Arts and Entertainment
12:27 pm
Mon February 25, 2013

How the University of Oklahoma Bought a Georgia O'Keeffe for $50

Cos Cob
Credit Georgia O'Keeffe / Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

In 1946, the U.S. State Department tried to diplomatically reach politically unstable cultures in Eastern Europe and Latin America through a traveling exhibit of 117 modern and abstract paintings by leading American artists of the period.

“It really was almost a kind of "Who's who?" of American art at the time,” said Mark White, the Chief Curator of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. “Georgia O'Keeffe. Ben Shahn. George L. K. Morris. Arthur Dove. John Marin.”

White says the artists and galleries gave the State Department discounts to purchase the artwork instead of renting it. The exhibit successfully toured through Paris, Prague, Havana and Port-au-Prince throughout 1946 and 1947, until presidential and Congressional pressure led Secretary of State George Marshall to recall the pieces.

“It was abstract, and abstraction was, even at that time, considered something somehow ‘un-American’," White says. “It didn't always show the best image of the United States. There were a number of the artists that were leftist in sympathy. The irony of this is that the exhibit was intended really to showcase that the United States emphasized freedom of expression as something that was central to American democracy.”

After sitting in a vault for a year, the federal government decided to get rid of the paintings, and recoup the expenses through a public auction. Since many of the artists had become even more well-known by 1948, the State Department thought they would make a profit.

“In order to do this effectively, they had to reclassify the art as 'War Assets'," and then they could auction them off to the public,” White says. “Well, in the War Assets Administration auction rules, there is a little-known clause that any institution that is receiving federal or state funds automatically gets a 95 percent discount.”

The three major winners of the auction, the University of Oklahoma, Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), and the University of Georgia, all purchased the art at a deep discount.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cos Cob, listed in the May 1947 issue of Congressional Record for $1,000, cost OU only $50.

The three universities have reassembled 107 of the pieces for a new, two-year national tour. Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy opens to the public Saturday, March 2 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On why Secretary of State George Marshall bowed to Congressional Pressure

Congress had a real problem with the idea that the State Department was buying work, and work that would have been deemed controversial in nature for a variety of reasons. Because it was abstract, and abstraction was, even at that time, considered something somehow "un-American." It was something European. It was controversial because it didn't always show the best image of the United States. So it might show an image of poverty, or it might show an image of some sort of political or social concern. And finally, there were a number of the artists that were leftist in sympathy. They had connections, or former connections, to Communist groups. Even if they no longer were actively involved in Communist groups, they had at one time.

On President Harry S Truman’s Opposition to the Exhibit

He called it "ham and eggs" art. He publicly disparaged this entire exhibit. So it really took a lashing from a number of different members of the federal government. In a way, it was an attempt by the newly-elected Republican majority to, I guess clean house of the last remnants of the New Deal. And this was seen as something that very much in the spirit of the New Deal.

On the idea of “Cultural Diplomacy”

I think other countries have actually been more interested in this idea, and have used it more effectively. I think it's an idea that the American government always found a little uncomfortable. They didn't like the idea of necessarily promoting culture. This exhibit really tells that story. I think other governments have been far more interested, and have created ministries of culture expressly for this purpose, which is of course something that does not exist in any real way, shape or form in the American government. I think the closest we get is the NEA, and even then, it is constantly under attack.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Mark White, welcome to World Views.

MARK WHITE: Thank you very much.

GRILLOT: This is an interesting art exhibit that used to belong to the State Department. It was collected by a curator there. It became quite controversial in nature, and was disassembled and then reassembled, I believe by the University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Auburn University. What is it about this exhibit, in particular, that was so controversial?

MARK WHITE: Advancing American Art was an attempt on behalf of the State Department under the Truman Administration to reach out to create a kind of cultural diplomacy between the United States and other cultures. Especially cultures, at that point, that were considered politically unstable. So they were looking to Eastern Europe. They were looking to Latin America. Anywhere where the State Department considered the issue of democracy to be central, not only to that country's interest, but also to the United States. And they felt that culture was really the kind of tool that could build a bridge between disparate nations. So they had been sending exhibits for some time, but this exhibit was really the first to showcase modern art. Not the history of American art, but really what was going on in the United States in 1946. And that was part of the controversy that ultimately erupted around this exhibit. Initially the exhibit was received incredibly well. It was received very well overseas. It showed in Paris. It showed in Prague. It showed in Havana, and Port-au-Prince, and it generally was very well received by the culture that was viewing the exhibit. What happened though, however, is that the State Department, in order to put this exhibit together in an affordable way, actually purchased the work. Because it was going to be cheaper to purchase the work, especially at a discount, and a lot of the galleries and the artists gave the State Department a discount, instead of renting it. And Congress had a real problem with the idea that the State Department was buying work, and work that would have been deemed controversial in nature for a variety of reasons. Because it was abstract, and abstraction was, even at that time, considered something somehow "un-American." It was something European. It was controversial because it didn't always show the best image of the United States. So it might show an image of poverty, or it might show an image of some sort of political or social concern. And finally, there were a number of the artists that were leftist in sympathy. They had connections, or former connections, to Communist groups. Even if they no longer were actively involved in Communist groups, they had at one time. So a lot of members of Congress had a real problem, and that really kind of was the source of the controversy.

GRILLOT: So the controversy wasn't international in nature, it was domestic in nature. It was the American government that had issues with this particular collection of art.

WHITE: Definitely. And the irony of this is that the exhibit was intended really to showcase that the United States emphasized freedom of expression as something that was central to American democracy.

REBECCA CRUISE: Well, what's happened to the artwork then? I take it the exhibit was closed down after these protests...

GRILLOT: Well, how long did it run, exactly?

CRUISE: Yeah.

GRILLOT: How long did it go overseas?

WHITE: The exhibit began in October 1946, and it was ultimately recalled in April 1947 by Secretary of State [George] Marshall, who actually had come in after the exhibit had gotten started. And so under Congressional pressure, he recalled the exhibit, and it was about a year after the Congressional hearing, and there was actually a full-scale Congressional hearing, in which they brought the Assistant Secretary of State [for Public Affairs] William Benton in and questioned him. This is all in the Congressional Record. You can read how they sort-of grilled him about this exhibit.

CRUISE: It was a very big deal then, it sounds like.

WHITE: It was a very big deal. And President Truman got in on it as well. Several reporters asked President Truman his opinion on the work. He called it "ham and eggs" art. He publicly disparaged this entire exhibit. So it really took a lashing from a number of different members of the federal government. In a way, it was an attempt by the newly-elected Republican majority to, I guess clean house of the last remnants of the New Deal. And this was seen as something that very much in the spirit of the New Deal.

GRILLOT: So it got caught up in other political issues at the time.

WHITE: Very much so.

GRILLOT: And certainly at a time of concerns about, as you said, "Leftist" or "un-American" art and artists.

WHITE: Yeah. Certainly.

CRUISE: And it's been sitting in a vault somewhere, or what happened to it after 1947?

WHITE: Well, it did indeed sit in a vault for almost a year. Then they decided they needed to just get rid of it. So Benton ultimately made the decision that it would be publicly auctioned, and hopefully the State Department would recoup its expenses. And not only had the exhibit become infamous by that time, but many of the artists were incredibly well-known artists. So they really thought they would see a profit.

GRILLOT: So, for example, who are some of the artists? Georgia O'Keeffe is part of this collection...

WHITE: Georgia O'Keeffe. Ben Shahn. George L. K. Morris. Arthur Dove. John Marin. It really was almost a kind of "Who's who?" of American art at the time. Artists that had really established their reputations at least 20 years earlier. Artists that were up-and-coming. It was really, I think, an important showcase of many of the major American artists at that point. So the State Department decides to auction this off. They have a preview at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It is an incredible success, the auction. There are a number of bids that come in. What happens, however, and this is one of the interesting parts of the story, is that, there was a little-known clause in the auction. In order to do this effectively, they had to reclassify the art as "War Assets," and then they could auction them off to the public. So they're reclassified as War Assets. Well, in the War Assets Administration auction rules, there is a little-known clause that any institution that is receiving federal or state funds automatically gets a 95 percent discount. Well, the three major winners of the auction - the University of Oklahoma, Alabama Polytechnic, which becomes Auburn University, and the University of Georgia, are all receiving those funds, so they all get a 95 percent discount.

CRUISE: 95 percent.

GRILLOT: That's incredible. What an amazing steal, more or less.

WHITE: Yeah, yeah! Just to give you one example, Georgia O'Keeffe at the time is fetching sizable prices for her work. She's a very successful artist in 1948. The Georgia O'Keeffe that came to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art cost the University $50.

GRILLOT: Wow. That's amazing. So this collection then was auctioned off, and the three institutions brought it back together. And now it is making its way through each university's museum, is that correct? Or is this being shown more broadly? Is it again traveling overseas?

WHITE: It is not traveling overseas. We were hoping to do that, but it becomes increasingly complicated in this day and age to travel an exhibition overseas. We would've liked to, but it just proved impossible for a number of logistical reasons. It is traveling. It will be traveling until 2014, and the three museums that received the bulk of the exhibition have reconstituted, as much as we could find, there were 117 works that were originally auctioned in 1948. We were able to locate 107, which is pretty good.

GRILLOT: Pretty amazing.

WHITE: And we have recreated the exhibit under the title Art Interrupted.

CRUISE: The idea of the exhibit to begin with was kind of this effort of diplomacy or cultural expression to an international audience. Is that something that we continue to see attempts at? Is this used in foreign policy in any way since that time? Not this exhibit necessarily, but other attempts?

WHITE: It does have a life today, although not to the extent that you see it in the 1940's. We actively still participate, that is our museum, in a kind of art exchange. We will often show aspects of our collection in various embassies around the world. In fact, just recently we had work in Africa, in Finland, and Canada at the embassies there. So it is something that continues, but I don't think that there is, at present, a kind of government incentive, or motivation, to actively use art as form of cultural diplomacy.

GRILLOT: I noticed in reading about the exhibit, and preparing for this discussion, that in 1946 at the State Department there was actually a Visual Arts Specialist that was involved in actually creating this exhibit. Is that the kind of position that no longer exists in the State Department? They still have a Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and there are those programs for cultural exchanges, educational exchanges, but using art, actually art forms, as a way to communicate across countries, or to share information and engage, more or less, in diplomatic relations. It seems to be, as you're saying, less relevant today, but does that kind of position still exist at the State Department?

WHITE: As far I know, no. I don't think that there is a current, they wouldn't have that title any more...

GRILLOT: It's an interesting, you know, "Visual Arts Specialist." Somebody that is clearly engaged in trying to visually, perhaps, represent our country in foreign countries.

WHITE: Yeah. I mean, certainly that title as it stands does not exist any longer in the State Department, and I don't think that they really have somebody who is actively creating exhibits for foreign countries anymore.

GRILLOT: So this notion, then, from its origination, this exhibit, and its purpose, and then its recollection, and studying this exhibit. Can you tell if this is something that is purely American?

WHITE: I think other countries have actually been more interested in this idea, and have used it more effectively. I think it's an idea that the American government always found a little uncomfortable. They didn't like the idea of necessarily promoting culture. This exhibit really tells that story. I think other governments have been far more interested, and have created ministries of culture expressly for this purpose, which is of course something that does not exist in any real way, shape or form in the American government. I think the closest we get is the NEA, and even then, it is constantly under attack.

GRILLOT: The National Endowment for the Arts.

WHITE: That's correct.

GRILLOT: Well, it sounds like an interesting event, so thank you very much Mark, for joining us on World Views today.

WHITE: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

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