Georgia Museum of Art (Athens, GA)

In 1946, the U.S. Department of State assembled a collection of modernist paintings to embark on a goodwill tour of Latin America and Europe, in an attempt to show the best of 1930s-40s American art to the international community. According to New Yorker art critic Louis Menand, “[T]he State Department wanted the world to know that the United States was not just a nation of cars, chewing gum, and Hollywood movies.” Yet despite early praise from the art world, the exhibition came under intense scrutiny in the middle of its journey, amidst homegrown claims that the artwork on display, and paid for with government—that is, taxpayer--money, was subversive and “strongly marked with the radicalism of the new trends in European art.” With newspapers and magazines running with the story, Secretary of State George C. Marshall called the collection “a travesty upon art” and put an abrupt halt to the tour.

Now the Georgia Museum of Art (GMOA), with help from an NEA grant of $140,000, will reassemble most of the original 117 pieces from the ill-fated collection for display in four American museums, closing at the GMOA in fall 2013. Appropriately titled Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, the exhibit features works by American masters at different points in their careers, including Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe, and Arthur Dove.

The organizers of the touring exhibition hope to reach 30-35,000 people in Georgia and 300,000 people overall during the 16-month tour through not only the exhibit itself but also through the museum’s symposia, teacher packets, and a published catalogue of the works. There are multiple goals of the touring exhibition: First and foremost, for the pure aesthetic appreciation of the re-collected pieces that captured the American modernist movement of the 1930s and 40s; but also, according to Betty Alice Fowler of the GMOA, to “foster dialogue about government sponsorship of the arts; foster interdisciplinary campus engagement, and bring in different departments to study this exhibition; and disseminate new knowledge through symposia.”