Book Review

Progressive Connoisseurs and the Democracy of Art

Nick Sacco is a public historian and Park Guide with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. In May 2014, he received his Master’s degree in history from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and recently published a journal article on the Grand Army of the Republic and Civil War Memory. 

Reviewer Nick Sacco

Reviewer Nick Sacco


Jeffrey Trask, Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 296 pages.

Public historians and museum practitioners have openly debated the role of museums in contemporary society and their role in promoting active participation in the democratic process for at least one hundred years. The museologist John Cotton Dana complained in the 1910s about the “gloom of the old-fashioned museum temple” and the preponderance of “dead museums” with sparse crowds in urban cities. Another museologist, Duncan F. Cameron, brought new life to this debate in the 1970s when he argued that “our museums and art galleries seem not to know who or what they are,” suggesting that too many museums were content with representing themselves as shrines to elite taste rather than forums for democratic participation. Today scholars and practitioners continue to wrestle with how to best interpret the past in a shared endeavor with local communities.[1] Much of this contemporary discussion on museum reform rests on weak historical grounds; falsely assuming that the “temple vs. forum” debate and the questions it poses about cultural democracy is new, dating back only to the 1970s. Might there be more to this story?trask

In Things American, Georgia State University history professor Jeffrey Trask offers a much-needed corrective that pinpoints the emergence of cultural democracy in art museums to the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. Drawing from a wide range of sources—including letters, museum bulletins, annual reports, exhibition blueprints, and pictures; and secondary scholarship on intellectual and cultural history from the likes of Lawrence Levine, Michael Kammen, and Thomas Bender—Trask argues that in the early twentieth century, “a new generation of reformers ushered in an institutional revolution that redefined the relationship between art, museums, and industrial urban society in the United States” (1). Examining a period from roughly 1890 to 1930, Trask brings attention to the efforts of museum leaders at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to promote artwork that would interest American citizens of all classes, encourage the creation of tasteful home environments, and facilitate the passage of legislation to improve conditions in the city’s tenement housing settlements.

The Metropolitan’s leaders of this reform effort—whom Trask refers to as “progressive connoisseurs”—challenged nineteenth century ideas about museum artwork and social uplift. Prominent museum leaders during the Gilded Age believed that industrial capitalism threatened older craft traditions by embracing mechanization and factory work that created bawdy, extravagant Victorian-style furnishings and artwork. To combat what they believed to be a loss of public taste and industrial capitalism’s destruction of the link between art and labor, Gilded Age museum leaders preferred to display great works of Classical or European art in the hopes of highlighting noteworthy examples of artistic creativity.

The progressive connoisseurs, however, believed mechanization offered new opportunities for museums to take the lead in shaping cultural democracy. These leaders embraced industrialization and believed that incorporating examples of tasteful decorative arts into the Metropolitan’s galleries would develop a stronger appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of everyday life. Equally important, the progressive connoisseurs promoted examples of great American art in their galleries, encouraging the establishment of new artistic traditions to hasten the assimilation of New York City’s immigrant population, and stronger pride in American cultural democracy. The Metropolitan at the turn of the century, according to Trask, also became a practical laboratory “for craftsmen and designers to study principles of good design [and] improve the quality of American industrial production” (11).

Democratic access to the Metropolitan’s resources was fundamental to the progressive connoisseurs’ vision for museum reform, which took many forms. In 1891, the Metropolitan’s Board of Trustees voted 12-5 to open the museum on Sundays so that the city’s laboring population could visit on their one day off. Metropolitan sculptor and art historian Edward Robinson throughout the 1890s oversaw the building of plaster cast sculptures of classical artwork for the museum’s galleries; recognizing that U.S. museums could not compete with European museums in acquiring “authentic” original artwork, he championed plaster cast sculptures as educational pieces that introduced visitors and craftsmen to great works of art. Meanwhile, curator Henry Watson Kent organized several public program initiatives well into the 1910s that included public lectures, teacher workshops, guided tours for school groups, and artistic reproductions for classroom use. Metropolitan staff also curated traveling exhibits sent to and displayed within immigrant neighborhoods throughout the city.

Kent also oversaw “activist” museum exhibits throughout the Progressive Era that sought to influence government policy. The Tenement House Exhibition of 1900, for example, educated visitors about the social consequences of unregulated housing markets using over 1,000 photographs, maps, and charts. New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, moved by the exhibition, successfully advocated for new housing regulations and the establishment of a state housing tenement commission under the leadership of Metropolitan trustee Robert de Forest.

The Metropolitan’s activist impulse eventually waned, however. As Americans gradually tired of progressive ideas about active government regulation in economic and social affairs after World War I, so too did the Metropolitan’s progressive connoisseurs retreat from their earlier vision of museum reform. After “cultural conservatives mounted attacks in the pages of newspapers and professional journals that equated modernism in painting and sculpture with socialism and anarchism,” Trask argues that Metropolitan leaders by 1918 carefully avoided displaying artwork that hinted at political radicalism (124).

These pressures, combined with a tightening global art market during the war, pushed museum curators towards the purchase and display of American antiques and architectural relics of colonial homes that could “logically be presented to an art museum public without risking public reaction, unlike endorsements of experimental fine art” (129). The Metropolitan’s ideals of cultural democracy eventually lost out in the 1920s to a new faith in “consumer democracy” that prioritized displaying artwork suitable to “business calculation and consumer demand” rather than aesthetic beauty, educational value to craftsmen, or the shaping of government policy. Trask concludes Things American by arguing that the progressive connoisseurs’ educational programs and democratic ideals were completely eliminated by the 1940s in favor of attracting traditional art museum visitors who would support the museum amid a shrinking tax base and the migration of urban residents to the suburbs after World War II.

Things American convincingly argues that the Progressive era reform agenda of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has disappeared from the historical conscience of museum practitioners and public historians. How and why this narrative was forgotten, and to what extent other urban art museums embraced the Metropolitan’s progressive vision remains largely unexplored. Nevertheless, Trask’s scholarship is a valuable contribution to a growing literature that aims to historicize the evolving nature of public historical interpretation in museums, national parks, historic buildings, and monuments.[2] Things American also reminds us that regardless of our philosophical vision, the stories we tell, the artifacts and exhibits we display, and the past we present to public audiences are neither neutral nor “objective.” The search for a useable past is simultaneously an act of historical inclusion and omission, one that challenges museum practitioners and public historians to always consider the politics of their craft.

[1] See Duncan F. Cameron, “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” Curator 14, no. 1 (March 1971): 11-24; Gail Anderson, ed., Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2004); Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011).

[2] See, for example, Teresa Bergman, Exhibiting Patriotism: Creating and Contesting Interpretations of American Historic Sites (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2013); Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009); Jon Weiner, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012).