Elements and Unknowns


In the United States in the 1930s and the early 1940s, many people believed that modern art could pave a pathway to democracy. Numerous exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art were produced in collaboration with the United States government. The Museum also continued to organize shows that were aligned with its mission to exhibit the best of recent works of art.

Artists in the United States, Europe, and Asia used art as a medium through which they could voice their opinions about political regimes, war, and social turmoil. From 1938 onward, a variety of compelling exhibitions featuring works produced by artists motivated by wartime experiences were organized at the Museum. In Luis Quintanilla: An Exhibition of Drawings of the War in Spain, Art from Fighting China, and Yank Illustrates the War, MoMA provided its public with a glimpse into war-torn Europe and Asia and an inside look at the difficulties of military life.    

In addition to exhibiting war-focused artworks, the Museum played an active role in seeking out artists to assist in government campaigns for the war effort. Staff from the Museum acted as liaisons between government agencies and artists. In 1942 James Thrall Soby became director of the Museum’s Armed Services Program, which functioned as an intermediary between government agencies and the Museum. Under its auspices, exhibition and film programs designed to rally support for the war and solidify America’s image as a society interested in spreading democracy and freedom were added to MoMA’s roster.

The exhibition is organized by Miriam Gianni, Records Manager, and MacKenzie Bennett, Assistant Archivist, Museum Archives.

All items in the exhibition are in the Museum Archives, unless otherwise specified.

The Role of the Museum in Wartime

As a nonpartisan institution, The Museum of Modern Art had always engaged delicately with politically driven art. However, the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941 compelled
the Museum to re-evaluate its position. As early as the 1930s, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., director of the
Museum, personally took an active role in voicing what he felt was the responsibility of museums and artists during “times of emergency.” Through letters to newspapers, magazines, arts institutions, and individuals, Barr positioned the Museum as a center for social engagement. In response to a growing desire for involvement in the war effort, the Museum’s board of trustees named art historian James Thrall Soby director of its new Armed Services Program in 1942. The program’s mandate was to facilitate exhibitions of war-focused art and film at the Museum and throughout the country. In addition to cultivating an exhibition roster, the program threw parties for servicemen and women in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden and assisted in the decoration of mess halls on military bases.


Left: Clipping Alfred H. Barr, Jr., from PM Magazine, June 10, 1942 [Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Papers, 9.F.39]

This editorial text concerns the role of artists during wartime.

Press release Alfred H. Barr, Jr., 1941–42 [Early Museum History: Administrative Records, I.40.a]
This is a mock-up of a press release regarding the Museum’s relationship to the war. The text outlines MoMA’s wartime activities, such as Museum and circulating exhibitions and film programs. It was also included in The Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art issue with the theme The Museum and the War (October–November, 1942).

Letter To Jean Austin, editor of American Home, November 12, 1942 [EMH I.40.a]
This letter, by an unknown writer, describes MoMA’s leading role in wartime activities.

Clipping c. 1942–43 [Department of Circulating Exhibition Records, I.19.11.1]
It is suggested in this article that American museums should follow the British example regarding wartime programming.

Photograph Fall, 1943 [James Thrall Soby Papers, V.H.1]

This photograph shows James Thrall Soby and a serviceman at the Museum’s Servicemen’s Party.


Wartime programming brochure, September 8, 1942 [CE I.4.2.8]
This brochure includes descriptions of wartime exhibitions and rental fees for exhibitions available for circulation.

Letter April 20, 1944 [EMH I.3.a]
Museum members received this form letter requesting contributions to allow MoMA to continue the program “until the war is over.”

Photograph c. 1942–44 [EMH I.3.a]
This image was mailed with a form letter [no. 7, above] soliciting contributions from Museum members for the Armed Services Program.

Brochure 1943–44 [CE I.4.2.9]
This brochure was sent to other art institutions. It include descriptions of MoMA circulating exhibitions available for rental.

Exhibiting the Work of Soldier and Civilian Artists

With programming such as Luis Quintanilla: An Exhibition of Drawings of the War in Spain in 1938, Barr confirmed the Museum’s commitment to granting exhibitions to artists who participated in or were affected by war. Quintanilla, a Spanish Loyalist soldier and artist, was introduced to Barr by Ernest Hemingway and Jay Allen (a journalist at the Chicago Tribune), both of whom Quintanilla had met on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. The drawings and etchings selected for the exhibition illuminate the horrific conditions experienced by those who took part in the conflict.

Art from Fighting China of 1942 exposed the dire situation in war-torn China; artists depicted bombed cities and citizens fleeing from Japanese Flying Tigers airplanes. Wendell Wilkie, acting as a personal representative of President Roosevelt, was sent to engage in diplomacy in the USSR and China and brought artworks back from China in a “rolled up package weighing 50 pounds.” The intention of the exhibition was to rally support for the Chinese cause.

In 1943 the Armed Services Program coordinated Yank Illustrates the War, which featured artworks produced for Yank magazine by American soldier-artists. These included photographs, drawings, and paintings of soldiers at the front in daily exercises and at rest.

Clippings “Loyalist Artist to Exhibit” and “Spanish Loyalist to Show Art Here,” New York Times, February 18, 1938 [Registrar Exhibition Files, Exh. #74]


Letter, Ernest Hemingway to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., September 1, 1934.
Pages one and three [AHB, 6.B.17]

In the letter, Hemingway suggests that Barr organize an exhibition of works by Quintanilla.

Letter Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to Jay Allen, March 16, 1938 [REG, Exh. #74]
Allen was a journalist and friend of both Ernest Hemingway and Luis Quintanilla. He assisted Barr with numerous aspects of the Quintanilla exhibition.

Exhibition catalogue Luis Quintanilla: An Exhibition of Drawings of the War in Spain (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1938) [Library Special Collection]

Letter Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to the editor of the New York Times, November 29, 1938 [AHB, 9.F.49]
Barr’s letter encourages Americans to support Spain and China and calls for the United States to get involved in the conflicts in those countries.

Visitor admittance card Art from Fighting China, November 1942 [REG, Exh. #205]

Clippings New York Times, November 6 and 11, 1942 [REG, Exh. #205]

Photograph Artwork submitted for inclusion in Art from Fighting China [REG, Exh. #205]


Clippings from the New York Times and the New York World Telegram regarding Art from Fighting China, November 1942 [Registrar Exhibition Files, Exh. #205]

Photograph Sergeant Howard Brodie (left) and unidentified man in the South Pacific, n.d.
[Photographic Archive, Exhibition Album #222]
This photograph was included in the exhibition Yank Illustrates the War, March 17–April 18, 1943.

Press Release Yank Illustrates the War, n.d. [REG, Exh. #222]
Yank is described as “by and for enlisted men. The best writers, photographers and artists . . . are ordered to duty with Yank.”

Magazine page Yank, March 19 (year unknown) [REG, Exh. #222]
Pictures were featured in Yank and Yank Illustrates the War.

MoMA and Government-Sponsored Exhibitions

Prior to and during the development of the Armed Services Program, the Museum, in conjunction with the Treasury Department,the Office of Civilian Defense, and other government organizations, used the talents and skills of artists in support of the war effort. Though the nation did not formally enter the war until 1941, the role artists could play in times of conflict was much discussed.

The National Defense Poster Competition urged artists to create posters that would encourage citizens to support the war effort through personal and economic commitment. The winning
designs were displayed at the Museum and Army recruiting stations and on billboards in small towns and cities throughout the country.

Image of Freedom was organized on the cusp of the United States’ entry into World War II. The Museum called for photographers to submit images that portrayed American life—“the spirit of our thoughts, our ways, our homes, our jobs.” Photographs included landscapes and portraits and pictures of rallies and parades, each illustrating a distinct facet of American identity.

In November 1942 the Museum responded to the upcoming anniversary of the country’s involvement in the war by organizing the National War Poster Competition in collaboration with the
Office of Civilian Defense. This competition addressed issues of a war-torn world, with categories for submissions that included Loose Talk, Slave World—Or Free World, and Deliver Us from Evil. After the competition, the posters were displayed at the Museum.

Photographs A winner of the National Defense Poster Competition, n.d.
[Registrar Exhibition Files, Exh. #139]
One of the prize-winning posters was made into a billboard and installed near the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York.

Cover The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, September 1941 [REG, Exh. #139]
This issue includes a collage of entries in the National Defense Poster Competition.

Press release National Defense Poster Competition, n.d. [REG, Exh. #139]

Admittance Card for National Defense Poster Competition.  [REG, Exh. #139].


Admittance Card

Telegraph Iris Barry to Colonel William J. Donovan, Office of Strategic Services,
March 24, 1944 [Film, 28]
In this message Barry solicits a War Department report and films for the Museum’s wartime screening programs from Colonel Donovan.

Publicity photograph Prize-winning picture from Image of Freedom, n.d.
[Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #155]
In the photograph—A Nation Provides, by Peter Sekaer of Washington, D.C.—children play in a Works Progress Administration fountain in Chicago public housing.

Publicity photograph Prize-winning picture from Image of Freedom [CUR, Exh. #155]
The photograph, by Aaron Siskind of New York, is titled Peace.

Publicity photograph Prize-winning picture from Image of Freedom [CUR, Exh. #155]
The photograph, by Alexander Alland of New York, is titled Freedom of Religion.

Mock-up text Image of Freedom brochure by Beaumont Newhall, Curator, Department of Photography, n.d. [REG, Exh. #155]
The brochure is a call for photographs that capture “what signifies America.”

Brochure Brochure Image of Freedom [REG, Exh. #155]


Entry form Image of Freedom [REG, Exh. #155]
Artists completed this form and mailed it to the Museum along with their photographs.

Memo Hobart Nichols, August 24, 1942 [REG, Exh. 207]
In this explanatory memo for the National War Poster Competition, Nichols (a member of Artists for Victory), states, “We confidently expect that the competition will be the means of placing the services of more artists and photographers at the disposal of the government.”

Announcement Description of categories and prize winners of the National War Poster Competition,
October 26, 1942 [REG, Exh. #207]

Installation view of National War Poster Competition, November 25, 1942, through January 3, 1943 [Photographic Archive]


Installation view

Wartime Activities of the Film Library

In 1941 the Museum’s Film Library began screening films that pertained to the war and wartime concerns. The series Films of Britain at War offered Americans a glimpse into British wartime life. Films such as A Job to Be Done and Spring Offensive showcased the cooperation of British citizens and their government in the war effort.

By 1944 Iris Barry, curator of the Museum’s Film Library, had established working relationships with various personnel from the Navy and the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C. These relationships were extremely effective, and films deemed necessary for public viewing were continually screened at the Museum. The New Documentary Films: New Methods program was one of the Film Library’s most fruitful collaborations with the military, including morale-building films, orientation films about Nazis and battle, and “incentive” films from the U.S. Navy

Press Release Britain at War, June 9, 1941 [Department of Film Exhibition Files, Exh. #17]

Article CUE, January 31, 1942 [Film, 17]
The magazine article comments on film programming at the Museum and the precautions taken to safeguard its collection during wartime.

Memo Edward Kerns, Technical Officer, to Iris Barry, Curator, Film Library,
January 5, 1942 [Film, 17]
Kerns supplies attendance figures for civilian defense films shown at the Museum in 1941 and 1942

Photographs Servicemen’s Party, May 4, 1942 [Photographic Archive]

This was one of several Servicemen’s Parties sponsored by the Museum’s Armed Services Program. Pictured are soldiers and civilians in the Museum’s film theater.



Telegraph Iris Barry to Colonel William J. Donovan,
Office of Strategic Services, March 24, 1944 [Film, 28]
In this message Barry solicits a War Department report and films for the Museum’s wartime screening programs from Colonel Donovan.

Text Sergeant Richard Griffiths, formerly of the Film Library, n.d. (c. 1944) [Film, 28]
Barry asked Griffiths to write a text to accompany the film program New Documentary Films: New Methods. Griffiths describes the ideal soldier, noting how “pervading a part motion pictures have played in creating that image of the ‘soldier’ now so familiar to all.”

Program New Documentary Films: New Methods, June 1944 [Film, 28]

Letter Lieutenant Robert S. Taplinger to Edward Kerns, July 14, 1944 [Film, 28]
Taplinger asks to use the Museum’s theater as a venue to screen films recently released by the Navy’s Industrial Incentive Division.

Invitation Navy Industrial Incentive Division film program, The Museum of Modern Art, August, 1944 [Film, 28]

Memo Memo Edward Kerns to John Abbott, December 27, 1945 [EMH, I.3.o]

Kerns’s memo states that the Museum’s Film Library circulate more than 222 programs to hospitals in the Eastern Service Area from October 1943 to December 1945.


Support for the Veterans

By early summer 1944, James Johnson Sweeney, who would become director of MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture early the following year, presented a report on the Museum’s exhibition programming to the Exhibitions Policy Committee stating that exhibitions standards needed to be rethought in light of “the peace to come.” Sweeney’s opinions signaled a desire to return to the Museum’s prewar standard of aesthetic excellence, which many members of the staff felt had been abandoned during the war years.

The Armed Services Program closed in October 1945, and the Museum redirected that energy into the War Veteran’s Art Center (VAC), which had opened in 1944. Under the leadership of Victor D’Amico, MoMA’s director of education, the VAC served thousands of veterans in rehabilitative and prevocational training. Classes were taught by fine artists in disciplines ranging from painting and sculpture to pottery, jewelry, and design.

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.

Letter James Thrall Soby to Stephen Clark, October 4, 1945 [JTS III.F.3.a]
Here Soby submits his resignation as director of the Armed Services Program.

Memo James Thrall Soby to the members of the War Veteran’s Art Center Committee,
February 19, 1946 [JTS III.F.3.a]
In this memo Soby describes the activities and accomplishments of the Veteran’s Art Center.

The Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art Art for War Veterans special issue, September 1945
[Museum Archives]
This issue of the Bulletin includes a detailed explanation of the Veteran Art Center’s principles and programs as established by Victor D’Amico, James Thrall Soby, and other members of the Education Committee.


Brochure Veteran’s Art Center, c. 1941–45 [EMH I.3.o]


Press release Exhibition of artworks from the Veteran’s Art Center, c. 1942–47 [JTS III.F.3.a]

Brochure Veteran’s Art Center, 1944–48 [EMH I.3.p]
This brochure includes an essay written by Victor D’Amico outlining the center’s accomplishments and his desire to transform it into the People’s Art Center.

Clipping Announcement of an exhibition of artworks produced by attendees of the Veteran’s Art Center, October, 1945 [REG, Exh. #297]


We would like to extend our thanks first and foremost to all of our colleagues in the Museum Archives whose support was vital to the realization of this exhibition.  We are so grateful for the unending guidance and expertise provided by Michelle Elligott.  We would also like to thank Michelle Harvey for her generous advice; Tom Grischkowsky for help in securing images from the Photographic Archive; and Peter Huelster and Tessa Thomas for their additional assistance.

A special thanks to the following members of the Museum staff for their contributions: Sarah Ganz in Education; Rebecca Roberts in Publications; Allegra Burnette and Chiara Bernasconi in Digital Media; Julianna Goodman and Claire Corey in Graphic Design; Roberto Rivera in Imaging Services; and Jennifer Tobias in the Library.