The object of this convention is to organize a federation of all institutions, societies, city and village improvement associations, and schools and other organizations in the United States, whose purpose is to promote the study of art, the cultivation of public taste, and the application of art to the development of material conditions in our country.
—Elihu Root, AFA founder, 1909
In his opening address to a convocation at the National Academy of Arts on May 11, 1909, Secretary of State Elihu Root called for the formation of an agency that would send “exhibitions of original works of art on tour to the hinterlands of the United States.” Root’s motion was unanimously endorsed by representatives from eighty American art institutions, among them The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, the National Academy of Design, and the American Academy of Rome. With that unanimous vote, the American Federation of Arts was born. The organization’s founders, which included Andrew W. Mellon and William Merritt Chase, further agreed to hold annual meetings and devote themselves to promoting the visual arts as a vital component of the nation’s cultural life.
In 1909, when Root proposed the creation of the AFA, no such forum existed to link cultural institutions and facilitate broad access to original works of art. The nation’s artistic wealth was largely concentrated in eastern cities, and due to the lack of roads and the expense of traveling, it was inaccessible to most people. The AFA sought to address this limitation with the creation of touring exhibitions that would “bring the museum to the people.”
During its inaugural year, the AFA organized three traveling exhibitions: Thirty-Eight Paintings by Prominent American Artists, which was shown at museums in Fort Worth, New Orleans, Minneapolis, and New Ulm, Minnesota; Thirty Watercolors; and Thirty-five Photographs of Famous Monuments and Other Works of Art. Additionally, during its first year, the AFA began publishing Art and Progress (later changed to Magazine of Art), an innovative vehicle for art scholarship that continued to be published until 1935.
By the end of 1909, the AFA moved in to its headquarters in Washington, D.C. to facilitate lobbying the federal government for favorable art legislation. In 1913, the AFA successfully obtained the removal of the tariff on foreign art entering the United States. A few years later, in 1916, the AFA protested prohibitively high interstate taxes on traveling art exhibitions, and in 1920, the AFA was instrumental in organizing a lobbying campaign for the “development of a national gallery of art on a basis worthy of our great nation,” a goal that was eventually realized with the founding of the National Gallery of Art in 1941.
During the 1910s and 1920s, the AFA continued to grow. In order to foster the exchange of ideas, it began holding annual conventions that were open to members, arts professionals, and the public. It also sponsored periodic regional conferences to promote institutional cooperation and to discuss mutual problems and needs. To increase the participation of venues west of the Mississippi River, in 1920 the AFA opened regional offices at the University of Nebraska and at Stanford University. It also created and circulated a series of lectures and slide programs that were sent to museums and educational institutions. By 1929, it had developed forty-six slide-lecture programs about a wide range of subjects including American mural painting, European and American contemporary art, and textiles.
During the 1930s, the AFA expanded its scope even further and began to provide schools with teaching guides, student workbooks, slides, and films about art. It also created the first nationally broadcast radio series about art (1930s–40s). In 1940, it began to publish Who’s Who in American Art, later adding two reference guides: The Official Directory of Illustrators and Advertising Artists and Films on Art.
In order to fulfill one of its goals—to make American art more visible abroad—the AFA worked to encourage the representation of American artists in foreign exhibitions, and in 1924 it successfully lobbied for additional American participation in the Venice Biennale. The AFA’s focus on exhibiting American art abroad continued to expand, particularly following World War II. In 1950, recognizing that the AFA could assist in promoting American culture, the State Department awarded the AFA a grant for a German “re-orientation program” consisting of educational exhibitions shown in German museums. Additionally, in 1952, at the request of the US Commissioner to the Venice Biennale, the AFA selected the art for the first official US representation at the Biennale, which included works by Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Between 1950 and 1970, additional government funding enabled the AFA to organize American participation in exhibitions in India, Japan, the Netherlands, Paris, and Switzerland.
In 1952, the AFA’s headquarters moved to New York City. This coincided with a period of new and expanded programming. Throughout the 1950s, the AFA distributed films about art and co-sponsored the Films on Art Festival held in Woodstock, New York—the first art film festival in the United States. In 1954, with the help of the Carnegie Corporation, the AFA also introduced its Picture of the Month Program that enabled small American museums and educational institutions to exhibit an original work of art for a low monthly fee.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the AFA received important public and private financial support that allowed it to continue expanding its exhibition program. In 1958, the Ford Foundation awarded the AFA an important grant to organize a series of traveling one-person exhibitions and a series of monographs devoted to contemporary American artists. Milton Avery, José DeCreeft, Lee Gatch, and Abraham Rattner were among the artists who participated. The AFA also created the Museum Donor Program, an annual allowance that was distributed to regional museums for the purchase of contemporary American art.
Cooperative programs and joint venues also became popular during this period. For example, public support from the New York State Council on the Arts allowed the AFA to circulate exhibitions to small New York State communities. In 1965, the AFA produced The Curriculum in Visual Education, a series of films created to heighten the aesthetic awareness of children.
During the 1970s, in addition to collaborating closely with the Metropolitan Museum of Art on many exhibitions, the AFA worked intensely with film. It circulated several film programs including 200 films from the Whitney’s New American Filmmakers series, and Films on Art, drawn from the collection of the Arts Council of Great Britain. The AFA also organized the first curatorially selected international traveling film exhibition, A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema (1976), formed a film advisory committee, and released two publications: Films on Art: A Sourcebook, a companion to the 1952 volume Films on Art, and New American Filmmakers, a catalogue of independent films published in conjunction with the Whitney Museum and the New York State Council on the Arts.
During the 1980s, the AFA’s program of exhibitions included many American artists, such as Frank Stella and Mark Rothko, but of particular note were the groundbreaking indigenous and decorative art exhibitions that included The Gold of Ancient Colombia, African Furniture and Household Objects, Mimbres Painted Pottery: Ancient Art of the American Southwest, American Folk Art: Expressions of a New Spirit, and Te Maori: Maori Art form New Zealand Collections, the first major presentation of Maori art in the US.
After almost a century of work to foster art and culture, in 1993 the AFA donated the bulk of its records to the Archives of American Art, and in 1996 the AFA transferred its film and video inventory to the Museum of Modern Art.
Today, the AFA still works to fulfill its founding principle to “break down barriers of distance and language to broaden the knowledge and appreciation of art.”