Alfred H. Barr Jr.


was one of the first American art scholars drawn to modernism. Born in Detroit, he moved to Baltimore with his family at age nine, when his father became the pastor atBaltimore’s First Presbyterian Church. In the early 1920s he earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and a master’s degree in art and archaeology at PrincetonUniversity, and he later earned a Ph.D. in art history at Harvard University. Barr curated his first exhibition, a controversial show of European modernist works, atHarvard’s Fogg Museum in 1925.When he was drafted by a group of New York art patrons to serve as founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Barr brought with him a vision of modernism that encompassed all manner of visual culture, including the work of nonacademic artists. MoMA opened in November 1929 as a threegallery exhibition space in an office building near the permanenthome in which it would open ten years later, at 11 West 53rd Street in New York City.Barr’s interest in the field was reflected in the folk art acquisitions he arranged for MoMA’s collection, as well as in several exhibitions he organized at the museum.In 1937 he presented a landmark showing of limestone sculptures by William Edmondson (1874–1951), who thereby gained the distinction of being the first AfricanAmerican artist to exhibit at MoMA. In late 1942, Barr exhibited the imaginatively decorated shoeshine stand of Sicilian immigrant Joe Milone (c. 1887) in MoMA’slobby, and in the summer of 1943 he mounted a show by self-taught painter Morris Hirschfield (1872–1946).The museum’s conservative trustees deemed these shows unworthy of a serious art museum and considered Barr an ineffective administrator; both factors played arole in his ouster from the museum’s directorship in October 1943. Initially demoted to an advisory directorship, he was named director of collections in 1947, andserved in that influential capacity until his retirement in 1968. There were no further exhibitions of folk art or vernacular art at the museum during the last twenty-fiveyears of Barr’s tenure there, nor have there been since.Tragically, Barr was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease during the last few years of his life, and his memories of his own unprecedented influential career evidentlydied before he did.
See also
African American Art (Vernacular Art);

William Edmonson; Morris Hirschfield
Barr, Alfred.
What Is Modern Painting?
New York, 1943. ——.
Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art.
New York, 1977.Kantor, Sybil Gordon.
Alfred H.Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art.
Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2002.Marquis, Alice Goldfarb.
Alfred H.Barr Jr.: Missionary for the Modern.
Chicago and New York, 1989. Newhall, Beaumont. “Alfred H.Barr Jr.: He Set the Pace and Shaped the Style.”
vol. 78, no. 8 (October 1979): 134–137