Friday, March 24, 2017

The three women who created the MOMA (I had no idea?!?!?)

Abby Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan: the major force behind the creation of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

The Museum of Modern Art owes a large share of its success to women. The Museum was the idea and creation of three women, and from those founders of 1929 to the associate director and president of the Museum today, women have been instrumental in the development of the institution's mission, program, and collection. This essay highlights a few of the innumerable contributions they have made to the Museum over its more than eighty-year history—as curators, administrators, scholars, artists, patrons, and activists. While meant to be informative, it is partial and by no means comprehensive. Organized alphabetically, it presents a selection of brief biographical and historical notes, with an emphasis on the Museum's early years. The goal is to highlight significant achievements and innovations by women, often linked with the establishment of programs that MoMA and many other museums now take for granted. —Michelle Elligott, Archivist


With her contacts, her knowledge of art, and her family's vast wealth, Rockefeller was able to offer the critical financial backing necessary to create a new museum, and in 1929 she, Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan founded The Museum of Modern Art.

When a purchase fund she had established was used to acquire Picasso's etching Minotauromachy (1935), she suggested, "Let's label this: purchased with a fund for prints which Mrs. Rockefeller doesn't like."2 After her death, in 1948, Barr wrote to Nelson, "Few realize what positive acts of courage her interest in modern art required. . . . She was the heart of the Museum and its center of gravity."3

the Lillie Bliss collection, MOMA

Bliss herself died on March 12, 1931, when the Museum was not yet two years old. At that time she owned twenty-six works by Paul Cézanne, including The Bather (c. 1885), in what was considered one of the most discerning privately held groups of Cézannes in the United States, as well as works by Honoré Daumier, Davies, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Odilon Redon, Pierre-August Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Georges Seurat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Her collection was valued at nearly $1.14 million and, in a complete surprise to staff and trustees at the Museum, including Rockefeller and director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., it was revealed after her death that she had bequeathed the largest and most important part of it to MoMA.2

If the male members of Paul Sachs' art network can be called "old boys," then Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) and her friends Lillie P. Bliss (1864-1931) and Mary Sullivan were the "old girls" with extremely progressive views - members of New York's moneyed aristocracy, ambitious, socially committed women who recognized that a gap had crept into in the American museum landscape due to the absence of European Modernism in the institutions.      

In 1917 she married Cornelius Sullivan, an attorney and collector of rare books and paintings. Mary Quinn Sullivan herself began collecting art. Works by Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rouault, and Picasso formed the beginnings of her collection.                                

Doing the research for these posts in honor of National Women's History month blog has introduced me to more amazing and noteworthy women as well as other sites and blogs that celebrate the feminine. Today I discovered this blog and wish to share:

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