Museum of Modern Art

Transatlantic taste-maker and promoter of modern architecture and design

Updated: September 12, 2012

The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), founded in 1929, was one of the first museums of size and prominence in the United States to display modern art, rejecting the idea of a museum as a chamber of wonders. Its founders envisioned it as a laboratory for new ideas and as a taste-maker. As a result, the MoMA’s exhibitions included not only the traditional arts such as painting and sculpture, but also film, architecture, and design. The museum prominently displayed the work of European artists in the United States and sponsored exhibitions of American art across Europe, making it a vital node in networks of transatlantic exchange in the areas of art, architecture, and design.

The MoMA’s multidisciplinary approach to art and museum curation was influenced by founding director Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s trip to Europe in 1927, during which he visited the Bauhaus workshop in Dessau. The German school's holistic understanding of art in mind, Barr envisioned the MoMA to be a place where all genres of modern art could be displayed in one museum. Various MoMA exhibitions showcased the work of the members of the Bauhaus. One example is the MoMA’s first architectural show, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, which opened in 1932 at the museum and went on tour for six years across the United States. The title of the exhibition’s official catalogue, The International Style, would later become the generally accepted name of the architectural style pioneered by the Bauhaus architects and other members of the European avant-garde. The exhibition showed a model of Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus building in Dessau and projects by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe alongside the works of European and American architects from 15 countries. Among the architects whose work was featured in the show were the Frenchman and founding member of the CIAM Le Corbusier, the American Frank Lloyd Wright, German Oscar Stonorov, and the Austrian-born Richard Neutra. The Modern Architecture exhibition was central to the reception of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe in the United States. By displaying his and other European architects' work, the MoMA helped to foster their later careers in the United States. 

Some members of the Bauhaus personally brought their ideas to the continent: Walter Gropius became a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1937 and, in the same year, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took a teaching position at the Armour Institute of Technology. Herbert Bayer, head of the Bauhaus’s workshop for advertising art in Dessau, immigrated to the United States in 1938. He had already been in contact with the MoMA before World War II and helped organize the exhibition Bauhaus 1919-1928 at the MoMA in 1938. The integration of the émigrés, development of institutes and programs that were inspired by Bauhaus, and last but not least the founding of the New Bauhaus in Chicago led to an Americanization of the Bauhaus after 1936.

The MoMA also adapted the Bauhaus idea of culture by the people, for the people; the museum made an effort to become part of the community and, by doing so, to have an influence on its members and society as a whole. At the museum, the world's first curatorial department devoted to design and architecture, founded in 1932, planned exhibitions as a way to spread “good taste” and to familiarize the public with modern design starting in the late 1930s. The department appeared at a time when modern design found an increasing number of commercial applications in the United States: in the emerging profession of industrial design, émigrés like Raymond Loewy, László Moholy-Nagy, and Bernard Rudofsky again played a major role. The MoMA accompanied this professionalization process with several symposia such as the conference “Industrial Design: a New Profession” held in November of 1946.

Due to the housing crisis that had emerged during the Great Depression and continued through the war years, the topic of new public housing ideas and visions for modern cities became important. Architecture shows like the 1934 exhibition America Can’t Have Housing brought American and European housing reformers together to discuss different approaches to the housing problems of the working classes in Europe and the United States. Among the European architects whose ideas where displayed were Walter Gropius, Werner Hegemann, Walter Curt Behrendt, Raymond Unwin and Hans Bernoulli.

In addition to architecture, the MoMA's role as a taste-maker also played out in the field of interior design. Series like Organic Design, Useful Objects, and Good Design under the direction of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. displayed recent designs, which industrial mass production had made affordable even for the average consumer. Among the sponsors of the June exhibition of Good Design in 1950 was Mies van der Rohe. In that year, works by the Danish designers Finn Juhl and Georg Jensen, the Swedish Greta Magnusson-Grossman, and the Americans Don R. Knorr, Davis Pratt, Russel Wright, and Alvin Lustig were shown. All the furniture (frequently including items by Knoll Associates), pottery, and fabrics on display could be bought in stores, making it possible for museum visitors to take home the art they saw in MoMA exhibitions and to live surrounded by modern design.

The MoMA, however, did not only seek to influence American tastes. During the Cold War the museum designed exhibitions in cooperation with the U.S. government to present the work of American architects, industrial designers and artists to a European audience. The exhibitions were conceived of as a way to counter the emergence of Soviet products in Western European markets and to combat the negative public image the United States faced in postwar Europe. The perception of the U.S. as a military empire with a shallow, materialistic culture was prevalent, and some intellectuals in countries like France feared a weakening of their national identity through the arrival of American consumerism and mass culture. By displaying American goods and architecture as modern, cultural objects at trade fairs across Europe, the U.S. wanted to advertise the so-called American Way of Life and hoped to link American industrial design with Anti-Communism.

Between 1951 and 1955 the MoMA joined an existing government-led image campaign and sent three exhibitions to Europe. At the first exhibit, Design for Use, USA (1951-52), which was sponsored by the State Department and the European Cooperation Administration, over five hundred household objects – many of which were incidentally created by immigrant designers such as Eva Zeisel – were shown in Stuttgart, Munich, West-Berlin, Milan, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Trieste. The contents of the exhibition had previously been shown in the Good Design exhibitions and were meant to demonstrate the everyday comforts of American design. This exhibit represented an international style with a reduced and clean-lined design that had been influenced by European artists and groups, including the Bauhaus.

In 1955 a MoMA exhibition called 50 Years of American Art and designed specifically with a French audience in mind opened in Paris as part of the cultural festival Salute to France, which had been organized by the U.S. Information Service in France. Mural-scale abstract expressionist paintings by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko – both European immigrants to the United States – and Jackson Pollock sought to prove America’s connection to the European art tradition and to emphasize the freedom of artistic expression in the United States. Designs by Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, and even Tupperware products were also displayed. Postwar architecture opened the show with giant photos, scale models, and plans of skyscrapers and factories designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra, and Marcel Breuer. By displaying architecture and less traditional artistic genres, the U.S. government wanted to demonstrate that the nation was “capable of transforming the more technical areas of cultural production into aesthetically significant art forms,” as art historian Gay McDonald writes. This form of cultural diplomacy aimed to both promote a positive image of the United States and to further its strategic and economic interests in Europe.

However, the European exhibitions had only limited success in reducing European fears regarding the United States’ leading role in the postwar decades. The propaganda aspects of those shows were readily apparent to exhibition guests and critics alike. Nonetheless, the efforts of the MoMA and the U.S. government helped to renew interest in modern art and design. In 1953 the journalist Betty Pepis interviewed 20 designers from outside the United States about their impressions of the American design market for the New York Times. They all spoke highly of the methods of production and experimentation in the U.S. and knew the work of the designers who were represented in the MoMA’s European exhibitions.

Selected Publications

Bee, Harriet S. and Michelle Elligott, Eds. Art in Our Time: A Chronicle of the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004.

Lowry, Glenn D. and Jan Postma. The Museum of Modern Art in this Century. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009.

Museum of Modern Art Press Release. "Democracy in Design Shown in Exhibition of Useful Objects". November 26, 1940.

Museum of Modern Art Press Release. "Large New Group of 'Good Design', Exhibits to Go on View at Mart on June 22". June 1950.

Museum of Modern Art Press Release. "Museum's 'Design for Use, U.S.A.' Exhibition Sailed for Europe". January 8, 1951.

Museum of Modern Art Press Release. "Twentieth Century American Art Will Be in Salute to France". February 11, 1955.

Museum of Modern Art Press Release. "Work by Le Corbusier to be Shown at Museum". June 28, 1951.

Selected Bibliography

Castillo, Greg. Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Castillo, Greg. "Domesticating the Cold War: Household Consumption as Propaganda in Marshall Plan Germany." Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 40, No. 2 (2005): 261-288, http://jch.sagepub.com/content/40/2/261.

Droste, Magdalena. Bauhaus, 1919–1933. Köln: Taschen, 2002.

Kentgens-Craig, Margret. The Bauhaus and America: First Contacts 1919–1936. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

McDonald, Gay. "The Launching of American Art in Postwar France. Jean Cassou and the Musee National d’Art Moderne." American Art Vol. 13, No. 1 (1999): 40-61.

McDonald, Gay. "Selling the American Dream: MoMA, Industrial Design and Post-War France." Journal of Design History Vol. 17, No. 4 (2004): 397–412.

Pepis, Betty. "Ideas for Export." New York Times, 16 August 1953. Quoted in Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 111–112.

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