Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Education, Administration, and Class Struggle at the Museum of Modern Art, 1937-1969

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Education, Administration, and Class Struggle at the Museum of Modern Art, 1937-1969

Article excerpt

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Department of Education of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York reached the pinnacle of success. The department's staff of 40, led by nationally recognized educator Victor D'Amico, provided services to schools and teachers, adults, families, and children, reaching hundreds of thousands through its outreach programs (D'Amico, 1951). The People's Art Center, housed in new facilities at West 54th Street, was the hub of its activity, but the department had influence throughout the United States and beyond. MoMA educational exhibitions traveled the world, and plans for more were underway. Within a span of a few months, however, the department went from vibrant to moribund. Programs were canceled, the majority of the staff was let go, and office and studio spaces were reassigned to other departments. D'Amico himself was obliged to retire (Victor D'Amico Papers, I.14-I.16. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York, 2012).

This article is intentionally revisionist, to rebut claims that D'Amico's education department was elitist, behind the times, and too expensive and so deserved its fate (Council on Museums and Education in the Visual Arts, Newsom, & Silver, 1978). I argue that these are rationalizations masking a belief system that allowed MoMA's administrators to treat the educators as nonessential and disposable. The seeds of this argument come from labor historian Amy Tyson (2013), who worked as an interpreter at a living history museum in Minnesota. She used her insider's knowledge to reveal how the museum's interpreters and administrators engaged in class conflict in their workplace. Tyson's insight led me to take a fresh look at the story of the MoMA education department's demise. How was social class implicated in relationships among MoMA's staff and board members? How did class conflict potentially affect attitudes toward the role of education at MoMA and decisions that were made about the education department?

A simple analysis of production and consumption would be inadequate to explain the outcomes at MoMA. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's social theory (Bourdieu, 1984; Bourdieu & Darbel, 1990) provides a useful vocabulary for describing the roles and relationships among departments in an art museum. Bourdieu's framework reveals how class competition could have influenced the marginalization of the education department at MoMA and shaped the discourse regarding the department's closure in ways that favored the museum's dominant class. I also view the connection between art museum workers' professional roles and class affiliations in light of the artworld as explicated by George Dickie (1974). Dickie's theory clarifies the way in which modern art in particular was implicated in power relationships.


My interest in this topic began with the mention of D'Amico in my art education history textbook (Efland, 1990). I wondered why I had never heard D'Amico's name during my decade as an art museum educator. Published sources provided some idea of the scope of D'Amico's career but no explanation for why his legacy is overlooked. My search led to the website of The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Using their online finding guide (Victor D'Amico Papers, 2012), I identified folders that contained information about the education department's last years and dissolution. I was able to read those materials during a study trip to New York in June 2015. In November 2015, I returned to the MoMA archives to visit the Bates Lowry Papers. Lowry was MoMA's director for part of the period under investigation.

Because my research draws on personal and institutional documents from MoMA's physical archives, the perspective is sometimes limited by what the authors experienced and perceived, and filtered by what materials they chose to keep. I supplemented data gleaned from the archives with transcriptions from the MoMA Oral History Program and press releases available online. …

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