American Women Tastemakers:  Edith Gregor Halpert and Her Downtown Gallery

By Barbara Aikens

March 5, 2012

Edith Halpert
Portrait of Edith Halpert, ca. 1930 / Man Ray, photographer. Downtown Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As gallery owners, curators, critics and writers, educators, and collectors, American women have made significant contributions to the evolution and public understanding of contemporary and modernist art in our country. Among the extensive holdings of the Archives of American Art are the historical papers of and oral history interviews with many of these women, including Edith Halpert, founder of the Downtown Gallery.

The 1920s marked an era of modernism in America. Women had just been granted the right to vote in federal elections and many began to experience new freedoms in their lives. In 1926, at the age of only twenty-six, Edith Gregor Halpert wasted no time in expressing her personal liberation and defying earlier societal rules by opening one of the first art galleries in Greenwich Village. An active art market for American artists did not exist at that time, and Halpert spent the next forty-four years changing the artistic tastes of America with aggressive marketing techniques and promotions.

Although known for representing the early American modernists, Edith Halpert is also recognized for almost single-handedly inventing the market for American folk art. An early gallery brochure states, “The Downtown Gallery has no prejudice for any one school. Its selection is driven by quality—by what is enduring—not by what is in vogue.” Some of the artists affiliated with the Downtown Gallery from its early years were Stuart Davis, “Pop” Hart, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, Max Weber, and William and Marguerite Zorach. In its original location, the gallery served as a place where artists (many of whom lived and worked in the neighborhood), collectors, and aficionados met in the evenings for coffee, conversation, and sometimes lectures or other programs.

Marin letter to Halpert
John Marin letter to Edith Gregor Halpert, between 1945 and 1969. Downtown Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Halpert and Sheeler
Edith Halpert and Charles Sheeler, 1953 / Musya Sheeler, photographer. Downtown Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

A savvy business woman, Edith Halpert and her Downtown Gallery survived the Depression, the second World War, and the Cold War. The gallery remained open even with the competition of newly opened New York City galleries that focused on modern American artists, such as the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Leo Castelli Gallery. The Downtown Gallery finally closed its doors in the late 1960s, and Halpert died just a few years later in 1970.

Born in Russia, Edith Halpert had arrived in the United States as a penniless immigrant, but she died a multi-millionaire. She not only transformed the landscape of American folk and modern art, but she was also one of the most brilliant and successful business women of the New York City art world—one of the few respectable areas of business that seemingly welcomed women and where more than several have thrived over the last eighty years.

The extensive archival records of the Downtown Gallery date from 1926 to 1969 and comprise nearly 110 linear feet of shelf space. The microfilm of the records was digitized in 1999 and is fully available online. Also found among our holdings are two in-depth oral history interviews with Edith Halpert that were completed between 1962 and 1965 by Harlan Phillips.

Barbara Aikens is the Chief of Collections Processing at the Archives of American Art.

Comments

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