Auburn University’s Jule Collins Smith Museum helps reunite once controversial art collection

Advancing American Art CollectionAUBURN UNIVERSITY – A collection of modernist American art was assembled in 1946 by the U.S. State Department and launched as a traveling exhibition, “Advancing American Art,” to show the world America’s artistic coming of age. Controversy arose, the world tour was short-lived and the collection was brought back to the United States and dismantled.

Now, nearly 70 years later, all but 10 paintings from the original 117 oils and watercolors will be on display Sept. 8 through Jan. 5 at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University in the debut of the exhibition, “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy.”

“‘Advancing American Art’ was the highlight of a U.S. State Department initiative of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War,” said Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Jule Collins Smith Museum. “The exhibition was slated to travel to Eastern Europe, Asia and through the Latin American republic to show the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in the United States.”

Within months after “Advancing American Art” began its exhibition tours, controversy erupted in the American media, in government forums and among the public. The paintings, and some of the artists themselves, were labeled as “subversive” and “un-American.”

By 1947, Congress had eliminated funding for the project and Secretary of State George Marshall had recalled the exhibition. The following year, the War Assets Administration auctioned the paintings as war surplus.

In spite of the debate provoked by the exhibition, Auburn University sought to acquire the entire collection. It successfully bid on a third of the 117 paintings offered in the sale. The rest were purchased by other educational institutions, including the University of Georgia and the University of Oklahoma, as well as various other museums and collectors throughout the United States.

“Having this extraordinary modernist art collection was in many ways one of the impetuses behind building the museum,” said Marilyn Laufer, director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum. “Being able to present the complete story behind this important collection is something that many of us at Auburn University have long anticipated.”

Reuniting the paintings was a three-year collaborative effort of the Jule Collins Smith Museum, the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and the University of Georgia’s Georgia Museum of Art. The exhibition draws mainly from the permanent collections of the three organizing museums, with loans from several other public and private collections across the country.

“Art Interrupted” will leave Auburn and travel to the Fred Jones Museum of Art, the Indiana University Art Museum and the Georgia Museum of Art.

The exhibition was made possible by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.

In 2013, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art will celebrate 10 years of providing the community with opportunities to experience the many ways that “art changes lives” through its changing exhibitions, educational programming and expanding permanent collections.

For more information, go the museum website at http://jcsm.auburn.edu/ and to the official “Art Interrupted” website at http://www.artinterrupted.org/index.php/about/overview-full.