Art out of Place: International Art Exhibits at the New York World's Fair of 1964-1965

Article excerpt

At its opening on April 22, 1964, the New York World's Fair was already one of the most ambitious fairs ever held. Covering 646 acres, the fair included eighty countries, twenty-four states, and fifty corporations represented in a variety of pavilions. By its end on October 17, 1965, over 51 million people had visited, the highest attendance for a world's fair up to that time. Despite the attendance figures, most critics then and now considered the fair a failure in that it produced a financial loss and presented a body of architecture deemed mediocre at best. Addin to this perception that the fair lacked high culture organizers did not sponsor any exhibits showcasing the best of American, international, or modern art despite the fact that most earlier fairs bad at least one pavilion dedicated to art. Art was seen as a crucial component of displaying a nation's progress; it served as a medium for cultural competition among nations. In New York, only a handful of outdoor sculptures were commissioned by the Fair Corporation. Visitors looking for art at the fair had to search for it among a diverse range of pavilions, some national, some international, and some corporate.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the New York World's Fair's emphasis on capitalism and commercialization downplayed art as an element that should be elevated above other exhibits. This emphasis resulted in placing art in settings that seemed populist, even vulgar to some, in order to attract as many visitors as possible. The best-known example of this approach was the rather garish display of Michelangelo's Pieta, taken from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and relocated for the duration of the fair in the Vatican Pavilion, a structure that mixed modernism and spectacle, high art and low art. For art and architecture critics, the combination of art, commerce, and entertainment, seen in the Vatican Pavilion and common throughout the New York fair, proved to be irreconcilable. Although it is difficult to assess the impact of the fair and its presentation of art on visitors, the placement of art in a commercial context proved to be auspicious. This trend has grown in art worlds - most notably in the blockbuster shows of recent decades. Less remarked upon, however, is the conjunction of this trend with decolonization and the increasing globalization of the art world.

The two most distinctive features of the 1964-1965 fair - no separate fine arts pavilion and the first to feature a number of newly independent nations emerging from colonialism - provide an opportunity to examine the place of the arts in this new global commercial context. This article examines art displays found in selected official international pavilions (the United Arab Republic, Spain, Mexico, and the Vatican) to show that the Fair Corporation sought out great works of art not simply to create a culturally edifying fair, but to use art as spectacle to enhance the commercial aspects of the event. The fair served as a venue where both exhibitors and fair officials used art, high and low, to serve multiple ends, among them economic development, religions proselytizing, and cultural prestige. Commercialization at the fair allowed for a broad definition of art to include fine art and architecture, crafts and artistic reproductions, and performances of music and dance. Art as commodity appeared in a variety of venues, not just in formal exhibits, but also for sale to visitors in pavilion gift shops and in musical displays in front of pavilions to attract visitors inside. This treatment of art allowed for greater accessibility by a wider audience, something that did not sit well with many critics who had narrower views of what constituted art and who considered non-traditional display venues to be inappropriate for fine artworks.

Economics has always been a part of world's fairs, especially in the United States. Beginning with London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, world's fairs have been promoted as both trade fairs and cultural events and have been viewed by historians as defining moments in a nation's history. …