In 1940, a landmark Italian Renaissance exhibition made a stop at the Museum of Modern Art, leading visitors to question its commitment to the contemporary.

In January of 1940, Stephen C. Clark, chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), received an irate letter. “As a visitor of the Museum of Modern Art I object very energetically to seeing this boring old stuff,” it read. “I do not use a buggy either when I can ride with motor cars.”

The exhibition that provoked this outcry was Italian Masters, an incredible gathering of 21 paintings and seven sculptures from the Italian Renaissance. In Esopus 24, the most recent issue of the nonprofit Esopus arts magazine, MoMA Chief of Archives and Library Michelle Elligott shares the story of the exhibition. It’s part of the recurring “Modern Artifacts” series in Esopus, which excavates narratives from the MoMA archives.

Photographs of train carrying artworks arriving in New York, arrival of the crates at the Museum, and unpacking of the works of art
Photographs of train carrying artworks arriving in New York, arrival of the crates at the Museum, and unpacking of the works of art © MoMA Activities via Esopus


“The Museum of Modern Art is our oldest and most significant institutional partnership,” Tod Lippy, Esopus editor, told Hyperallergic. “Michelle Elligott and I have created 17 installments of the ‘Modern Artifacts’ series over the past 10 years, ranging in subject matter from the Museum’s first guest book to its significant Scott Burton archive, and it’s been a privilege to bring these otherwise hard-to-see archival materials to our readership.”

Organized for the 1939 San Francisco World’s FairItalian Masters had traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago before its stop in New York. Clark had stated in a release that MoMA’s “acceptance of this exhibition of Italian masterpieces does not indicate a change in the established policy of the Museum,” and added that “the influence of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque traditions upon the modern artist is fundamental and continuous.”

Yet why was this grand assembly of works by MichelangeloRaphaelBotticelliFra AngelicoDonatellodella Robbia, and Titian at MoMA, and not the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Elligott writes:

In fact, the exhibition was first offered to the Met, but it declined. Supplemental insurance of $5,000 per week — a considerable expense at the time — was required due to the high valuations of the artwork, and the Met reportedly found this added expense unpalatable. (At that time, the Met had an agreement with the city of New York requiring that it be open to the public free of charge on certain days, and there was a general inclination there against instituting any special admission fees.) By increasing its own admission fee, MoMA not only covered the costs but actually brought in twice as much revenue as was required.

Since its founding in 1929, MoMA had avidly pledged its galleries to modern and contemporary art. An artists’ group known as the American Abstract Artists organized a boycott, and issued a broadside that asked “How Modern is the Museum of Modern Art?” They declared: “In 1939 the Museum professed to show ART IN OUR TIME.” Now they questioned what this celebration of the Italian Renaissance suggested about its commitment. “Why and when does a modern museum depart from presenting ‘the Art of Today’ to promoting the art of yesterday? Why not day-before-yesterday? Why not Resurrections, Adorations and Madonnas? Why not build Pyramids? Why not tear down the Museum and build a pyramid!”


More materials from the 1940 Italian Masters exhibition are digitized online at MoMAEsopus 24 is available to order, and also features a participatory project by Marco Maggi16 removable prints by Tony Tasset, and Hayden Dunham’s melting paper among its 228 pages.