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Downtown Gallery records, 1824-1974, bulk 1926-1969

Historical Note

As a very young woman, Edith Gregor Halpert (1900-1970) attended art school sporadically while pursuing a business career that began in advertising and included work as a personnel manager and efficiency expert. She continued her business career after marrying artist Samuel Halpert (1884-1930) in 1918 and eventually became a highly paid executive with an investment firm. Well-invested bonuses provided the capital for Halpert to open her own business.
In November 1926, Halpert and business partner Berthe (Bea) Kroll Goldsmith opened Our Gallery at 113 West 13th Street for the purpose of promoting a group of progressive American artists, many of whom were friends of Edith and Samuel Halpert. The following year, at the suggestion of William Zorach, the gallery changed its name to Downtown Gallery--emphasizing its Greenwich Village location, unique for the time--and the name survived despite relocation to midtown Manhattan (to 43 East 51st Street in 1940, to 32 East 51st Street in 1945, and to the Ritz Tower Concourse at 465 Park Avenue in 1965).
The Downtown Gallery specialized in contemporary American 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, 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 others interested in American art met in the evenings for coffee, conversation, and sometimes lectures or other formal programs. Holger Cahill (1887-1960) entered into a partnership with Halpert and Goldsmith in 1929 when they founded the American Folk Art Gallery, the first ever of its kind; the American Folk Art Gallery opened on the second floor of the Downtown Gallery in 1931. Folk art was an important feature of the gallery throughout its history, though the name American Folk Art Gallery does not appear to have been used consistently. Because the profit margin was high and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller bought avidly for her growing collection, folk art revenues subsidized contemporary art exhibitions and helped the gallery survive the Depression. The Daylight Gallery, also run by Halpert and Goldsmith, opened in 1930 in a separate structure behind the main gallery, and continued until the Downtown Gallery moved to East 51st Street in 1940. Its purpose was to exhibit painting and sculpture to best advantage in a gallery designed to diffuse light perfectly and to demonstrate how works of art may be used as architectural embellishments in a modern building. Other subsidiary galleries operated by the Downtown Gallery were the John Marin Room, opened in 1950 and run by John Marin, Jr., and the Ground-Floor Room, 1951, "dedicated to the adventurous, less experienced collector willing to gamble on his taste and ours."
From the beginning, Halpert endeavored to hold prices at reasonable levels; she employed aggressive marketing and advertising techniques learned from her career in business and banking, offering extended payment plans without interest to buyers of modest means. She recognized the value of placing representative works by Downtown Gallery artists in important art museums and public collections, even if a price reduction was necessary to achieve this goal.
After purchasing Goldsmith's share of the business in 1935, Halpert, needing to earn a profit, reorganized the gallery as a more overtly commercial venture. The roster of artists was reduced to twelve. Those eliminated tended to be younger artists, most of whom were supported by WPA work. Eventually, the roster expanded; new additions were usually artists not based in New York, whom Halpert learned of through her work as an adviser to the WPA Federal Art Project. Halpert had long courted Alfred Stieglitz's artists, and in the years following his death in 1946 a number of them affiliated with the Downtown Gallery. Another change was that the Downtown Gallery no longer represented only living American artists; the gallery began handling a number of estates, most notably that of Arthur Dove. In 1953, the roster of Downtown Gallery artists shifted dramatically when Halpert entered into an agreement with Charles Alan. Alan had been hired in 1945 with the understanding that he was being trained to run the Downtown Gallery upon Halpert's retirement five years in the future. Eight years later, it became apparent that Halpert was not going to retire; without consulting the artists, she transferred representation of all artists who had joined the Downtown Gallery since 1936 to the newly established Alan Gallery.
Exhibitions at the Downtown Gallery included both solo exhibitions and group shows usually built around a theme; most lasted about a month. Annual exhibitions (sometimes titled anniversary exhibitions) opened the exhibition season each fall and showcased the gallery's artists. The Downtown Gallery's Christmas show, a long-standing event that encouraged purchases of original art for holiday gift giving, was eagerly anticipated as it featured fine artwork at very reasonable prices. Between 1927 and 1935, the Downtown Gallery was the site of the American Print Makers Society annual exhibitions. During its forty-seven years in operation, the Downtown Gallery organized many important, influential exhibitions. American Ancestors (1931) presented American folk art as the precursor to and direct influence on the contemporary art featured by the Downtown Gallery. The title was used for a number of subsequent exhibitions and became a synonym for folk art. American Folk Art Sculpture: Index of American Design, Federal Art Project (1937) featured drawings by WPA artists recording objects that documented America's material culture and artistic heritage. Along with the Index of American Design drawings, the exhibition included a number of the original sculptures from the Downtown Gallery's inventory and borrowed from folk art collector Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
William Harnett: "Nature-Vivre" (1939) reintroduced the nineteenth-century artist whose trompe l'oeil paintings had been collected by Halpert over a period of years expressly for this purpose. Between 1947 and 1949, a controversy ensued over paintings--some of which had been sold by the Downtown Gallery--with the signature of William Harnett but discovered by San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein to be the work of Harnett's student, John Peto. Halpert had purchased the questionable pieces in good faith, completely unaware of the added signatures, and she defended her attributions, despite evidence to the contrary. Frankenstein publicized his discovery widely; while neither Halpert nor the Downtown Gallery were named directly, their identity was apparent to his well-informed readers. The situation was further inflamed when additional articles by Frankenstein failed to include new evidence favorable to Halpert and the Downtown Gallery.
Another major exhibition was American Negro Art, 19th and 20th Centuries (1941-1942), the first show of its kind held at a commercial gallery. Held at the Downtown Gallery, the exhibition was sponsored by a committee of prominent citizens including Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Archibald MacLeish, A. Philip Randolph, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Among its aims were to raise money for the Negro Art Fund, to promote museum acquisitions of work by black artists, and to encourage galleries to represent the living participants. In addition to providing its facilities, the Downtown Gallery donated all sales commissions to the Negro Art Fund and added Jacob Lawrence to its roster of artists.
Edith Gregor Halpert played important roles in a number of exhibitions and major art projects that were not connected with the Downtown Gallery. She served as organizer and director of the First Municipal Exhibition of American Art, Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1929. Beginning in 1932, Halpert was extensively involved with Radio City Music Hall arts projects. She conceived, organized, and handled publicity for the First Municipal Art Exhibition (also known as the Forum Exhibition) sponsored by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and held at Radio City Music Hall in 1934. As an adviser to the WPA Federal Art Project, Halpert spent the summer of 1936 in Washington, D.C., developing its Exhibition and Allocation Program, which registered works of art arriving from regional project centers and selected pieces for traveling exhibitions that circulated throughout the country. In 1937, she formed the Bureau for Architectural Sculpture and Murals, a central clearinghouse from which architects could review and select work by artists and sculptors experienced in working in architectural settings. Halpert served as curator of the art section of the American National Exhibition, sponsored by the United States Information Agency and the U.S. Department of Commerce; she traveled to the Soviet Union with the exhibition, installed the show, and gave daily gallery talks in Russian. In 1952, to promote art history, Halpert established the Edith Gregor Halpert Foundation. Its activities included assisting universities to fund scholarships for the study of contemporary American art and championing the rights of artists to control the sale and reproduction of their work. For her "outstanding contribution to American art," Halpert received the Art in America Award in 1959. She also received a USIA Citation for Distinguished Service in 1960, and the University of Connecticut awarded her its First Annual International Silver Prize for "distinguished contribution to the arts" in 1968.
In addition to being an art dealer, Edith Gregor Halpert was also a collector of contemporary American art and American folk art. For many years, Halpert and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., discussed a gift of a substantial number of paintings to form the nucleus of a new wing to be called the Gallery of 20th-Century American Art. After numerous disagreements and misunderstandings by both parties, the plan was abandoned. While negotiations were still in progress, the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection was exhibited in two installments, 1960 and 1962, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. During the following two years, portions of her collection traveled to Santa Barbara, Honolulu, and San Francisco. Other exhibitions, drawn completely from the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection, include American Modernism: The First Wave, Painting from 1903-1933, presented at Brandeis University Museum of Art, 1963; Six Decades of American Art, shown at Leicester Galleries, London, 1965; Image to Abstraction, held at Amon Carter Museum, 1967; and Edith Halpert and the Downtown Gallery, exhibited at the University of Connecticut, 1968. The Edith Gregor Halpert Collection was eventually sold at auction by Sotheby Parke-Bernet, 1973.
Dr. Dianne's Tepfer's dissertation (1989) on Edith Gregor Halpert was an invaluable resource in arranging and describing the records of Downtown Gallery; her chronology was consulted often in constructing this Historical Note.
1900
born Edith Gregoryevna Fivoosiovitch to Gregor and Frances Lucom Fivoosiovitch, Odessa, Russia
1906
arrived in New York City with recently widowed mother and older sister; family name changed to Fivisovitch
1916
employed as a comptometer operator at Bloomingdale's department store; studied drawing with Leon Kroll and Ivan Olinsky at the National Academy of Design; further shortened name to Fein
1916-1917
attended life drawing and anatomy classes taught by George Bridgeman at the Art Students' League; employed in foreign and advertising offices, R. H. Macy department store
1917
met artist Samuel Halpert at John Weichsel's People's Art Guild
1917-1918
employed as advertising manager, Stern Brothers department store
1918-1919
employed as systematizer (efficiency expert), investment firm of Cohen, Goldman
1918
married Samuel Halpert
1919-1920
employed as systematizer, investment firm of Fishman & Co.; attended writing courses, Columbia University
1921-1925
employed as personnel manager, systematizer, and head of correspondence at investment banking firm of S. W. Strauss & Co.; eventually appointed to the board of directors
1924
first exposed to folk art at the home of sculptor Elie Nadelman
1925
visited Paris with Samuel Halpert (June-September)
1926
visited Ogunquit, Maine, with Samuel and was further exposed to antiques and folk art; other summer guests included artists Stefan Hirsch, Bernard Karfiol, Walt Kuhn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Robert Laurent, Katherine Schmidt, Niles Spencer, and Marguerite and William Zorach; opened Our Gallery, devoted to modern American art, at 113 West 13th Street with business partner Berthe Kroll Goldsmith
1927
separated from Samuel, who moved to Detroit to teach at the Society for Arts and Crafts; changed name of Our Gallery to Downtown Gallery, at the suggestion of William Zorach
1928
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller first visited the Downtown Gallery; published George O. "Pop" Hart: 24 Selections from His Work by Holger Cahill, first of a projected series of ten Downtown Gallery monographs
1929
initiated divorce proceedings in Detroit; founded the American Folk Art Gallery, the first of its kind, with business; partners Berthe Kroll Goldsmith and Holger Cahill; served as organizer and director of the First Municipal Exhibition of American Art, Atlantic City
1930
divorce granted; present at the death of Samuel Halpert; opened the Daylight Gallery in a separate structure behind the Downtown Gallery specially designed to display works of art under optimal conditions; published Max Weber by Holger Cahill, second (and last) of the Downtown Gallery monographs
1931
opened the American Folk Art Gallery on second floor of the Downtown Gallery
1932
purchased house in Newtown, Connecticut; became extensively involved with Radio City Music Hall arts projects
1934
conceived, organized, and handled publicity for the First Municipal Art Exhibition, also called the Forum Exhibition, sponsored by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and held at Radio City Music Hall
1935
bought Goldsmith's share of the business and, as sole owner, reorganized the gallery
1936
served as adviser to WPA Federal Art Project, charged with developing the Exhibition and Allocation Program
1937
formed Bureau for Architectural Sculpture and Murals
1939
organized Nature-Vivre; exhibition of paintings by the rediscovered William Harnett, rekindling interest in trompe l'oeil painting
1940
Downtown Gallery moved to 43 East 51st Street; cataloged and installed the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection of American Folk Art at Williamsburg, Virginia
1941
American Negro Art, 19th and 20th Centuries
1945
Downtown Gallery moved to 32 East 51st Street; hired Charles Alan as assistant director
1946
Downtown Gallery began representing former Alfred Stieglitz artists Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe
1947-1949
embroiled in controversy over paintings with the signature of William Harnett but discovered to be the work of Harnett's student John Peto
1950
opened the John Marin Room, operated by John Marin, Jr.
1951
opened the Ground-Floor Room, for works by new artists
1952
established the Edith Gregor Halpert Foundation
1953
transferred representation of newer Downtown Gallery artists to the Alan Gallery
1954
published The ABCs for Collectors of Contemporary Art by John I. H. Baur
1959
traveled to Moscow as curator of the art section, "American National Exhibition," and gave daily gallery talks in Russian; received Art in America Award
1960
exhibited selections from the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; awarded USIA Citation for Distinguished Service and the Merit Award Emblem
1962
second exhibition of the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art; began discussions, ultimately abandoned, for the transfer and installation of a large gift of paintings from the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection to a special wing of the Corcoran Gallery of Art
1963
American Modernism: The First Wave, Painting from 1903-1933, an exhibition based entirely on the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection, Brandeis University Museum of Art
1965
Downtown Gallery moved to smaller quarters, Ritz Tower Concourse, 465 Park Avenue; open by appointment only; Six Decades of American Art, from the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection, Leicester Galleries, London
1967
Image to Abstraction, an exhibition based entirely on the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1968
the Downtown Gallery ceased to be the exclusive representative of Abraham Rattner, Ben Shahn, Georgia O'Keffe, and Max Weber, and the estates of Stuart Davis, and Marguerite and William Zorach were withdrawn from the gallery; Edith Halpert and the Downtown Gallery exhibition at the Museum of Art, the University of Connecticut; awarded the First Annual International Silver Prize medal for "distinguished contribution to the arts," University of Connecticut
1970
died, New York City
1970-1973
the Downtown Gallery continued limited operation under the direction of niece, Nathaly Baum
1972-1978
the Downtown Gallery records donated to the Archives of American Art by Nathaly Baum, executor of the Edith Gregor Halpert estate
1973
Sotheby Parke-Bernet auction sale of the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection
1997-1999
arrangement, description, and microfilming of Downtown Gallery records and publication of this finding aid funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.