Lexi Echelman (GSAS ’19)

Though New York is home to some of the world’s most well known art museums, few may know that New York University established one of the first contemporary art museums in the city. In 1927, two years before the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors, Albert Eugene Gallatin established the Museum of Living Art as a repository for his growing collection of French and American artworks; it was located at 100 Washington Square East, near today’s Grey Art Gallery.

Gallatin came from a long line of distinguished men who, in the words of a New York Times columnist from 1981, “knew what they wanted and never took no for an answer.” Heir to a large banking fortune and great grandson of New York University founder Albert Gallatin, A.E. Gallatin purchased pieces from artists’ studios during his excursions to Paris and it was not long before his collection became too large for his Park Avenue apartment. At forty six years of age, the younger Gallatin had a dream that New Yorkers would, in his words, “have an opportunity…[to study] at least some of...the newer influences at work in progressive twentieth century painting.” His focus on the public at a time when he believed most twentieth century art to be “in private possession and at dealers” was profound. Gallatin’s choice of New York University as the repository for his collection his evidence of the university’s efforts to make once exclusionary art available to all audiences.

The Gallery of Living Art’s first exhibition opened on December 12, 1927 at 100 Washington Square Place and featured European painters like Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso; there were thirty seven artists featured and fifty eight pieces on display from the American and French schools of painting. The Gallery of Living Art was unique because it allowed both the paintings and the students to give the space life, rather than being a contained, quiet space like other museums of the time, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art or the Museum of Modern Art. Gallatin’s gallery had a certain dynamism to it as a meeting place for students, artists, and the public at large—artists like Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Ilya Bolotowsky, Byron Browne, Peter Busa, George L.K. Morris, David Smith, Charles Shaw, and more appeared at the Gallery of Living Art, making Gallatin’s museum one of the premier places for art conversations in Greenwich Village during the 1930s.

Despite the fame and attention that the Gallery of Living Art received, contemporaries of Gallatin were quick to criticize his university art museum and the type of works he exhibited. In Rudi Blesh’s Modern Art USA: Men, Rebellion, and Conquest 1900-1956, the author stated that Peggy Guggenheim viewed Gallatin’s collection as “boring” and unfitting in a university due to the “dull surroundings.” To established names like the Guggenheim Family, who would establish the Guggenheim Museum, an exhibition space in a university was antithetical to their conception of fine arts. Indeed, even the public at times reacted negatively to Gallatin’s collection: according to ARTnews, Joan Miro’s Dog Barking at the Moon was dismissed as “amusing as decoration.” Gallatin’s purchase of Miro’s work in 1929 and Picasso’s famous Three Musicians in 1936 was met with disdain for their abstractionism and, by extension, Gallatin’s collecting practices.
Jean Helion, a famous abstractionist, defended Gallatin’s vision. Susan Larsen, catalog author for the Gallery of Living Art Revisited exhibition (an exhibition planned, but never opened at, the Grey Art Gallery in the late 1970s), reported that Helion said, “whatever may be the quarrel of the aesthetics and the revolution of habits, it is on the wall that the paintings have to be judged. The role of the Museum of Living Art is precisely to exhibit the terms of the debate.” New York University became a place for critics to gather and discuss art that challenged them, which is the Gallery of Living Art’s enduring legacy. 

Unfortunately, the Gallery, by then called the Museum of Living Art in 1936, closed in 1943. Fisk Kimball, the director for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, took over Gallatin’s collection; this is where his once controversial art is held today.