and innovative museum are over. One man, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., left his imprint on the museum as no other has since. Barr was truly an adventurer and an explorer when, 75 years ago, he conceived a concept for collecting and exhibiting modern art.

Three passionate and wealthy art collectors, Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan and Abby Rockefeller, recognized the visionary potential of Barr, then a young Harvard graduate, and commissioned him to collect art. By establishing MoMA, the three women aimed to create a wider understanding of modern art and to challenge the conservative Metropolitan Museum of Art with an institution that was oriented towards the future.

Bauhaus and National Gallery as Role Models

As the 1920s came to a close, Barr travelled to Europe a number of times in order to gain inspiration. In the U.S. at that time, there was little information available about contemporary European art. What Barr found in Germany in particular would provide a cornerstone of the MoMA concept. It came in the shape of the Bauhaus, an interdisciplinary movement involving all the arts that influenced the modern period like no other. In addition, Barr was enthused by a new department that had been opened at the German Nationalgalerie. At the Gallery for Contemporary Art in the Kronprinzenpalais , Nationalgalerie Director Ludwig Justi had devoted space exclusively to contemporary artists.

Since MoMA was founded in 1929, Barr has been known as the father of a new type of museum because he aimed to present modern art in a format and type of collection as innovative as the works themselves. Film, photography, design and architecture were placed on an equal footing with painting, sculpture and drawing. Barr developed pioneering exhibition formats and art catalogues that would become fundamental models for publications on art in English. He was dedicated to the task of acquainting the public with modern art, which at the time was no simple endeavor.MoMA’s maiden exhibition was devoted to the artists who paved the way for the modern era – Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. Their works formed the core of a collection that has grown to become the world’s largest assemblage of modern painting. Among the works it includes are the most significant paintings of European masters such as Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp and Giacometti. Works by Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko -- the first Americans to develop their own unique style and become the masters of American abstract expressionism -- also belong to the collection, as do paintings by major contemporary artists like Richard Artschwager and Gerhard Richter.

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  • Author Stefanie Zobl
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  • Author Stefanie Zobl
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