The Richmond Times-Dispatch condemned the entirety of modern art due to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' purchase of a contemporary painting in April 1950.
A columnist fulminated against modernism as "a malicious hoax carried out variously by the northern elite, European degenerates, homosexuals and communists."
The 33-by-43-inch oil on canvas, Little Giant Still Life by Stuart Davis, was judged into a six-week exhibition of 77 pieces, including abstract expressionist paintings by a young Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. Here, too, were Edward Hopper and Salvador Dalí.
"American Painting 1950" was the VMFA's seventh biennial of national artists. By then, the museum had acquired 22 works as a result of these exhibitions.
Davis cited inspiration from a Champion sparkplug ad on a matchbook cover. The prosaic origin, bright colors and jazzy character moved the Times-Dispatch's Ross Valentine to strident editorials. Valentine finally claimed discovery of a four-letter obscenity entangled within the painted shapes. The newspaper verbally jousted with Art News and Museum of Modern Art director René Harnoncourt, among others.
Little Giant marked an important turn in Davis' art. It toured other museums and was juried into the 1952 Venice biennial. Davis was moving from the Ab-Ex style into Pop Art that repurposes mass-produced images. In art history terms, Little Giant was a smart acquisition.
Accession of the Davis made greater sense beside the 1948 bequest of the T. Catesby Jones collection, comprised of European modernists like Picasso, Braque and Klee.
But as a roster of shows reveals, the museum's biennial series suddenly phased into once-in-every-four-years events, out of which came a total of four acquisitions. Those ended in 1970.
Then, pieces of the Sydney and Frances Lewis modern collection began making appearances in the museum, and, in 1985, with justified fanfare, the collection received its own wing. With that, and the addition of the Mellon collection of 18th-century work, the VMFA offered a varied collection among medium-sized comprehensive museums.
Judged shows are not the only method for a museum to acquire work. They are, however, a public method that relies on discerning curatorial capabilities. Curators, and the museum, risk lambasting by newspaper editorialists and audiences.
The current Whitney Museum of Art Biennial, up through May 30, includes a room of critiques from its past 75 years. On the wall are plucked quips by critics. Jerry Saltz, now with New York magazine, said in 2002 in the Village Voice that he imagined a T-shirt with the slogan, "I Went To The Whitney And All I Got Was This Lousy Biennial." New York Times writer Roberta Smith observed in 1993 that the world would be far duller if there wasn't "a Whitney Biennial to kick around every two years."
Forbes writer Sarah Wolffe — not on the wall, but similarly inclined — writes that the Whitney biennial is "the most divisive of biennials, so prestigious that hating it is practically a competitive sport." Yet its purpose is to provide "a visual litmus test of the art scene at that specific moment."
A biennial is a pulse-taking and is not definitive — though potentially important to the careers of artists. Some artists. On the Whitney's fifth floor is a "prelude, counterpoint and coda" to the main show, a "greatest hits" retrospective of collected works.
Across from Edward Hopper's now-iconic Early Sunday Morning is Franklin C. Watkins' Soliloquy , part of the museum's founding collection. A caricaturized man in a suit leans over a large desk, picking at his fingernail. Watkins was judged into almost a dozen Whitney biennials, but he's not a household name.
Also at the VMFA, annual exhibitions devoted to Virginia artists ran until 1947, then as triennials, and then frequent individual and rotating group shows into the mid-1980s. Occasional one-person exhibitions followed. The juried Un/Common Ground shows of Virginia artists were held in 1988, 1990 and 1996. A Virginia youth artist's series ran between 1989 and 1996.
Meanwhile, Richmond regional culture enjoyed a proliferation of diverse galleries.
The VMFA established a fellowship awards program for working artists in 1940, which continues today. Works by state artists are circulated throughout Virginia in exhibition programs and are displayed through the VMFA at the Richmond International airport.
In the experience of John Ravenal, VMFA's Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, the museum's relationships with its constituent artists are more extensive than most any other institution of its kind in the country. Prior to his 1998 arrival at the VMFA, Ravenal was the Philadelphia Museum of Art's associate curator of 20th-century work.
"I don't want to say, however, that that excuses us from exhibiting and procuring local art," he explains.
Ravenal says that while a large juried show may serve a community, it's the quality that the museum must champion. In the past of VMFA annuals and biennials, the award winners were given solo shows. This became unwieldy to manage. "But this is something we're going to be looking at," he says.