Bringing Art to America

A black-and-white photograph of Lura Beam

Lura Beam (pictured on left), AAUW arts associate, 1937–1952. From AAUW Archives

February 10, 2014

In the 1940s, long before people could view art on a computer screen or jump on a high-speed train to a major city, AAUW brought art to communities throughout the United States. The AAUW arts department, headed by Lura Beam, developed a series of art exhibits to loan to branches across the country. AAUW purchased some exhibits and borrowed others to make available to branches for a small fee (as low as $2 and as high as $25) to show in their community.

The exhibits included artwork based on themes such as the artwork of Colorado or Mexican children, trends in American painting, and African sculpture. Specific artists such as John Rood, Käthe Kollwitz, Jacob Lawrence, Marsden Hartley, David Smith, and Bolivian sculptor and AAUW Fellow Marina Núñez del Prado were featured in some exhibits. We even offered a showing of reproductions of Picasso, Matisse, Klee, and Roualt.

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Beam was intent on exhibiting more than just pictures of flowers in vases, which could be seen anywhere. She chose artwork that would cause viewers to think and wonder. In the General Director’s Letter dated October 1946, she described the program. “Everyone will have noticed that for the traveling exhibitions we do not offer the bowl of zinnias or the picturesque houses. Those can be gotten in any vicinity — and should be, to counteract the strangeness of what comes from outside. What we assemble has to be a little harder to understand than work which gives only pleasure of recognition and has to be of more local meaning. It has to be national and international in relationship to art, or there would be no sense in undertaking the circuits.”

The traveling art exhibits program was hugely popular. In reports on the program, Beam noted that 770,157 people, the majority from communities with a population under 50,000, attended the events. In just one year (1948), AAUW sponsored 313 exhibitions with a total attendance of 282,653 people. And in September 1949, 10,400 people attended the AAUW Fort Wayne (IN) Branch exhibit of paintings by Mexican children.

The program is an interesting side to AAUW’s history and a reminder that our promotion of the arts has never ceased. That promotion is visible today in the popular AAUW Art Contest and in our support of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   February 10, 2014

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