Since its inception in 1929, The Museum of Modern Art has adopted a radical approach to representing the art of our time. Not content with presenting only the traditional visual arts of painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking, the Museum in its early years was the first to establish departments devoted to architecture and design, film, and photography, all of which exist to this day. Its broad reach also extended to the world of dance and theater.
In 1939 the Museum accepted the donation of a mass of material compiled by Lincoln Kirstein, a member of the Museum's Advisory Committee and the future founder of the New York City Ballet. The Dance Archives—comprising unique items and prints, photographs, slides, films, and books—was established as a part of the Museum Library to provide a specialized research collection for the study of dance. Paul Magriel was the Dance Archives' first librarian, and in 1942 George Amberg took over the position.
In 1944 the Dance Archives was promoted to the status of a curatorial department and renamed the Department of Dance and Theatre Design, with Amberg as its curator. The department was responsible for acquiring works of art relating to the stage (for both the Museum collection and the study collection), updating and expanding research materials, and organizing frequent exhibitions at the Museum and those administered by the Department of Circulating Exhibitions. During the mid- to late 1940s, there was lively internal debate over the naming of the department—ultimately renamed the Department of Theatre Arts—and its function, mission, and role within the institution. In 1946 the Museum transferred its historical dance documentation—that which fell outside the contemporary focus of the collection (about 250 books)—to Harvard University.
In 1948 the Department of Theatre Arts was officially dissolved, its research holdings sent to the Library and works of art transferred to the care of other Museum curators. Though the Museum issued a statement indicating that the department was disbanded due to the institution's rising operating costs, Amberg, probably rightly, understood the underlying cause to be the lack of a clear realization of its function within the Museum's structure. Despite its tenuous place in the institution, the department did, in its brief existence, succeed in building the Museum's collection of visual art relating to the performing arts and in further expanding the notion of modern art. In 1956, the Museum transferred the Dance Archives' original research materials to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The exhibition is organized by Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist.
All items in this exhibition are from The Museum of Modern Art Archives.
FOUNDATION OF THE DANCE ARCHIVES
||Left: The Museum of Modern Art, October 1929 [Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers, 9a.1A.]
This copy of the first brochure produced by the Museum was retrospectively annotated by founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to list the departments of "other phases of modern art" that were subsequently formed at the museum. The Department of Theatre and Dance is listed at the bottom.
Letter Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to A. Conger Goodyear, October 7, 1937
Proposal "A Department of Theatrical Arts and Technics," n.d. [AHB, 1.27]
In this letter Barr writes to Goodyear, the first president of the Museum, requesting that MoMA consider Lincoln Kirstein's enclosed proposal to develop a department of theater arts.
Letter Lincoln Kirstein to Barr, April 27, 1939 [AHB, 1.27]
Kirstein describes his archive of dance materials, proposes hiring Paul Magriel as librarian, and suggests that the Museum take the collection on loan for two years before determining its final disposition.
Excerpt Board of Trustee minutes, n.d. [AHB 1.27]
The minutes summarize Kirstein's offer to the Museum of his dance archives, which consists of books and unique research materials, including prints, photographs, slides, films, and printed programs. They also clarify that the Dance Archives will not constitute a full-fledged curatorial department, as previously proposed by Kirstein.
|Clippings "The Dance: New Archives: Museum of Modern Art Acquires Kirstein Collection—Events of the Week," New York Times, March 10, 1940, and "American Dance Archives Born," Dance Magazine, March 1940 [Dance Archives, II.20]
Letter (copy) John E. Abbott to Kirstein, October 9, 1939 [AHB 1.27]
In this letter Abbott, the Museum's executive vice-president, acknowledges receipt of Kirstein's dance archives, stating that it will be housed in the Museum Library and outlining the terms of the deposit.
||Photograph Paul Magriel, Librarian of the Dance Archives, in the Archives offices, n.d. [William S. Lieberman Papers, IV.2]
The Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art 8, no. 3 (February–March 1941): pp. 2–3.
ACTIVITIES OF THE DANCE ARCHIVES: ACQUISITIONS AND EXHIBITIONS
Letter Paul Magriel to Lincoln Kirstein, May 9, 1940 [DA, I.14]
Press release n.d. [DA, II.20]
|Photographs October 22, 1940 [PA EX111]
These documents relate to the acquisition of the Albert Davis Collection and the donation of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn's collection of dance memorabilia to the Museum. The photographs depict a tea and reception celebrating the gift. Pictured are Martha Graham, La Argentinita ("leading Spanish Dancer"), and Alexandra Danilova ("star of Ballet Russe"); Ragini Devi ("Hindu dancer") and Si-Lan-Chen ("Chinese dancer"); and Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, and John Abbott.
Lists of acquisitions n.d. [DA, I.14 and DA, I.1]
Letter Kirstein to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., November 16, 1942 [AHB 1.27]
Kirstein asks Barr about the fate of the Dance Archives. He believes that the portion consisting of art objects, scene designs, and sculpted portraits from 1900 to the present should be retained by the Museum, as it falls within the scope of its activity. The remainder, including artworks and other unique material from an earlier period, may be disposed of, though Kirstein hopes that portion will be retained as a single unit.
||Photographs Exhibitions organized by the Dance Archives [WSL, IV.2]
The photographs show Ballet History, Art and Practice (the first exhibition of the Dance Archives), March and April, 1940; Isadora Duncan: Drawings, Photographs, Memorabilia, October 21, 1941, to January 10, 1942; and Dancers in Movement: Photographs by Gjon Mili, January 13 to April 9, 1942.
FOUNDATION OF THE THEATER DEPARTMENT AND QUEST FOR IDENTITY
Typescript "Department of Dance and Theater Design," n.d. [DA I.6]
This names the new department and discusses its forebears in the Dance Archives. Beginning in 1944 it is elevated to a full curatorial department at the Museum.
Art in Progress, The Museum of Modern Art, 1944, pp. 164–65
||Memoranda George Amberg to Monroe Wheeler, June 29, 1946, and August 1, 1946 [DA I.11]
||Memorandum James Thrall Soby to James Johnson Sweeney, October 8, 1946 [AHB 1.201]
In his memo, Amberg, curator of the department, inquires about the lively and complicated debate over its name. Originally called the Department of Dance and Theatre Design, the department was ultimately renamed the Department of Theatre Arts. Soby, a Museum trustee, discusses the nomenclature of the program with Sweeney, Director of Painting and Sculpture.
Typescript "Department of Theatre Arts," n.d. [DA I.12]
The author of this report notes that the Department of Theatre Arts is the first curatorial department of its kind in any museum.
Memorandum Amberg to Sweeney, August 1, 1946 [AHB 1.201]
Amberg reports to Sweeney the decisions undertaken to classify the artworks acquired by his division as the Theater Collection—some of which would be of the same caliber as objects in the Museum's collection and others, less valuable or important, would be designated for study purposes.
Typescript "Dance and Theater Collection of The Museum of Modern Art," April 4, 1947 [DA I.16]
Memoranda Amberg to René d'Harnoncourt, December 3, 1947, and January 9, 1947 [DA I.7]
In the final year of his employ, Amberg attempts to justify the purpose and achievement of the Department of Theatre Arts to d'Harnoncourt, the Museum's director, arguing that "in the overall presentation of contemporary arts within the Museum, [it] proves the capacity to function on the same level of significance and achievement as the Museum's other departments." However, the department was disbanded shortly thereafter—its artworks transferred to the Museum's collection and books and research materials transferred to the Museum Library.
A spring 1948 press release attributes the closure to "problems, faced today by many cultural institutions, arising from increased operating costs." However, the real cause was likely that expressed by Amberg in the memorandum of January 9, 1947: "It is fairly evident that the Department has suffered not so much from lack of funds or adequate staff as from lack of a clear realization of its function within the Museum structure."
THEATER DEPARTMENT EXHIBITIONS
Photographs Art in Progress: 15th Anniversary Exhibition: Dance and Theatre Design, May 24–September 17, 1944 [Photographic Archive IN258]
||Letter George Amberg to Alexander Calder, April 12, 1944 [DA II.21.a]
Letter Salvador Dalí to Amberg, n.d. [DA II.21.a]
The letters reveal Amberg's request that the artists create figurines or costumes for miniature mannequins to be included in an exhibition celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the Museum. Dalí submitted a photograph and note explaining that a sail maker could fabricate the costume. In the end Calder, Marc Chagall, Dalí, Fernand Léger, Xanti Schawinsky, and Kurt Seligmann contributed to the exhibition.
Flyer "Art In Progress," Summer 1944 [Registrar Exh. #258]
Facsimile of display panel From Sketch to Stage, n.d. [WSL IV.5.a]
Checklist From Sketch to Stage, 1945–46 [CE II.1.62.1]
The exhibition From Sketch to Stage was never hosted at the Museum, but it circulated to more than twenty venues around the country between 1945 and 1947. Consisting of display panels, it visually told the story of the creation of four theatrical productions.
|Photographs Marc Chagall, April 9–June 23, 1946 [DA II.27]
||Letter Marc Chagall to Amberg, March 24, 1946 [DA II.27]
The artist delightedly accepted Amberg's offer to mount an exhibition focusing exclusively on his theater design, drawn from his retrospective of the same year. However, this proposed traveling exhibition never came to fruition.
List of works Marc Chagall, April 9–June 23, 1946, n.d. [DA II.27]
THEATRE DEPARTMENT EXHIBITIONS AND OTHER ACTIVITIES
Photographs The Theatre of Eugene Berman, January 21–March 9, 1947 [DA II.30.a]
Report James Johnson Sweeney, June 28, 1944 [James Johnson Sweeney Papers, I.8]
In this report Sweeney states that wartime programming should start drawing to a close.
||Exhibition catalogue The Theatre of Eugene Berman (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1947) [DA II.30.a]
Memorandum George Amberg to Sarah Newmeyer, January 2, 1947 [DA I.15]
In this memo Amberg provides publicity director Newmeyer with background information about the artist Eugene Berman and the upcoming exhibition of his theater design at the Museum.
Itinerary World of Illusion: Elements of Stage Design, n.d. [CE II.1.121.7]
|Photographs World of Illusion: Elements of Stage Design, October 14, 1947–January 4, 1948 [PA IN360 and DA II.32]
Press release n.d. [CE II.1.121.7]
Clipping "‘Evening on American Dance': An Organization is Proposed," Herald Tribune, January 11, 1948 [DA I.2]
||Flyer "An Evening on American Dance," c. January 1948 [DA I.2]
The Department of Theatre Arts continued the work of its progenitor, the Dance Archives, through advocacy and special events. Amberg was an active member of the Continuations Committee of the American Dance Committee of the World Youth Festival, whose mission was to promote American dance both at home and abroad. The Museum department and this external committee cosponsored An Evening on American Dance at the Museum.
Dance Index 4, no. 5 (May 1945) [DA III.41]
Notice "Theatrical and Social Dancing in Film," n.d. [DA III.41]
Working in conjunction with the Museum's Film Library, Amberg compiled a catalogue of dance film titles, resulting in the publication of an issue of Dance Index devoted to the topic.
I would like to thank the entire staff of the MoMA Archives, without whom this exhibition and many other programs would not have occurred. In particular, I would like to thank our intern, Verena Johannsmann, for her dedication to this project. I also appreciate the generous support of Milan Hughston and Wendy Woon. Many people at the Museum contributed to this effort, and I am indebted to Sara Bodinson in Education; Allegra Burnette, Chiara Bernasconi, and intern Kaitlin Bergner in Digital Media; Thomas Grischkowsky in Archives; Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman in the Department of Drawings; Rebecca Roberts in Publications; and Jill Weidman in Graphics.