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From the Archives: The Walker Curator Who Sparked a Red-Baiting Scandal

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy is a new touring exhibition that sheds light on what one scholar called “one of the most infamous examples of red-baitingand censorship in the pre-McCarthy era United States”—and on the Walker’s first curator, J. Leroy Davidson, who was at the center of it all.

LeRoy Davidson at the Walker, circa 1941

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy is a new touring exhibition that sheds light on what one scholar called “one of the most infamous examples of red-baiting and censorship in the pre-McCarthy era United States”—and one of the Walker’s first curators, J. LeRoy Davidson, was at the center of it all.

The Walker’s role in this saga begins in 1939, when Davidson arrived in Minneapolis to help prepare for the 1940 reopening of the Walker Art Galleries, founded by T.B. Walker, as the public Walker Art Center. The Walker archives don’t tell us very much about Davidson. From our few photos, the 31-year old appears rather camera shy—unlike his boss, Daniel Defenbacher, the Walker’s charismatic director, who’d hired Davidson. But we do know that he was an art historian specializing in Chinese painting, with a keen eye for contemporary art. He was also fluent in French and German, and read Chinese.

Those two areas of interest made Davidson uniquely qualified for his role as assistant director and curator at the Walker. His expertise was used in reviewing the vast Chinese collection of T.B. Walker, while at the same time building a collection of modern masterpieces such as the purchase of Franz Marc’s Large Blue Horses in 1942; a work that became the cornerstone of the Walker Art Center collection. By all accounts it was Davidson who first became aware of the availability of Large Blue Horses in Switzerland and passed the information onto Hudson Walker—grandson of T.B. Walker, trustee of the T.B. Walker Foundation, and president of the American Federation of Arts—who secured the painting for the Walker.

Werner Drewes, A Dark Thought (Was Visiting My Peaceful Backyard), 1943; Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Advancing American Art Collection

Davidson and Defenbacher made sure the Walker Art Center was buzzing with activity in the first two years of its existence. Artists worked in the galleries and in the art school. Exhibitions of local, regional, and national artists were in the works featuring artists like Syd Fossum, Cameron Booth, and Marsden Hartley. Also organized were educational exhibitions like Paintings and their X-Rays in 1940, which used works from the T.B. Walker Collection to display the new technology at work in painting restoration. And Davidson put his scholarship in Chinese art to use in creating a new gallery and a comprehensive catalog for the Walker’s famed jade collection, now on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

World War II, not surprisingly, changed all that. The Walker was part of a string of art centers across the country that had been established through a WPA program run by Defenbacher; now they were to be enlisted for the war effort. The Walker became a civil defense site where rubber drives and other materials were gathered. Its exhibition program became a propaganda tool to shore up support for the war, with shows like America Builds for Defense and Great Britain: Get to Know Your Allies.

Paintings and their X-Rays, 1940

Many Walker staff members were drafted, including Davidson, who left in 1943 to join the War Department. Details about his service are scarce, though in his essay in the Art Interrupted catalogue, curator Dennis Harper states that Davidson was part of “the Army Signal Corps and was involved with graphic arts at the War Department.” What is clear is that Defenbacher sorely missed Davidson, lamenting his absence to the Walker board. Although his time at the Walker had been brief, Davidson’s contribution was tremendous in developing both its programming and its collection: through exhibitions, attendance had risen from 10,000 in 1940 to 123,000 in 1942, as Defenbacher noted in his annual report in 1943.

Sadly, the Walker Art Center’s loss was the State Department’s gain: that’s where Davidson landed a plum job after the war ended in 1946. Barbara Kingsolver described it through one of her fictional characters in her 2009 novel, Lacuna:

The Department of State is getting into the art business. … the idea is to pack up a fresh load of paintings on Uncle Sam’s ticket, and parade them around the museums of Europe. A special show of American paintings to send overseas, to show those Parisians we’re not a bunch of rubes. … They recruited my old boss for the job, Leroy Davidson from the Walker. He only got 50 thousand clams to work with but he’s done a killer job, Leroy chose everything himself. He’s fed up with the Europeans sniggering about heart-throbbing landscapes and the American Scene, so he decided to give them an eyeful. Seventy-nine paintings, mostly Modern Art: Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, it’s a killer.

The actual aim of Davidson’s Advancing American Art exhibitions, however, was not to one-up uppity Parisians, but to promote the individualism and freedom of expression enjoyed by contemporary American artists–especially the edgier ones. In addition to those names mentioned above, Davidson purchased works by Arthur Dove, Adolph Gottlieb, Romare Bearden, William Baziotes, Edward Hopper, Robert Motherwell, Max Weber, Charles Sheeler, and Philip Guston, among many others. As an instrument of “cultural diplomacy,” the exhibitions would tour internationally to areas the State Department felt were vulnerable to Communist influence: one group of works went to Paris, then Prague; another to Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Port-au-Prince.

Ralston Crawford, Wing Fabrication, 1946; Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, The University of Oklahoma; purchase, US State Department Collection; Courtesy Ralston Crawford Estate

Before then, a preview exhibition of sorts, in October 1946 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, received rave reviews from art critics. But once the works were overseas the US media, followed by members of Congress and conservative groups, were soon castigating the style and content of many of them. In addition, writes Paul Manoguerra in the Art Interrupted catalogue, “the leftist political and Central and Eastern European backgrounds of many of the artists … conflicted with William Randolph Hearst and his media conglomerate’s longstanding, powerful, pointed, and dogged vilification of leftists and Communist political viewpoints in the United States.” Even President Truman chimed in with his famous quip, “If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot.” The Advancing American Art program was abruptly discontinued and the works were called back to the US.

At the Walker, Defenbacher—a former government man himself—had shown great enthusiasm for Davidson’s work. That turned to outrage, as evidenced by a fiery letter he sent to George Marshall on April 9, 1947, accusing the Secretary of State of reacting to “protests of untutored and technically deficient laymen” and killing “the most progressive governmental art project of our time.” In one particularly amazing passage he rails: “This is 1947. Intelligent creators whether in science, education or art cannot limit themselves to the ideology of 1847. In fact they cannot and must not limit themselves or be limited to any ideology. Progressive art is probably less understood than progressive science, but you must certainly know that without progressiveness either would become useless.” (See the full letter below.)

Davidson wrote to thank Defenbacher and told him that his letter to Marshall had eventually circulated to Davidson’s own desk for a response. “We are whipping it right back to the front office,” he wrote, “and indicating that a letter of this importance is beyond the competence of this Division and are requesting that an answer be prepared in the Secretary’s office.”

Arthur Dove, Grey-Greens, 1942; Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Advancing American Art Collection; Copyright the Estate of Arthur G. Dove, courtesy Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

However, it soon became clear that the State Department had no intention of retaining the paintings, despite further protests by Defenbacher and his museum colleagues. The now-scandalous artworks would be auctioned off as “surplus” through the War Assets Administration (WAA); they went back on view in New York, this time at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the spring of 1948.

Defenbacher and other museum directors tried another approach to keep the collection together. The paintings were to be sold through a sealed bid process that was open to all, but with a complicated “priority” given to government agencies, nonprofit organizations with ties to the government, and veterans. Defenbacher submitted bids on behalf of the Walker Art Center, stressing that it was a “duly certified, educational institution” under the WAA guidelines. In a letter of intent to the War Department, he writes, “We wish to purchase all of the 117 oils and watercolors listed in the Sales Announcement. These paintings were originally purchased by the Government with a view to forming a collection of contemporary American art rather than as individual works and we strongly believe that the collection should be kept intact and housed in a public institution.”

Similarly, 26 member museums of the American Federation of Arts, including the Walker, lent money to the AFA to bid on the collection. If the AFA were awarded the collection then it would be available to its member museums for exhibit. But AFA director Thomas Parker had another motivation: fear that the auction would drive down the price of contemporary American art. He wrote candidly to Defenbacher: “I am not sanguine about the Federation being able to acquire through purchase any substantial group of the paintings. I do feel, however, that its submission of a bid for each work and, through these bids aids in the establishment of a fair value, is most important.”

O. Louis Guglielmi, Subway Exit, 1946; Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; Advancing American Art Collection

In the end neither the Walker nor the AFA were awarded any of the paintings. The bulk of them, 77 in total, went to the University of Oklahoma, Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), and the University of Georgia—the three institutions who have finally realized a long-anticipated dream in organizing Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy. Only two museums submitted winning bids: the Dallas Museum of Art and Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Maryland. Other works were scattered among various colleges and high schools. Three were awarded to veterans.

Oddly, museums like The City Art Museum of St. Louis and the Museum of Modern Art, which submitted very high bids, lost out presumably because they did not fit within the priority bidding scheme. (Both bidders and their bid amounts were made public.) So even though The City Art Museum of St. Louis bid $10,000 for John Marin’s Seascape it was awarded to the University of Washington for its bid of $750. Parker’s final comment to Defenbacher closed the chapter on the sale: he scribbled on a piece of note paper attached to the bid results: “Dear Dan, Here’s the dope on the WAA sale. Too much priority for us but the awards represent a good distribution of the works. Regards, Tom.”

As part of the debacle, Davidson’s position at the State Department was abolished, and given the path he took afterward it’s not hard to believe he’d soured on contemporary art. However, even though he went on to earn a PhD at Yale in Chinese art and archaeology and eventually joined the UCLA’s art faculty, teaching Chinese and Southeast Asian art, he also taught contemporary art. “His skill as a teacher and raconteur was to become legendary at the University,” noted a University of California obituary for him written in 1980.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy is on view through January 5 at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University in Auburn Alabama, with a sympsosium on October 18 and 19. It then tours to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma (March 1–June 2, 2013), the Indiana University Art Museum (Sept. 13-Dec. 15, 2013), and the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia (Jan. 25-April 20, 2014). A downloadable gallery guide (pdf) is available.