Associated American Artists: Art by Subscription
Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities
Associated American Artists: Art by Subscription features over 70 limited-edition, original wood engravings, etchings, aquatints and mezzotints created by some of America's most recognizable artists, including Peggy Bacon, Thomas Hart Benton, John Costigan, Miguel Covarrubias, John Steuart Curry, Mabel Dwight, Doris Lee, Luigi Lucioni, Reginald Marsh, Sam Thal and Grant Wood.
The artworks in this exhibition were created and published between 1935 and 1968 for the Associated American Artists (AAA), an organization and a gallery established in New York City in 1934 by art promoter and publicist Reeves Lewenthal (1910-1987).
In the 1930s, thousands of banks in America failed, the United States was gripped by an economic depression, and the emotional climate of the American people was at a low point. It was one of the most trying times in the country's history.
Reeves Lewenthal chose this time in history to form the organization, Associated American Artists, in which he designed an extraordinarily innovative system to sell and distribute affordable, original artworks to every American citizen. He met with several well-known artists, including Thomas Hart Benton, and proposed hiring each of them to produce etchings that he, in turn, would sell to middle-class buyers for $5 apiece, plus $2 for the frame.
As an art dealer and promoter, Lewenthal knew the artists, their talents and their frustrations. He also knew the market for original art was modest--after all, most of the country was rural and many people did not live near an art gallery or art museum, nor did they have the income to purchase original art.
To make this visionary art program possible, Lewenthal set out to secure financial assistance from several individuals and organizations. Not surprisingly, he received only resounding, emphatic "NOs!" "People are clamoring for bread and YOU want to give them ART?!"
It would be almost two years until Lewenthal was able to successfully sell his idea and obtain the backing he needed to launch his project to make original, fine art, at affordable prices, available to the general public.
Participating artists gladly committed themselves to the idea of a wider distribution of their art; however, this also meant enormous price concessions as many commercial galleries refused to represent them if they signed on with AAA. Leaving behind abstract theories and images, these artists based their art on the social imagery of everyday America and the familiar scenery of the country. They created positive, realist images of a strong and idealized America. In this regard, they were at the forefront of the rapidly developing American Regionalist movement.
Lewenthal ingeniously used the post office as his means of distribution; AAA printed and distributed sales catalogs throughout America, allowing citizens to browse through them at their leisure. He also marketed direct to the public via mail order in magazines such as Time and Reader's Digest. Several department stores also carried AAA prints.
As a result, budding collectors sprang up across the country. Americans eagerly filled long pent-up cultural voids, and the program was an overwhelming success. People did need bread to nourish their bodies, but it was proven they hungered for beauty and spiritual nourishment, as well. Art fed their souls. …