Did you happen to miss last year’s blockbuster Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art? Or perhaps you couldn’t attend another momentous exhibition, the museum’s 1938 presentation of the Bauhaus, because you didn’t even exist yet. Thanks to a new online effort by the museum, sponsored by the Leon Levy Foundation, you now can explore both shows through a digital archive that presents a comprehensive look at the institution’s exhibitions, all the way from its founding in 1929 to the present day. Primary documents such as press releases, annotated image checklists, installation shots, and even entire catalogs are now accessible to offer as well-rounded a view of a show as possible, and the archive will continue to expand as material becomes available. Many of the early photographs of installations, although unfortunately currently uncredited on the website, were captured by the Japanese photographer Soichi Sunami, who served as the museum’s official staff photographer from 1930 until 1968.
With over 3,500 exhibitions now published, the project is an incredibly rich resource of modern and contemporary art, allowing you to glimpse the museum’s first show ever, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, or feast your eyes on images of shiny, utilitarian objects in the out-of-print catalog for Philip Johnson’s 1934 exhibition Machine Art. The search feature is pretty basic, offering just a few filters such as date range and exhibition type (i.e. installation or performance) and allowing you to arrange only by opening or closing date, so that you’re essentially invited to come up with your own queries.
There are plenty of surprises to discover, such as the 1945 Costume Carnival exhibition of wooden cutouts and paper sculptures that celebrated costume design; or Creative Growth, Childhood to Maturity in 1940, the museum’s very first solo show dedicated to a female artist, Dahlov Zorach Ipcar. It featured her artwork made from ages three until 22 — the age she turned that year — which may perhaps make her the youngest creator represented in the museum’s history as well. (She is now 98.) Also of note: in 1945, the museum had an exhibition called Modern Art for Young People, which I’d like to imagine was an effort to engage the “millennials” of the time. Not much information on it, sadly, is available.
Complementing this trove is a less visually enticing but hugely compelling resource: the underlying data of the project, available in the public domain on GitHub. Over the past two-and-a-half years, three MoMA archivists combed through over 22,000 folders of exhibition records and created detailed descriptions of the material for each exhibition. The dataset now features every exhibition held from 1929 to 1989, listing in a massive spreadsheet every exhibition title, opening and closing dates, and featured artists along with basic biographical information from birth date to nationality. You can sort the information by a field of choice, which leads to some interesting insights, such as the fact that — up until 1989 — the earliest artist the museum had featured, historically speaking, was Fra Angelico, and it exhibited only one Native American: photographer and video artist Victor Masayesva, Jr. Aside from artists, the list includes the museum’s staffers — Phillip Johnson, for instance, appears 36 times wearing his various hats of artist, director, organizer, curator, selector, arranger, and competition judge.
While Ipcar was the first woman to have her own show, it was Georgia O’Keeffe who was the first woman to show work at all: in 1929, when she was the only female included in the museum’s second exhibition, Paintings by 19 Living Americans. Since then, her work appeared in 40 other shows — nearly the number of exhibitions in which her partner Alfred Stieglitz had his work featured (45). I took a look at other famous artist couples and found larger disparities between their numbers: until 1989, Willem de Koonings appear in 44 shows and Elaine de Koonings in just four; Diego Riveras in 47 and Frida Kahlo nine (eight of which Rivera was also featured in). Anni Albers appears in only one-third the number of exhibitions her husband did (39), and while Carl André had work in 20 shows beginning in 1968, the museum only exhibited Ana Mendieta in 1995.
The artist who takes the cake for most exhibited, though, is likely Picasso, who is featured in over 230 exhibitions. The museum also gives ample spotlight to Matisse, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, and George Braque, who all appeared in over 100 exhibitions between the dataset’s 60-year span. Beside, O’Keeffe, the women the museum showed most in that period include Berenice Abbott, with 43 showings, and Helen Frankenthaler, with 36 exhibitions.
I could keep going, but you probably get the point: that the release of this data is a remarkable resource from which you may draw a variety of fascinating conclusions. It is, unfortunately, limited, but with time, the museum will hopefully make more contemporary data available in this format. For the next step in the project, the digital and archival teams intend to focus on the moving image and begin making accessible thousands of film series and the history of performance at both MoMA and MoMA PS1. The Long Island City institution will eventually have its entire exhibition history online as well.