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Associated American Artists: Art by Subscription

May 9 - June 26, 2010


In March of 1933, at a time when our nation was seized by an unprecedented economic depression, art dealer Reeves Lewenthal formed the Associated American Artists organization. His plan was to make fine art prints affordable to every American. Members of the AAA began to make art for the masses and Lewenthal used the Post Office to distribute catalogues offering a variety of prints by this group of committed artists. Budding collectors sprang up all over the country. This exhibition features over 70 etchings, wood engravings, aquatints and mezzotints by approximately 49 members of the AAA, including Thomas Hart Benton, Miguel Covarrubias, John Steuart Curry, Mabel Dwight, Doris Lee, Reginald Marsh, Peggy Bacon and Grant Wood.

Associated American Artists: Art by Subscription is on exhibit at the Naples Museum of Art through June 26, 2010. The exhibition was organized by the Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, Ohio. Tour management is provided by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, Kansas City, MO


Texts from wall panels for the exhibition by Bill North and Charlotte Gordon


Associated American Artists

Art by Subscription

The cover of Associated American Artists' (AAA) inaugural catalogue of prints, issued in October 1935, boldly and succinctly declared the corporation's primary objective: "Bringing American Art to Americans." Implicit in this statement were two important notions: 1) Collecting and appreciating serious art was now within reach of middle-class America and no longer the exclusive domain of the well-heeled; and, 2) Americans should collect American art. Promoting an egalitarian culture of art collecting was a marketing strategy that positioned AAA outside the dominant, traditional gallery system and capitalized on the period's popular perceptions of art galleries, dealers, and collectors. In the minds of many middle-class Americans the art world was elitist and peopled with blue-blooded connoisseurs and purveyors of the esoteric and rarefied. Associated American Artists craftily played on these prevailing sentiments, giving rise to a significant new class of collectors and creating a highly lucrative art merchandising machine.

Though the corporation's name suggests otherwise, Associated American Artists was the brainchild and operation of Reeves Lewenthal (1910-1987), a twenty-three year old former publicist and entrepreneurial wunderkind. In July of 1934, Lewenthal gathered a group of twenty-three artists in Thomas Hart Benton's New York City studio and pitched his proposal. He would pay the artists a flat fee of $200 to create a print, and they would produce the stone or plate from which the image would be printed. Lewenthal would be responsible for the printing, marketing, and distribution of the prints, which would be produced in editions of 250 and sold for five dollars each, initially in large department stores and later through mail order.

The circumstances surrounding the initial 1934 meeting are known largely through various versions of Lewenthal's enthusiastic account, which became the enterprise's creation myth and was promulgated through the company's promotional materials and literature. With the zeal of a late-night infomercial, a characteristic rendition of the story, appearing in a 1937 Scribners magazine advertisement, proclaims:

On a July morning in 1934 twenty-three important American artists assembled in a picturesque Manhattan studio. Their meeting was prompted by the realization that in order to develop interest in American Art it was up to them to first create wider appreciation of it. All through the day the meeting continued and late that night a practical plan was drafted -- a plan that was destined to grow into one of the most significant art movements in history -- a plan so revolutionary in principle that its announcement was heralded on the front pages of the nation's press...The twenty-three founders (and the thirty who have since joined the movement) hope that through their present sacrifice, American Art, as represented by themselves and by future generations of artists, will benefit in the years to come. Their unselfish cooperation now makes it possible for you to actually own fine examples of their work for less than you would ordinarily pay for a reproduction!

Lewenthal's pitch suggested that dealers and galleries were no longer part of the equation, giving collectors the opportunity to deal directly with the artists and buy prints for what amounted to a wholesale price. It was a marketing strategy similar to present-day factory or manufacture direct purchasing schemes. In reality, AAA was an association in name only.

On October 15, 1934, amid a blitz of newspaper and magazine advertising, Lewenthal launched his vision in fifty American cities, where department store shoppers could view and purchase AAA's five-dollar prints. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and Lewenthal's efforts widely praised. Though AAA's ledgers showed a loss of $30,000 for 1934, largely because of startup costs, the corporation posted a $50,000 profit the following year after initiating mail order sales of the prints. By 1941, AAA had become what Time magazine characterized as "a $500,000-a-year business [that] drove many a frock-coated Manhattan gallery director furiously to think" and behind whose "rocketing rise lay one of the ablest promotion and distribution jobs the U.S. art world has seen."

Bill North
Senior Curator Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Manhattan, Kansas


Associated American Artists and American Print Publishing

Considered in the context of American print publishing and distribution of the early 1930s, Associated American Artists' approach to marketing and distributing prints was radically innovative. Before AAA, print collectors had several avenues for acquisition. They could acquire them from galleries, at auction, and through membership or subscription in one or more of the various print clubs and societies in operation at the time. Of these three, the last possibility represents the closest precedent to the model AAA would develop.

Print clubs and societies were formed for the purpose of advancing the appreciation and understanding of printmaking and often operated by printmakers or serious aficionados. Their activities included the organization and circulation of traveling print exhibitions, publication of newsletters and related literature, and issuing annual presentation or gift prints. The distribution of prints was not a significant source of revenue for these groups. Rather, it was an expense to be met, with others, through the collection of members' dues. Annual presentation or gift prints served as an enticement to membership and were given to dues-paying members as a benefit. The availability of memberships was determined by the edition size of the prints, usually no more than 200 impressions. For example, the Prairie Print Makers (1930-1965), an organization founded by a group of Kansas printmakers issued a single gift print each year in exchange for annual dues of five dollars. Membership in the group was by invitation and included artists and non-artists. Each year's gift print was produced by a member artist in an edition of 200.

The Woodcut Society (1932-1954), based in Kansas City and founded by Alfred Fowler, a grain broker and bibliophile, published two prints each year. Issued in editions of 200, they were distributed to subscribers, who paid a ten-dollar annual membership fee. The organization focused on woodcuts and wood engravings exclusively. The artists commissioned for Woodcut Society offerings included many of the best-known and accomplished printmakers from America and abroad. The prints were presented in handsome folders containing a short essay written by a noted print authority or, in some instances, the artist. The presentation folders, wonderful specimens of typography and printing in their own right, were embellished with ornaments appearing on the title and colophon, some of which were printed from blocks carved by the artist whose print the folder contained. The type of collector that joined organizations like the Woodcut Society would have appreciated the preciosity with which these productions were imbued. Such collectors often had a deep interest in printmaking and its history and possessed a developed set of connoisseurship skills. They likely preferred to enjoy prints within the meditative environment of their library or study, where they could keep them in museum cases or a print cabinet, rather than displayed above the couch in their living room.

Bill North, Senior Curator
Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Manhattan, Kansas


Associated American Artists and the Regionalist Movement

Associated American Artists' dominant position in the art market coincided with the American art movement known as Regionalism. Best known through the work of its three leading figures -- Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood -- Regionalism was an expression of the nationalism and isolationism prevalent in America between the two World Wars. Benton, Curry, Wood, and many other artists working under the Regionalist banner were the mainstay of AAA's stable during the 1930s and 1940s. These artists advocated for an indigenous mode of expression, one reflective of American life and experience. They rejected European modernist developments such as surrealism and cubism and eschewed New York as the center of American art. The Regionalist's staunch anti-urbanism is reflected in the preponderance of rural subjects and themes found in their work. For them, it was rural America, particularly the Midwest, that represented the locus of the country's core values. Their vision of rural America was nostalgic. Regionalist imagery often evoked a mythic agrarian past, offering potent relief from the social and economic ills of interwar America and an avenue for the expression of national pride, two commodities Associated American Artists was well-positioned to provide through the work of Benton, Curry, Wood, and others.

Regionalism's most ardent champion and critical voice was Thomas Craven, a Kansas-born art critic, author, and essayist known for his caustic writing in which he often savaged modernism. Craven believed that Americans desperately needed an art that looked not to European models for its influences, but one that drew on the experience of the local. Americans should, the critic exhorted, "revert to and encourage an art which they can understand and enjoy, an art which, however inchoate, has at least one of the requisites of great art -- the appeal to the flow of common experiences."

Craven, like Reeves Lewenthal, believed that the existing art market and gallery system needed overhauling. In January 1935 Craven wrote "Art & Department Stores," an article appearing in the New York Journal American, in which he argues that America's department stores had a history of "corrupting public appreciation" of art by operating "on the assumption that popular art must necessarily be tawdry and second rate; that nothing of intrinsic merit can be bought and sold at moderate prices." The assumption was fallacious, he proposed, and there were plenty of talented American artists willing to supply department stores with quality work that could be sold for fair prices. For such an arrangement to succeed, department store galleries would have to be operated as places to conduct business, not as cultural institutions. "Once the sales room is contaminated by the atmosphere of the museum or the cult," Craven railed, "the game is up." "Intellectual loafers, teadrunkards, critics, and artists should be discouraged. Sooner or later, they would have the sales staff talking an unintelligible language and the buyers would spend their money in other departments."

Craven's hope that America's department stores would become significant marketplaces for art was not realized. (The mailorder catalogue would become AAA's most effective showroom.) The critic's desire for the development of a significant American art with broad cultural appeal and economically accessible to many Americans, however, was fulfilled. In the introduction to his 1939 A Treasury of American Prints: A Selection of One Hundred Etchings and Lithographs by the Foremost Living American Artists, Craven trumpeted American art's "decisive victory over provincial ignorance, anemic imitation, cheap internationalism, and the postwar hang-over of esthetic snobbery." A Treasury of American Prints was Craven's way of displaying the spoils of war. Thirty-two of the book's 100 prints were Associated American Artists' publications, an indication of Reeves Lewenthal's significant contribution to the battle.

Bill North, Senior Curator
Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Manhattan, Kansas



The Art of Collecting

Collecting is one of life's greatest pleasures. There are many reasons why people collect things; some find the items are emotionally compelling, or perhaps the objects enhance their lives, or simply because collecting feeds their souls. Whether it happens to be stamps, coins, antiques or art, collecting is a rewarding pastime. It involves seeking, locating, acquiring, organizing, cataloging, displaying and maintaining your items of interest.

Some collectors jump right in and start amassing items, gaining knowledge and educating themselves as they go. Others do all of the research first, then acquire. There is no right or wrong way. Collectors enjoy honing their selection skills so as to know a good buy when they come across one. It is nice to know the incised stamp on the bottom of a vase indicates it was made earlier than the one you already have at home.

There are many strategies for collecting. Some people subscribe to magazines, join clubs and attend conventions in order to familiarize themselves with their chosen collection. Some follow sales on the Internet. Getting to know retailers or dealers that sell specifically in a particular area of expertise can be beneficial. Typically, collectors get to know other collectors or dealers they trust in order to acquire and pass on information, and to share the thrill when an exciting piece is found. Who better to share it with?

Most experts agree that collecting should not begin as an investment only. Collect what you like, what you enjoy, and what appeals to you. However, it is also important to become versed in the market values of objects so as to make wise purchasing decisions. This is part of sharpening your selection skills. Get to know the makers, the artistry and the materials. Does the item have a commemorative importance? Know the historical significance of what you are collecting. Was it made during a special point in history and what else was happening at that time?

Collecting limited editions of objects is one option. Editions are limited by an announced quantity, by firing periods, by year of issue or by a selected time period, and all of these can be a part of a numbered series or not. These types of items include (but are not limited to) ceramic plates, figurines, tiles, stamps, coins and like many of the prints in this exhibition. Tracking these items can be great fun. With the Internet, collectors are not limited to local household sales or regional dealers to find their chosen objects. The scope of searching has broadened considerably.

In some of the AAA catalog pages from this collection, the collector checked, marked and noted sizes of some of the prints that interested him. He collected several prints from some of the artists, adding to the depth of the collection. You can see first hand the nuances of the different prints of the artist, such as the value changes of Asa Cheffetz' wood engravings and the change in subject matter of Thomas Hart Benton. You may also see how different artists handled the same medium; the lithographs of Grant Wood are very different from those of John Steuart Curry. As in "Repose", some of the catalog listings have been stamped "EDITION EXHAUSTED" to show all of the limited numbers of those prints were purchased.

However you approach collecting, it will afford you great pleasure and thrills as you seek out the newest addition to your collection and meet others with similar collecting interests.

Charlotte Gordon, Museum Curator
Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, Ohio


(above: Thomas Hart Benton, I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain, 1938, Lithograph, 12 1/2 x 9 1/8 inches. Collection of the Springfield Museum of Art. Exhibition organized by the Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, OH. Tour management by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, Kansas City, MO)


(above: Reginald Marsh, Girl Walking, 1945, Lithograph, 10 1/2 x 8 inches. Collection of the Springfield Museum of Art. Exhibition organized by the Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, OH. Tour management by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, Kansas City, MO)


(above: Grant Wood, Approaching Storm, 1940, Lithograph, 12 x 9 inches. Collection of the Springfield Museum of Art. Exhibition organized by the Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, OH. Tour management by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, Kansas City, MO)


Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

and biographical information on artists cited in this essay in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Philharmonic Center for the Arts/Naples Museum of Art in Resource Library.

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