May 24, 2010  |  Library and Archives
From the Archives: Highlights from the MoMA Guestbook, 1929 to 1944

In 1929, three women, Lillie P. Bliss, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Mary Quinn Sullivan, joined forces to establish a museum based in New York City that was devoted exclusively to modern art. Over the course of the next 15 years, over one and a half million visitors paid their respects to the result of their efforts: The Museum of Modern Art. As it turns out, a tiny percentage of these visitors are memorialized in a leather-bound guest register that was brought out by Museum staffers for only its most illustrious guests to sign. The guest book, which now resides in our Archives, is a fascinating document from MoMA’s fledgling years and serves as a reminder of the appeal of the Museum to well-known figures from a wide range of social, professional, and cultural backgrounds.

Fittingly, the pages of the book hold the autographs of Bliss, Rockefeller, and Sullivan (affectionately known to MoMA staff as “the three founding ladies”), as well as the names of other important trustees essential to the creation or early development of the Museum, including Josephine B. Crane, A. Conger Goodyear, Stephen C. Clark, Grace Rainey Rogers, and Philip Johnson. Many art-world luminaries, from critics like Helen Appleton Read, Henry McBride, and Royal Cortissoz to significant dealers like Julian Levy, offered their signatures. One spread alone features inscriptions from a Who’s Who of artists of the period, including Fernand Léger, Diego Rivera, Henri Matisse, and Salvador Dalí. Also featured on that page is the name of George Gershwin, whose collection of modern art was exhibited anonymously at the Museum in 1936.

But MoMA attracted figures from far beyond the art world. Albert Einstein visited the Museum in 1935—just fifteen months after he emigrated to the U.S.—and was asked to sign the book. His name appears on the same page as Sara Delano Roosevelt, mother of then-president F.D.R. Another spread holds signatures from two world-renowned cyclists from Bombay, India; the prominent American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey; a head of state, President Somoza of Nicaragua; and even two illusionists, “Levante” from Australia and “Deveen” from London.

Often, a particular page in the book acts as a historical marker for specific Museum events or exhibitions. Over a two-week period in 1937, a distinguished group of figures central to Germany’s Bauhaus School of art and design—László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—signed the book as they passed through the doors of the Museum to help with preparations for the exhibition Bauhaus 1919–1928, which the Museum would mount the following year. And in 1941, notable Native Americans Acee Blue Eagle and Chief Rising Sun signed the book when they came to see Indian Art of the United States, one of many Museum exhibitions from the period devoted to non–modern art themes.

Certain entries in the guest book underscore the Museum’s unprecedented focus on motion pictures, which, after the creation of its influential Film Library in 1935, led in large part to cinema being taken seriously as an art form. Many film legends graced the halls of the institution in this period, including James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Gloria Jean, Kitty Carlisle, Charles Chaplin, and Myrna Loy. In fact, the two final entries in the register, in 1944, are from the world of show business: Bette Davis and Molly Picon.