2020 marks ninety years of temporary traveling exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum. Perhaps one of the best examples that brings to life this aspect of the Museum’s programs is Cranbrook’s brief but wildly successful partnership with LIFE Magazine.
The Cranbrook-LIFE Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting opened in 1940, ten years after Cranbrook Art Museum hosted its first traveling exhibition, organized by the American Union of Decorative Artists and featuring contemporary interior design. The idea of temporary traveling exhibits at Cranbrook began the same year as the permanent collection was established by founder George G. Booth. It furthered Booth’s commitment to presenting contemporary art as foremost a learning tool for Academy of Art students. It was intended “to remind our students that art is a living thing and that the record of our times is being created from day to day by the artists of this age, and in so doing perhaps to stimulate the creative spirit among those who work here.”
Cranbrook-LIFE was a celebration of contemporary U.S. art meant to symbolize “America’s increasing responsibility as a democratic world art center.” (Life, May 27, 1940) As such, LIFE invited sixty painters, living and working in America, to submit three paintings to be voted on by a jury of six. The painters included Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Cranbrook’s own Zoltan Sepeshy. The jury, comprised of Sepeshy, two leading art museum directors, an editor at LIFE Magazine, a representative from the Federal Works Agency Section of Fine Arts, and a well-respected American painter and educator, convened in a New York City warehouse where they spent four hours whittling down 180 submissions to the final sixty paintings shipped to Cranbrook for the show. One of these was Grant Wood’s American Gothic! Loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago, the already famous painting appears to be the only piece in the exhibition to come from another art museum.
If you’re at all familiar with LIFE, you may be asking yourself why a popular weekly magazine, known for its photographic general-interest stories, would make a foray like this into the art world? According to a 1940 TIME Magazine article, in the previous three years, “the No. 1 U.S. source of popular knowledge of U.S. art has been LIFE, which has reproduced for the man-in-the-street’s weekly dime some 452 paintings (usually in full color) by U.S. artists.” Your next question might be why it was held at Cranbrook, as opposed to, say, the newly constructed Museum of Modern Art building in New York City? Florence Davies of the Detroit News may have answered that, when she wrote at the time: “Life Magazine picked Cranbrook not only because of the enchanting setting of the place as a whole, but more particularly because it found there ‘work in progress—an atmosphere of creative activity.’”
The exhibition drew an estimated 2,500 national and international visitors in the short two weeks it was on display from May 17-June 2, 1940. Because of the size of the show, it could not be held in the current museum building on Lone Pine Road and Academy Way (Eliel Saarinen’s museum building began construction during the exhibition). And, as the Academy student exhibition was currently occupying the Cranbrook Pavilion, the decision was made to utilize the Academy’s Painting Department Studios. Opening night was a festive gala. Attendees, including George and Ellen Booth, Loja and Eliel Saarinen, Edsel B. Ford, Albert Kahn, and “1,000 Detroit socialites braved wintry winds” in formal attire. (Time, June 3, 1940)
Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and during the beginning months of the War in Europe, pro-American sentiment was high, as evidenced by the placement of potted American-grown tomatoes in windowsills as decoration. According to TIME Magazine, the music for the evening was by U.S. composers and refreshments included “Rhine wine flavored to taste like U.S. new-mown hay.” (!?)
Cranbrook-LIFE marks the beginning of the Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records, which illuminate thirty-six years of temporary traveling exhibits, and are rife with names of renowned artists that have exhibited at Cranbrook throughout its history.
It’s not all in the past, though! Don’t miss Cranbrook Art Museum’s current traveling exhibition, In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969, on view until March 8, 2020.
–Deborah Rice, Head Archivist