During WWII, The Museum of Modern Art played an integral role in assisting artists, art historians, dealers, and their immediate families in escaping from Europe to America. After the fall of Paris to the Nazis in June 1940 the Museum began to receive numerous requests for help to flee to the U.S. At a Trustee Committee meeting in October 1940, Museum Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. reported to the board that these requests had become so time consuming for him and his assistant that they were “unable to cope with it,” and designated his wife, art historian and scholar Margaret Scolari Barr (Marga), to take charge of the whole operation.Each person seeking refuge in the U.S. required the following: a visa from the State Department, an affidavit of financial support, an affidavit of moral sponsorship vouching that he or she was in imminent danger and would not be inimical to U.S. interests, biographical sketches and letters of reference proving identities and the above, and at least $400 for ocean passage. Marga worked with art dealer Curt Valentin, artists Kay Sage and Kurt Seligmann, writer Kay Boyle, and primarily with the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to obtain these items. She also worked closely with Varian Fry, leader of the ERC in Marseilles, to communicate with individuals in Europe and secure their safe passage to America.
Though Marga worked extensively on this project, “spending five or six hours a day,” most of the relevant documentation is not contained within the Museum’s files. In the early 1980s Rona Roob, founder of the MoMA Archives, with Marga’s assistance, began to recollect whatever pieces she could find of this lost history. Rona discovered that the Barrs had assisted art historian John Rewald and artists Jacques Lipchitz, Jean Lurçat, and André Masson in escaping to America by securing their affidavits and passage money through other art collectors and dealers. She also found that the Museum had been involved in the plights of Marc Chagall, Jean (Hans) Arp, Vasily Kandinsky, Louise Straus-Ernst, Paul Eluard, Otto Freundlich, and Leonor Fini. In addition, it was also later discovered that Barr had affirmed Alois Schardt’s identity to Washington as a targeted German art historian while Shardt was being detained at Ellis Island.However, the list of refugees that MoMA assisted was much longer than this. In a letter that Marga wrote to Rona on February 6, 1980, she states, “After speaking with Pierre [Matisse], I confirm that the Museum of M.A. helped Tanguy, Ernst, Chagall, Masson, Lipchitz…. But I repeat—we worked on so many artists that there’s no really knowing.” Motivated to fill this gap in the Museum’s history and finish the work Rona started, I set out on a journey to visit other archives to pinpoint who exactly the Museum saved, and how.
After reviewing our own Archives and consulting collections at the University at Albany, Yale University, The Archives of American Art, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I discovered that the Barrs had sponsored artists Jean Helión, Marcel Duchamp, and Nelly van Doesburg; guaranteed an affidavit for Surrealist poet Pierre Mabille; and contributed $75 towards architect Konrad Wachsmann’s passage. Correspondence between MoMA and the ERC showed that they were also involved in the cases of Bernard Reder, Pierre Roy, Antoine Pevsner, Pablo Picasso, Victor Brauner, Alberto Magnelli, César Domela, and Georges Hugnet.
Barr had also written a letter testifying to the loyalty of then-alien Curt Valentin to the U.S. He wrote letters of reference regarding André Breton and art dealer Hugo Perls, and biographical sketches for artists Victor Tischler and Wols. Barr, along with A. Conger Goodyear, MoMA’s first president, was also ready to provide a letter of reference for art dealer Justin K. Thannhauser.
Even when Marga was presented with the case of a person she did not know, like that of artist Teresa Żarnower, she still tried her best to help by suggesting others who might know the individual. She even provided the ERC a list of people who would be willing to assist the cases of surrealist poet Benjamin Perét and his wife, painter Remedios Varo.
Moreover, the Barrs were not the only Museum staff contributing to the rescue effort. Beaumont Newhall, founding curator of MoMA’s Department of Photography, arranged and sponsored the visa for photographer Ylla and secured her a job at a photographic agency. Additionally, Betty Chamberlain, who would later become director of the Department of Communications, was passing unofficial reports to the ERC from the Department of State regarding the visa statuses for various individuals.
Sometimes doing more than the government was willing to do, MoMA was the final hope for many. The Barrs took advantage of their contacts and MoMA’s reputation to turn the museum into a literal protector and defender of modern art. Though I have added more names to the Museum’s “lost” list of those assisted by staff during WWII, I am as confident as Marga when retelling this history to Rona that there are still more people they helped that have yet to be uncovered.