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What Was Contemporary Art?

For those of you at CAA or dreaming of CAA at home, here's a sneak peek at one of our brand new art books, What Was Contemporary Art? by Richard Meyer. Check it out at our booth (204-206-208).

Founded in 1875, Wellesley was among the first American colleges to establish a freestanding art department and, by 1900, was “the sole college in the country in which it was possible to major in the history of art.”49 A course in museum training, the first of its kind in the nation, was established in 1911 as part of a small graduate program.50 In her 1915 history of Wellesley College, Florence Converse noted that “In addi­tion to work with undergraduates, the [art] department offers courses to graduate students who wish to prepare themselves for curatorships, or lec­tureships in art museums, and Wellesley women occupy positions of trust in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in the Boston Art Museum, in muse­ums in Chicago, Worcester, and elsewhere.”51 By 1928, the announcement for the graduate program could mention “museum directors” (alongside librari­ans, curators, assistants, and instructors) as positions to which “women grad­uates” might aspire.52

When it was first founded, Wellesley sought to educate young women to become cultivated amateurs, accomplished wives and mothers, community-minded volunteers, and, for those who remained unmarried, teachers.53 The college’s motto, Non ministrari, sed ministrare (Not to be ministered unto, but to minister), suggests the combination of female fortitude and civic-minded service it sought to instill. By the late 1920s, Wellesley graduates were in­creasingly entering a professional labor force not only as teachers but also as social workers, journalists, librarians, businesswomen, and, in a few cases, mu­seum professionals.

Barr’s designation of the young women in his contemporary art course as “faculty” and his collaborative approach to teaching drew upon a campus environment that likewise fostered a strong sense of female authority and student achievement. Several of the students in Barr’s class would go on to notable careers in modern art, including two who worked at MoMA during his directorship. Ernestine Fantl was hired in 1932 as a curatorial assistant at the museum and was promoted, in 1935, to curator of architecture and industrial art.54 Reportedly the only student to pass the preliminary quiz in January 1927, Fantl moved to London in 1937 and became a fashion editor for the Sun­day Times. Nearly fifty years after graduating from Wellesley College, Fantl would publish a memoir, With Tongue in Chic, in which she recalled Barr’s class as marking the beginning of “the most exciting part of my life”:

Alfred (he was too young to be called Professor for long) possessed the greatest attribute of a teacher. He was an eye-opener. He opened our eyes to architecture as well as to modern painting and sculpture. . . .Alfred made us aware of all aspects of art and design. He sent us to the five and ten cents store to select a dollar’s worth of useful objects which we thought well designed, and let us mount an exhibition of them. Be­sides taking us to Boston’s museums and galleries and concerts, he took us to the movies, for he was an early Garbo fan.

  • Posted at 02:20 pm on Fri, 15 Feb 2013 in


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