visualizing American and European art in MoMA’s Painting and Sculpture collection.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is perhaps the foremost museum of modern and contemporary art, and its fifth floor Painting and Sculpture galleries are the most trafficked areas of the museum. Housing some of the most renowned works from the 1880s through the 1940s by artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Claude Monet, these rooms tell the history of modern art, or at least MoMA’s version of it. The floor plan looks a little like this:
In this diagram, you’ll notice that most of the artworks in the galleries are European works (blue), while the American works—in green—are housed primarily in the interstitial spaces, such as hallways and elevator banks. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith recently wrote, “Since opening its renovated and expanded building in 2004, the Modern has tended to relegate American paintings from the first few decades of the twentieth century to the areas adjoining its escalators. They are excluded as much as ever, if not more, from the overwhelmingly European narrative that dominates the permanent collection galleries.”
This quotation comes from Smith’s review for American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe, an exhibition that runs through January 26, 2014. The exhibition’s website describes American Modern as “a focused look at the strengths and surprises of MoMA’s collection in an area that has played a major role in the institution’s history.” Smith, however, interprets its aims this way: “It wants to prove that, contrary to prevailing views, the Modern did not ignore American artists during the museum’s early decades, when it was acquiring the works of European masters hand over fist.” So the question remains: Has MoMA been collecting American artworks all along?
It turns out that much of the data needed to answer this question lives on MoMA’s website. Each collection object page has extensive information about the artwork, including title, date of creation, and artist’s nationality. Additionally, the MoMA number—also called an accession or acquisition number—seems like an arbitrary string of digits but in fact holds useful information. The last four digits are the year the object entered the museum’s collection; the number before the period denotes the order of the individual acquisition. For example, the accession number for Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad is 3.1930; it was acquired in 1930—the first year of MoMA’s existence—and was the third work to enter the collection that year.
American Modern exhibits works spanning many of MoMA’s collection departments, including Prints and Illustrated Books, Drawings, and Photography. For the purposes of this investigation, I limited my data set to objects from the Painting and Sculpture collection, as these include MoMA’s most well-known (and dare I say prestigious?) works that are consistently on view, and the ones that populate the aforementioned fifth floor galleries.
I used Import.io to create a web crawler that would scrape the data from all works in the P&S online collection. It is important to note that this data is not without its holes. MoMA, like many museums today, is actively involved in digitizing its collection, and its online presence is vast. Still, some works are not online: in certain cases, copyright restrictions prevent objects from appearing on the website, and at other times, the scarcity of staff and funds slows down the digitization process.
After scraping, I cleaned up the data. First, I extracted the four digits indicating the year of acquisition from each object’s accession number.
Next, I removed any unnecessary information from the “nationality” field, which proved to be more of a philosophical question that I had ever imagined. For some artists, such as Mona Hatoum—of Palestinian ethnicity, born in Lebanon, exiled to the United Kingdom, where she works today—assigning nationality is difficult. An artist like George Grosz is listed as “American” in nationality, but “born Germany”; like many European artists in this time, he emigrated to the U.S. as Hitler rose to power. While his nationality at the end of his life was American, Grosz is considered to have contributed most to German Expressionism. Additionally, from 1930—MoMA’s founding year—until now, national borders have shifted.
Nationality, thus, is a fluid identifier, one that can change through out a person’s life and can be multiple (hello, dual citizenship). But an Excel worksheet is not built for ambiguity and nuance. I determined there were three ways that I could code nationality: by the artist’s birthplace, by his or her nationality at death (which is what MoMA’s online collection generally foregrounds), or by contribution to art history. This last method refers to an artist’s place in the development of twentieth century art as understood in the popular imagination (Duchamp was central to French art, Arshile Gorky contributed to American art), a categorization that can be very subjective.
Ultimately, I chose to look at the objects that entered MoMA’s collection over time based on the birthplace of the artist. Using Tableau Public, a free data visualization software, I was able to visually witness the ebbs and flows of MoMA’s collecting practices.
The interactive below shows objects entering MoMA’s P&S collection by birthplace of artist for every year from 1930 to 2013. A larger a bubble indicates the more objects were acquired from said country. I have color-coding the countries by continent (admittedly, another subjective categorization).
Key: orange=Asia, yellow=Africa, blue=Europe, green=North America, purple=Oceania, red=South America
It’s fascinating to quickly scroll through the decades and notice the accumulation of colors as MoMA’s collection becomes more and more diverse. The first years are mostly blue (European countries) with a smattering of green—North America, for the most part the United States. While artists born in the United States are represented in the early years, they tend to be outnumbered by Europeans, especially French artists. It is not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the number of works by American artists consistently outweighs works by artists from any one European country. This makes a lot of sense: it was not until after World War II, when many Europeans emigrated to the U.S. and Abstract Expressionism took its hold, that New York became the center of the art world. In the early 1960s, we see the rise of new, experimental forms of art like Minimalism, Conceptualism, and performance that solidified the prominence of American artists in the history of art. I’ve added a few annotations onto the timeline that hope to contextualize MoMA’s P&S collecting practice within the larger frame of art history.
To answer the original question—has MoMA been collecting American works all along?—the answer is yes and no. Artists born in the United States have been present in the collection from the beginning, starting with Hopper’s House by the Railroad. Still, the early years privileged European works over the works from MoMA’s own homeland. The bar graph below charts out European versus North American artworks by decade. At a glance, we see that European works overwhelmingly exceed North American objects until the 1960s, when they start to level out.
The data has spoken about the American Modern debate, but many stories remain untold. I’m interested in further pulling out trends (as well as outliers) to unearth the history of MoMA’s collecting practices.
For example, what happened in years when the data seems erratic? Anomalies in the representation can often be explained by taking a closer look at what was collected. The year 1942 is overwhelmed by the United States, with more acquisitions of objects by American artists than all the other countries combined. Well, not exactly. One of the year’s major acquisitions was thirty paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series, half of the sixty-panel work shared between MoMA and the Phillips Collection. Generally shown together, these paintings serve as vignettes of the Great Migration of African Americans from rural Southern U.S. to the North. Thus of the thirty-five works collected in 1942, thirty of them can be considered as one larger acquisition. The same situation happened in 2010 when MoMA acquired Franz Erhard Walther’s First Work Set, consisting of fifty-eight elements.
Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series at the Museum of Modern Art (via)
As I continue to develop this project, I want to look at the two other ways to conceptualize nationality that I had outlined above, and compare the resultant visualizations. Additionally, it might be interesting to consider the gap between when a work was made and when it was collected. Museums are never just collecting newly created works; they are constantly examining where there might be gaps in their collections. Collecting down the road, thus, can be a way to revise history; museums start to collect women and minorities that had been excluded from earlier years of the institutions history. Finally, I’d like to do cross-museum comparisons. How have different museums’ collecting practices developed? How are these practices similar or different across institutions?
Of course, we must continually be wary of visual representations, as a slew of colorful dots in varying sizes doesn’t tell the whole story. Not all artwork is collected equal. For example, how can we reconcile years when fewer but more expensive works are collected? Does considering each object as a data entry strip it of its individual story? I believe that, with a healthy dose of skepticism and a critical eye for the history of art and museums, these visualizations can teach us a lot about how art becomes historicized through institutions.
This post is part of project on data visualization for one of my graduate courses, CMS 950: Workshop.