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Historical Note | A Finding Aid to the American Federation of Arts records, 1895-1993, bulk 1909-1969

American Federation of Arts records, 1895-1993, bulk 1909-1969

Historical Note

Founded in 1909 by Elihu Root, the American Federation of Arts (AFA) exists today as a national nonprofit museum service organization striving to unite American art institutions, collectors, artists, and museums. Elihu Root, then secretary of state in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, spoke of his idea at the first meeting of the AFA held in New York at the National Academy of Arts. He envisioned an organization that would promote American art most often seen only by the elite in the major cities of the East and upper Midwest by sending "exhibitions of original works of art on tour through the hinterlands across the United States."
The American Academy in Rome, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and Metropolitan Museum of Art were influential organizing member institutions. Individual members included such notables as William Merritt Chase, Charles L. Freer, Daniel C. French, Charles L. Hutchinson, Henry Cabot Lodge, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Walters. The founding of the AFA provided the American art world with a forum for communication and participation among artists, cultural institutions, patrons of the arts, and the public.
To accomplish its mission, the AFA established volunteer committees for membership, exhibitions, and publications. During its first year, the AFA began publishing Art and Progress (later changed to Magazine of Art) and the American Art Annual (now the American Art Directory). In 1909, the AFA also organized its first traveling exhibition, Paintings by Prominent American Artists, which was shown at museums in Fort Worth, New Orleans, Minneapolis, and New Ulm, Minnesota.
By the end of the first year, the headquarters of the organization moved to Washington, D.C., to facilitate lobbying the federal government for favorable art legislation. In 1913, the AFA lobbied successfully for the removal of the tariff on foreign art entering the United States. In 1916, the Federation met with the Interstate Commerce Commission to protest prohibitively high interstate taxes on traveling art exhibitions.
Throughout the next fifteen years, the AFA continued to grow in membership and influence. By 1919, membership included 438 institutions and 2,900 individuals. The AFA's annual conventions were held in major national art centers and were attended by members, chapter delegates, and the public. At the conventions, scholars, patrons, and curators lectured on and discussed subjects of national interest, thereby fostering an exchange of ideas. The AFA also sponsored periodic regional conferences to promote institutional cooperation and to discuss mutual problems and needs. To facilitate exhibition venues west of the Mississippi River, in 1921 the AFA opened regional offices at the University of Nebraska and at Stanford University. The AFA produced and circulated slide programs and lecture series to museums and educational institutions that fostered art education. By 1929, the Federation had developed forty-six slide-lecture programs that covered American mural painting, European and American contemporary art, and textiles.
During the 1930s, the Federation expanded its services by providing schools with teaching guides, student workbooks, slides, and films about art. In 1935, the AFA began publishing Who's Who in American Art, later publishing The Official Directory of Illustrators and Advertising Artists and Films on Art reference guides. To reach an even larger audience, the AFA began collaborating with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to organize national circulating exhibitions to "bring the museum to the people."
One of AFA's priorities was to make American art more visible abroad. The Federation focused on encouraging the representation of American artists in foreign exhibitions, and in 1924 it lobbied successfully for additional American participation in the Venice Biennale. The AFA's focus on exhibiting American art abroad continued to expand, particularly following World War II. In 1950, recognizing that the AFA could assist in promoting American culture, the State Department awarded the AFA a grant for a German "re-orientation program" consisting of educational exhibitions shown in German museums. Additional government funding further enabled the AFA to organize American participation in exhibitions in India, Japan, Paris, Switzerland, and Rotterdam between 1950 and 1970. Later, the AFA collaborated with the United States Information Agency (USIA) to create the Overseas Museum Donor Program which permitted donations of American art to foreign institutions on a restriction-free, tax-deductible basis. During the 1950s, the AFA was a very active member of the Committee on Government and Art, a national committee with members from across the art and museum world concerned with government sponsorship of and legislation affecting art sales, commissions, and trade.
In 1952, the headquarters of the AFA returned to New York, sparking a period of innovation and expanded of programs. Throughout the 1950s, the AFA distributed films about art and co-sponsored the Films on Art Festival in Woodstock, New York. The AFA also introduced its Picture of the Month Program in 1954, renting original works of art to small American art and educational institutions. In 1956, the AFA organized the Art Collectors Club of America to provide fellowship for art collectors through meetings and activities. The club disbanded in the 1970s.
The Federation's exhibition programs continued to flourish during the 1950s and 1960s. Private and public financial support allowed the AFA to achieve many of its goals. In 1958, the Ford Foundation awarded an important grant to organize a series of traveling one-person shows and a series of monographs devoted to contemporary American artists. Milton Avery, Andrew Dasburg, José DeCreeft, Lee Gatch, Walter Quirt, Abraham Rattner, and others were among the artists who participated. Private foundation support for the AFA's Museum Donor Program provided an annual allowance that was distributed to regional museums for the pourchase of contemporary American art. Cooperative programs and joint venues also became popular during this period. For example, public support from the New York State Council on the Arts allowed the AFA to circulate exhibitions to small New York State communities, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts provided the AFA with five exhibitions for national tours.
Throughout its history, the American Federation of Arts has concentrated on its founding principle of broadening the audience for contemporary American art. Through its numerous exhibition and film programs, the AFA has succeeded in "breaking down barriers of distance and language to broaden the knowledge and appreciation of art." Annual exhibitions such as New Talent in the USA and Art Schools USA, organized by the AFA, brought before the public the most contemporary American artists and craftspeople, genres, and artistic forms of experimentation, exposing viewers to new ways of thinking and expression. In 1965, AFA produced The Curriculum in Visual Education, a series of films created to heighten the aesthetic awareness of children.
A vital part of American art history, the AFA was one of the first organizations to develop successfully the concept of traveling art exhibitions on a national and international level. The AFA was instrumental in assisting museums with circulating important juried exhibitions of contemporary art, such as the Whitney Annual and Corcoran Biennial. The AFA also recognized the importance of the exchange of cultural ideas, and it brought exhibitions of the European masters to the American public as well as exhibitions focusing on foreign contempoorary art, photography, and architecture. Many organizations and museums have followed the AFA's precedent, and traveling national and international venues are now commonplace.
Since 1909, women have served as officers and members of the Board of Trustees. Leila Mechlin was a founding participant and served as secretary from 1909 to 1933. Juliana R. Force and Eloise Spaeth both chaired the Exhibition Committee in the late 1940s. Women and artists of diverse backgrounds and nationalities were widely represented in the AFA's exhibition programs, most notably during the 1960s. In 1960, the AFA organized, with financial support from the Ford Foundation, a major Jacob Lawrence retrospective. Additional culturally diverse exhibitions included Contemporary Jewish Ceremonial Art (1961), The Heart of India (1962), 1,000 Years of American Indian Art (1963), and Ten Negro Artists from the United States (1966).
The AFA also had an impact on patronage in the arts. AFA exhibitions of contemporary art provided collectors with knowledge of new artists and avant-garde art forms, creating a broader demand and market for this type of work. Museums and collectors began purchasing work by new or obscure American artists whom they learned about through AFA exhibitions and programs.
The historical records of the American Federation of Arts offer the researcher a unique opportunity to study the development of American art and artists in the twentieth century as well as providing insight into trends in American culture.
1909
Founded in New York City. Began publishing Art and Progress (later retitled Magazine of Art) and the American Art Annual.
1910
Moved headquarters to Washington, D.C.
1913
Lobbied successfully for the removal of the tariff on art entering the United States.
1915-1916
Lobbied successfully against the Cummins Amendment and the Interstate Commerce Commission's prohibitively high interstate tax on traveling art.
1920
Organized a lobbying campaign for the development of a national gallery of art at its national convention.
1921
Opened two new offices at the University of Nebraska and at Stanford University.
1924
Arranged American participation in the Venice Biennale exhibition.
1927
Closed office at Stanford University.
1929
Organized American participation in exhibitions in France and Germany.
1933
Closed office at the University of Nebraska.
1935
Began publishing Who's Who in American Art.
1948
Published The Official Directory of Illustrators and Advertising Artists.
1949
Collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to circulate exhibitions from its collections.
1950
Participated in the U.S. government's German re-orientation program.
1951
Joined forces with the United States Information Agency (USIA) to create the Overseas Museum Donor Program. Published the reference guide Films on Art. Co-sponsored the Films on Art Festival in Woodstock, New York, through 1957.
1952
Moved headquarters to New York City.
1953
Magazine of Art liquidated.
1954
Introduced the Picture of the Month Program.
1956
Founded the Art Collectors Club of America.
1958
Received a Ford Foundation grant to finance a series of one-person shows of contemporary American artists.
1960
Created the Museum Donor Program.
1961
Received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to circulate exhibitions to small New York state communities.
1963
Received a grant from the Ford Foundation for the Artists in Residence program.
1964
Introduced the List Art Poster Program.
1965
Produced The Curriculum in Visual Education, a series of films that attempted to heighten the aesthetic awareness of children.