Dance and performance are enjoying a renaissance at MoMA—take for example, performances happening at MoMA this fall, such as Trajal Harrell’s The Return of La Argentina or Walid Raad’s Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough. This tendency is apparent at other modern and contemporary arts organizations around the world as well, like the Live program at Tate Modern. But at MoMA the interest in dance and theater is not new. In fact, since its inception in 1929, The Museum of Modern Art has adopted a radical approach to presenting the art of our time. Not content with exhibiting 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 its early years, the Museum established a Dance Archives and later founded a [short-lived!] curatorial Department of Dance and Theatre Design charged with: research, the acquisition of works of art related to the stage, and the mounting of exhibitions on this subject.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.
While the curatorial department ceased operations in mid-century, performances of various stripes occurred at the institution during the ensuing decades, sometimes formally and sometimes as independent, guerrilla-style actions. Since 2008, with the nomenclature of the Department of Media being expanded to include Performance, the Museum has embarked on a systematic program of presenting a wide variety of performance activities under the umbrella of the Performance Program.
Documents concerning the historical activities are gathered in the MoMA Archives collection of Dance Archives records, an inventory to which can be found here.