Elements and Unknowns

The Museum of Modern Art opened its doors to the public on November 8, 1929, just ten days after the Black Tuesday stock market crash. The times were uncertain, and the Museum’s seven founding trustees were not sure how the new institution—the first in New York dedicated to exhibiting and collecting the work of contemporary artists—would be received. They quickly discovered a public eager to engage with the Museum and with the art of its time. Ten years later, on the occasion of the Museum’s anniversary, President Franklin D. Roosevelt underscored the institution’s founding goals: “As The Museum of Modern Art is a living museum, not a collection of curious and interesting objects, it can, therefore, become an integral part of our democratic institutions. . . . The Museum can enrich and invigorate our cultural life by bringing the best of modern art to all of the American people.”

Over the last eighty years, MoMA has become a world-renowned museum, hailed for its outstanding collection and innovative exhibition programming. This reputation has been built through a series of important “starts.” One of the first was founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s initial plan for the organization. Influenced partially by his 1927 trip to the multidisciplinary Bauhaus school in Germany, he envisioned a museum dedicated not just to painting and sculpture but to less-acknowledged contemporary art forms as well. As a result of his foresight, MoMA was the first museum to establish curatorial departments devoted to photography, architecture, design, and film.

As a “living museum,” MoMA constantly creates new programs to extend its reach—from international circulating exhibitions to art classes for children and adults to concerts in the sculpture garden. This exhibition celebrates the initiation of a range of MoMA’s distinctive offerings as well as some of the many milestones the organization has passed since its founding. Each of these individual “starts” has contributed to the Museum’s status as an innovative institution, and combined they have created a rich eighty-year legacy.

The exhibition is organized by Michelle Harvey, Associate Archivist.

All items are from the Museum Archives. The Archives was established in 1989 to collect, preserve, and make accessible documentation concerning the Museum’s history. This installation marks the twentieth anniversary of MoMA’s Archives program.

MoMA starts when three prominent women envision a museum devoted to contemporary art. The result is the first museum in New York dedicated to exhibiting and collecting modern art.

Photographs Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, n.d.; Lillie P. Bliss, c. 1924; and Mary Quinn Sullivan, n.d. [Photographic Archive]

MoMA starts under the leadership of founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., a twenty-seven-year-old professor at Wellesley College, recommended by Harvard professor and art historian Paul Sachs.

Photograph Alfred H. Barr, Jr., c. 1929–30 [PA]

Business card Barr, 1929 [Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Scrapbooks, 1.12]

MoMA starts with a radical plan to include departments devoted to artistic media beyond painting and sculpture. Barr mentions this vision—which was partially influenced by his 1927 trip to the multidisciplinary Bauhaus school in Germany—in the Museum’s first brochure. The inscription in his handwriting reads, “Contains 2 indirect references to multidepartmental plan—all I could get away with at the time.”

Brochure 1929 [Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers, 9a.1A]

MoMA starts in a rented six-room suite of galleries and offices on the twelfth floor of the Heckscher Building, at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street.

Postcard Heckscher Building, with The Plaza Hotel (right), 1923 [MoMA History: Heckscher Building File]

MoMA starts receiving public visitors on November 8, 1929, with the exhibition Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh.

Photograph Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, 1929 [PA]

Newspaper clipping “Shows Modern Art Here Tomorrow,” The New York Times, November 7, 1929 [Department of Public Information Records, II.A.2]

MoMA starts publishing books with a catalogue for the Museum’s first exhibition.

Exhibition catalogue Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1929) [AHB Books]

MoMA starts with great success: attendance totals 47,293 in the first month. (In the first year, more than 200,000 people visit the new museum.)

Attendance ledger November 1929–April 1936 [Early Museum Ledger Books]

MoMA starts building its collection with a gift from Paul Sachs of eight German prints and a drawing. In 1930 Stephen C. Clark gives the Museum House by the Railroad (1925) by Edward Hopper, its first painting.

Letters Barr and Sachs, recalling the Museum’s first acquisitions, May 1949 [AHB, 6.B.9]


Photograph Anna Peter (1926–27) by George Grosz, the Museum’s first drawing, 1960 [PA]

Color proof House by the Railroad, with Barr’s handwritten corrections, 1947 [AHB, 6.A.2.c.ii]

MoMA starts its Department of Architecture in 1932, the first such curatorial department at a museum. Modern Architecture: International Exhibition is the Museum’s first architecture show and the first to travel to other venues in the United States. (The Department of Circulating Exhibitions is formally established a year later, in 1933.)

Photograph Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, 1932 [PA]

Letter Olive W. Carpenter to Museum executive secretary Alan R. Blackburn, expressing her desire to see the exhibition at a venue near Athens, Ohio, October 31, 1932 [Department of Circulating Exhibitions Records, II.]

MoMA starts its first library in 1932, when the Museum moves from the Heckscher Building to a townhouse at 11 West Fifty-third Street leased from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. This affords the Museum much-needed space, and the Library is founded in a converted attic with two thousand volumes.

Photograph Townhouse, 11 West Fifty-third Street, 1937 [PA]

Photograph Library, 1932 [PA]

MoMA starts showing photographs as art in the exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers, 1932, curated by Lincoln Kirstein and Julien Levy.

Photograph Murals by American Painters and Photographers, 1932 [PA]

MoMA starts inviting artists to lecture at the Museum. Thomas Hart Benton is the first, speaking on December 15, 1932, in conjunction with the exhibition American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750–1900. Edna Thomas and Gale Huntington sing as part of the evening’s program.

Admission card and publication announcement American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750–1900, 1932 [AAR, 1.47]

MoMA starts exhibiting furniture and design objects in the 1933 show Objects: 1900 and Today. It is organized by Philip Johnson, who later said that it “went over like a lead balloon.”

Catalogue mockup Objects: 1900 and Today, 1933 [Registrar Exhibition Files, Exh. #27]

Photograph Lamps presented side by side in the exhibition (by Louis C. Tiffany, left, and Werkstaetten der Stadt Halle), 1933 [Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #27]

MoMA starts publishing The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art in 1933. Copies are sent to members.

The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 1, no. 1, June 1933 [Museum Archives]

MoMA starts its Film Library in 1935 to promote the enjoyment and study of film as an art form. It is first housed in the CBS building on Madison Avenue, and public screenings are held at the American Museum of Natural History and the Dalton School, in Manhattan.

Photograph Iris Barry and John E. Abbott, c. 1935 [PA]

MoMA starts its pilot Education Project in 1937, aimed at teaching art and art appreciation to high school students. Victor D’Amico directs the project.

Brochure Educational Project, c. 1940 [Archives Pamphlet File: Educational Project]

MoMA starts a formal docent program. Museum staff gave lectures to students and other groups as early as 1932, by appointment. Ruth Olson, hired in 1937, is the first lecturer to give gallery talks on a regular basis to members of the general public.

Photograph Gallery talk, c. 1937 [PA]

MoMA starts sending exhibitions abroad. Trois siècles d’art aux États-Unis (Three Centuries of American Art) is shown at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, in 1938. (The International Program, responsible for organizing and sending exhibitions to foreign venues, is established in 1952.)

Exhibition catalogue Trois siècles d’art aux États-Unis (Paris: Editions des musées nationaux, 1938) [AHB Books]

MoMA starts presenting programs in the first building designed for the Museum. The townhouse at 11 West Fifty-third Street is replaced in 1939 by an International Style building designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone. It includes the Museum’s first film auditorium, an outdoor sculpture garden, and a store in the lobby. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the new building in a radio address broadcast at the opening ceremony.

Photographs Goodwin-Stone building; auditorium; sculpture garden, 1939 [PA]

Letter Gerald Donovan, the Museum’s attorney, to MoMA executive director Thomas Mabry, concerning the Museum’s expanded store, February 17, 1937 [Early Museum History: Administrative Records, IV.38.b]

Sound recording President Roosevelt’s address at the opening of the Goodwin-Stone building [Sound Recordings of Museum-Related Events, 39.1]

Download MP3 file: President Roosevelt’s address. Part I

Download MP3 file: President Roosevelt’s address. Part II

MoMA starts the first-ever curatorial department devoted to photography. Beaumont Newhall is named Curator.

Newsletter “The New Department of Photography.” The Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art 8, no. 2, December–January, 1940–41 [REG, Exh. #121]

MoMA starts holding music concerts unrelated to its exhibition programming in 1941. Coffee Concerts present “music ordinarily heard only in night clubs and other music of a non-concert nature.”

Press release April 1941 [R&P, 22.5]

MoMA starts a series of exhibitions showcasing the work of contemporary American artists, organized by Dorothy C. Miller, half of which will circulate to other domestic venues. The Museum demonstrated interest in American artists from the beginning—its second exhibition, in 1929, was Paintings by 19 Living Americans.

Brochure Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States, The Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Florida, 1943 [DCM, I.3.d]

Photograph Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States, MoMA, 1942 [PA]

MoMA starts actively acquiring Latin American art in 1942, through the Inter-American Fund established by Nelson Rockefeller. Lincoln Kirstein travels throughout South America and purchases works for the Museum. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., visits Cuba and Mexico with Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. Nearly two hundred works are acquired through the fund in less than a year, tripling the Museum’s collection of Latin American art.

Letter of agreement Signed by Lincoln Kirstein, May 11, 1942 [EMH, II.15.b]

Receipt For purchase of Cabeza de niño (Head of a boy), by Oswald Guayasamín Calero, August 31, 1942 [EMH, II.15.a]

MoMA starts holding the Children’s Festival of Modern Art in spring 1942. Children ages three to twelve play with special toys and games and make art surrounded by works from the Museum’s collection. (This event evolves into the Children’s Art Carnival, a long-lived program educator Victor D’Amico shares with children in New York and around the world.)

Photograph Children’s Festival of Modern Art, 1942 [PA]

MoMA starts the War Veterans’ Art Center in rented quarters on Fifth Avenue in 1944, where former members of the armed services take free, informal classes in drawing, painting, and sculpture. (In 1948 it becomes the People’s Art Center and offers classes to adults and children from the general public.)

Brochures War Veterans’ Art Center, c. 1944; People’s Art Center, 1948 [APF: War Veterans’ Art Center; Monroe Wheeler Papers, I.43]

MoMA starts exhibiting works in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room in summer 1949. Mrs. Rockefeller donated her collection of 1,600 prints to the Museum in 1940. The Print Room was created in her honor after her death in 1948.

Invitation Print Room members’ opening, 1949 [AHB, 6.B.9]

MoMA starts a series of Good Design exhibitions with The Merchandise Mart in Chicago in 1950. The exhibitions, shown at both venues, aim to introduce the public to the best new home furnishings.

Photograph Good Design, MoMA, 1950 [CUR, Exh. #463]

Brochure 1950 [CE, II.1.62.5]

MoMA starts its first poetry series, Five Evenings with Modern Poets, in spring 1950.

Announcement 1950 [EMH, I.22.z]

MoMA starts showing cars in the 1951 exhibition Eight Automobiles. The cars included are a Mercedes, Cisitalia, Bentley, Talbot, Jeep, Cord, MG, and Lincoln Continental.

Photograph Eight Automobiles, 1951 [PA]

MoMA starts its Art Lending Service in 1951, to “encourage wider public enjoyment and purchase of modern art in America.” This nonprofit program, established by the Museum’s Junior Council, accepts works on consignment from artists and galleries and encourages members of the public to rent them for one to three months, with an option to buy, for use in their homes or offices. (It closes in 1982.)

Brochure 1951 [APF: Art Lending Service]

Photograph Art Lending Service desk, 1960 [PI II.B.59]

MoMA starts offering formal dining in 1954, when a restaurant designed by Philip Johnson opens at the west end of the garden.

Photograph Garden Restaurant, 1954 [PA]

MoMA starts commissioning Christmas cards designed by artists in 1954. The Junior Council invites a group of artists to submit designs for consideration, and five are produced and sold in the MoMA Store—two by Antonio Frasconi, one by Leonard Baskin, one by Seong Moy, and one by Max Weber.


Above: Sales brochure Showing two of the newly commissioned cards, 1954 [APF: Christmas Cards]

MoMA starts presenting a series of summer-evening jazz concerts in the garden in 1960. The first performance features George Wein and The Storyville Sextet.

Photograph George Wein and The Storyville Sextet, June 16, 1960 [PA]

MoMA starts officially using the acronym “MoMA” in 1966.

Memo Helen Franc, Editorial Associate, Office of the Director, to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Director, Museum Collections, debating whether the abbreviation should have an uppercase or lowercase o, with Barr’s handwritten response, July 1966 [AHB, 1.495]

MoMA starts producing Acoustiguide audio tours in 1966 for the exhibition Henri Matisse: 64 Paintings.

Letter Alicia Legg, Associate Curator, to Abraham Chanin, author of the audio-tour text, with feedback from Museum visitors, August 4, 1966 [CUR, Exh. #803]

MoMA starts exhibiting video in the galleries in 1968, when two works by Nam June Paik are included in the exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. Paik remarks, “Someday artists will work with capacitors, resistors, and semiconductors as they work with brushes, violins, and junk.”

Hand-drawn diagram (copy) For the installation of Paik’s work Rondo Electronique, 1968 [CUR, Exh. #877]

MoMA starts storing and maintaining the catalogue of its collection digitally in 1971. MoMA is the first museum to “computerize” its collection data through the Museum Computer Network system, a data bank created by a consortium of museums aiming to index their holdings electronically.

Memo David Vance, Registrar, to MoMA staff, November 17, 1970 [PI, II.B.840]

MoMA starts Summergarden in May 1971, a program of free weekend evenings in the garden with occasional entertainment such as folk singing, chamber music, dance performances, and acrobatics.

Invitation 1971 [PI II.B.910]
Photograph Dancers in the garden, 1971 [PA]

MoMA starts the Projects exhibition series, focused on recent developments in contemporary art, a new platform for nontraditional and “situational” works. Keith Sonnier is the first artist featured, in 1971.

Press release 1971 [CUR, Exh. #964]


Photograph Projects: Keith Sonnier, 1971 [CUR, Exh. #964]

MoMA starts providing Touch Tours for the blind and visually impaired in the early 1970s. Lists of sculptures suitable for the tour are made available in Braille in 1978. A year later the Museum launches a pilot program for the hearing impaired—the Museum Access Project. The program is expanded in 1980, when fifteen New York City museums, including MoMA, adapt lectures, workshops, tours, and film screenings to make them accessible.

Clipping “Blind Students Touch Way Through Art at a Museum,” The New York Times, March 13, 1979 [Education Records]

Logo By Ann Silver, 1979 [Education Records]

MoMA starts the Artist’s Choice series of exhibitions, in which artists organize shows drawn from works in the Museum’s collection. The series seeks to present the collection in fresh ways and explore its impact on contemporary artists. Scott Burton is the first artist to participate, in 1989. He installs works by Constantin Brancusi, calling special attention to the artist’s “pedestal-tables.”

Invitation Opening reception for Artist’s Choice: Burton on Brancusi, 1989 [PI, II.B.2264]

Photograph Artist’s Choice: Burton on Brancusi, 1989 [PI, II.B.2264]

MoMA starts a retail space in 1989 devoted to furniture and design objects, many of which relate directly to the Museum’s collection. The Design Store is located across the street from the Museum, at 44 West Fifty-third Street. (In 2007 MoMA opens its first store outside the United States—in Tokyo’s Omotesando district.)

Invitation Opening of the Design Store, 1989 [Department of Graphics Records, II.706]

MoMA starts publishing the journal Studies in Modern Art in 1991 to encourage scholarship related to the Museum’s collection and programs. Edited by curator John Elderfield, each volume focuses on a single topic.

American Art of the 1960s. Studies in Modern Art 1. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

MoMA starts its website, MoMA.org, in 1996. During its first full calendar year, 1997, there are 1.2 million visitors to the site. (The School of Visual Arts generously hosted several exhibition-related web projects for the Museum in 1995, prior to the development of MoMA.org.)

Screenshots MoMA.org, November-December, 1996

MoMA starts construction in 2001 on the most extensive rebuilding and renovation project in its history. Designed by architect Yoshio Taniguchi, the new building complex (which opens to the public in 2004) includes the Museum’s first space dedicated to contemporary art. This block-wide, column-free area on the second floor has reinforced floors and oversized entryways, allowing the Museum to exhibit monumental works. The second floor also includes MoMA’s first gallery for media art. The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building (which opens in 2006) is the Museum’s first building dedicated solely to education and research.

Photograph Groundbreaking ceremony, May 10, 2001 [PA]
Photograph New building, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, 2004 [PA]. © Timothy Hursley 2004

MoMA starts an official affiliation with P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York, when the two institutions sign a letter of intent to merge in 1999. The 2000 exhibition Greater New York, featuring more than 140 emerging New York–area artists, is their first major collaboration. (Five years later, the venture is repeated with Greater New York 2005.)

Press release 1999 [Calvin Tomkins Papers, III.125]

Photograph Greater New York, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 2000 [P.S.1 Archives]

MoMA starts formally collecting, preserving, and exhibiting performance-based art when the Department of Media is renamed the Department of Media and Performance Art in 2009. A range of initiatives, including the formation of a new exhibition series dedicated to performance art, are launched.

Brochure Performance Exhibition Series, 2009


I would first like to thank all of my colleagues in the Museum Archives, whose support in this endeavor – as with so many others – was crucial. I am continuously grateful for Michelle Elligott’s expert guidance and encouragement. I would also like to extend a special thanks to Tom Grischkowsky, MacKenzie Bennett, and Julia Feldman for their invaluable assistance.

Staff from across the Museum generously contributed their expertise and time to this exhibition: Erika Mosier in Conservation; Rebecca Roberts in Publications; Kaile Smith and Claire Corey in Graphics; Roberto Rivera and Rosa Laster-Smith in Imaging Services; Allegra Burnette and Chiara Bernasconi in Digital Media; and Charlie Kalinowsky and Nathaniel Longcope in Audio Visual. Many thanks to all.