ACA Galleries Celebrates 80 Years of Advocacy for American Art
Rockwell Kent...William Gropper...Philip Evergood...Reginald Marsh...Grace Hartigan Stuart Davis...Raphael and Moses Soyer...Louise Nevelson...Faith Ringgold...and on and on...the list of giants of American art whose careers were established or advanced by ACA Galleries would cover several pages. They are artists who have had something to say; a social conscience to express; a radical concept of art to advocate. On August 16, 1932, artists with a social passion and modern spirit found a champion with the opening of ACA Gallery.
It was a difficult and dangerous time in American history. The Great Depression had destroyed the economic security of millions of people, taking bread from their table and hope from their lives. Political activism rose up to challenge the greed that had caused the catastrophe, but these advocates for a more equitable society were met with ferocious opposition from entrenched moneyed interests and reactionary social forces across the country. Political or professional exclusion, even violence were often the means to silence a progressive idea. It was in this tense environment that Herman Baron, with co-founding artists Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, opened a gallery of American Contemporary Art: The ACA Gallery at 1269 Madison Avenue at the corner of East Ninety-First Street.
Right from the start, Baron's ACA Gallery presented a distinctive vision, exhibiting artists whose work exposed the reality of American life and who did so using an American visual language. Though the Modernist abstractions advanced in Europe were respected by America's socially conscious artists, and abstraction was even part of the vocabulary of such American masters as Stuart Davis, for many of ACA's artists the lives and struggles of everyday Americans in the cities and on the farms were too real to be expressed by obscure means. These artists saw themselves as the inheritors of the pre-World War One "Ashcan School," the New York Realists led by John Sloan and Robert Henri. And like Sloan, Henri and their students and followers, merely recording daily life wasn't enough; art itself had to be the driving force. For ACA's artists, the demands of art were as important as the demands of conscience.
These entwined concerns distinguished ACA from the only two other galleries in New York exhibiting American art at the time; Alfred Stieglitz's An American Place, which championed American Modernism, and Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery, which included American Folk Art in its program. By maintaining a high level of quality, exhibiting artists whose skill was unquestioned, Baron's ACA Gallery was able to extend the influence of social conscience to the development of modern art in America.
In ACA's early days, perhaps two events best articulate the gallery's vision and Herman Baron's courage in pursuing that vision. The first event was the exhibition organized by the John Reed Club, which opened at the gallery on November 7, 1932. Named for the leftist political activist and journalist John Reed, a committee of the club selected thirty-six works by twenty artists, among them Harry Gottlieb, William Gropper, Louis Lozowick, Raphael Soyer and others, artists whose works are now in major museums and have become part of the American canon. Also included was Otto Soglow, who became a prominent cartoonist, most notably for The New Yorker magazine. The exhibition addressed the struggles of American workers, the ravages of unemployment, and the inequality of American life.
Reaction to the exhibition wasn't especially friendly. Despite the acknowledged talent of the artists, New York Times art critic Thomas C. Linn called it "A Scolding Show by Twenty Artists," considering it more concerned with political outrage than art. Residents of the gallery's Upper East Side neighborhood, who had been reliable customers for the gallery's framing services, gave the exhibition a frosty reception and many took their business elsewhere.
But Baron and the ACA artists soldiered on, mounting groundbreaking exhibitions that featured artists often snubbed by more mainstream galleries and museums: women and racial minorities in particular. Strong exhibitions by talented artists brought the gallery critical respect if not always warm acceptance of its views. And it was becoming clear that the gallery needed to be in a more welcoming location, a neighborhood whose residents were sympathetic to its mission. In 1933, ACA found its new haven at 52 West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, where the second major development of the gallery's early years would take place.
By 1935, the Depression had been grinding on for nearly six years. Though the Roosevelt Administration's programs for recovery were addressing issues of rebuilding industry, industrial employment and help for the nation's farmers, the economic distress of artists was becoming dire. Add to that, reactionary politics, hostile to President Roosevelt and to progressive views, was becoming a dangerous force regarding issues of American culture. Artists' works were being scrutinized for "Red" content; artists and writers with progressive ideals were tarnished as subversives; their livelihood, already meager, was threatened. In April of 1935, a concerned group of writers held the first meeting of the American Writers' Congress to confront these threats to free expression and to their livelihood. Inspired by their cultural compatriots, socially conscious visual artists gathered at the invitation of Herman Baron at ACA Gallery and organized the American Artists' Congress. Meetings were held regularly at the gallery, where overflow crowds numbering in the hundreds sat on hastily contrived seating of planks and cinderblock or stood along the walls. The Congress drew up a platform that demanded the artists' right to work, to earn a living through their art, and asserted that a free and equitable democracy requires the cultural expression of a nation. Members of the American Artists' Congress included such prominent figures as Moses Soyer, Stuart Davis, Isamu Noguchi, George Ault, Harry Gottlieb, Louis Lozowick and others. Through prodding by the Congress, backed by exhibitions of members' works at ACA, the Roosevelt Administration eventually established the Federal Art Project (FPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). By employing artists in these programs, the United States government finally recognized that art and culture are indispensible components of a healthy society.
Socially conscious art wasn't the only revolutionary idea introduced by ACA. In March of 1940, the gallery opened a one-man exhibition of the new medium of screen prints by the artist Harry Gottlieb. It was the first of its kind anywhere. Gottlieb had enriched the print medium by developing a system of applying his colors directly onto the screen. The result was a richer, more vibrant print than was previously possible. Gottlieb's innovations and his exhibition at ACA Gallery are largely responsible for the acceptance of screen printing as a fine art, collected by museums throughout the world.
Though the gallery continued to win acceptance as an important venue in the New York art scene, its troubles with social and political reactionaries was far from over. As late as 1949, with the gallery now in a townhouse on East Fifty-Seventh Street, ACA was attacked in a speech in the House of Representatives by Congressman George A. Dondero, a Republican from Michigan, who accused ACA and the artists associated with it as being "un-American." Herman Baron responded to Dondero's smears, defending freedom of expression and the strength of American art with the powerful essay "American Art Under Attack." In it, he takes Dondero to task for his anti-intellectualism and reveals the Congressman as a danger to traditional American values of free expression and seriously ill informed about the artists, galleries, organizations and museums he denigrated in his diatribe against modern art. This important essay, along with Baron's other papers and significant writings, are now part of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.
Throughout the War years and into the peacetime society of Eisenhower America, ACA Gallery continued to advocate for innovative and socially conscious art. Important exhibitions, such as the gallery's twenty-seventh anniversary exhibition in 1959, "Thirty One American Contemporary Artists" featuring works by major artists such as Moses Soyer, Philip Evergood, Charles White and others, maintained ACA's position as a respected contributor to American cultural life. As with all innovative organizations, however, times and needs change, and ACA was able to move into the quickly changing future. The gallery's expanded vision and practices were largely through the efforts of Sidney Bergen, Herman Baron's nephew, who joined the gallery staff in the 1950s. Bergen recognized that Baron's system of a collegial cooperative could not remain the model in the competitive post-war art market. Bergen therefore embraced the growing influence of the emerging strategies of marketing. By 1961, when Bergen assumed ACA's directorship after the death of Herman Baron, he had reorganized the gallery's operating structure. Though the gallery continued to handle contemporary art, a separate corporation was established specializing in the earlier art of ACA's origins. Bergen also modernized and professionalized the staff, hiring art historians and experienced curators, and creating a photographic archive of the gallery's extensive inventory.
By 1987, though ACA was now among the distinguished galleries in the celebrated Fuller Building on East Fifty-Seventh Street and Madison Avenue, the gallery continued to advocate for new and socially conscious voices in American art. Bergen maintained the gallery's practice of including works by women, people of color, and artists with untraditional points of view. In 1995, its important exhibition, "American Collage," featured work by the esteemed African-America artist Romare Bearden; the powerful Abstract Expressionist Grace Hartigan; innovators Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell, and others.
ACA's place at the center of art activity was assured with its move in 2000 to its current location at 529 West 20th Street in New York's Chelsea district, where several hundred galleries offer the latest in contemporary American and International art. In this eclectic mix, ACA, now called ACA Galleries, has kept its voice distinct. Its inventory includes its legacy of the finest progressive, innovative, socially conscious paintings, prints, collage and sculpture by artists who are now recognized as the backbone of Twentieth Century American art.
Since 2001, under the leadership of Sidney Bergen's son Jeffrey, ACA Galleries has continued to innovate while maintaining its stewardship of American masterworks. In addition to mounting important exhibitions which included notables such as Theodoros Stamos, Faith Ringgold, and Aminah Robinson to name a few, and continuing to exhibit American art's revolutionary past masters, Jeffrey Bergen has instituted a program of collaboration with museums in the United States and abroad. These collaborations have spread awareness of the strength of American art and the courage of American artists.
Having grown up in a household where art and social conscience were woven into the fabric of the family, Jeffrey Bergen, third-generation owner and director of the gallery, brings an intimate knowledge and deeply personal commitment to the past, present and future of American art. He is proud of ACA Galleries' eighty years of historic achievements and his family's legacy as defenders of freedom of cultural expression. This legacy and Bergen's ongoing commitment to social justice, has earned the gallery the first Art to Life award from A.I.R. Gallery and Art And Living magazine in 2010 in recognition of ACA's history of actively promoting women in the arts. ACA remains active in social issues and philanthropy, supporting efforts in humanitarian, political and environmental causes.
But art remains the focus. Under Jeffrey Bergen's direction, ACA Galleries will bring its eighty-year legacy into the future. A book on ACA is currently being written and PBS Craft in America produced an online segment for YouTube on ACA's history.For more information on ACA Galleries, additional images and upcoming events please contact the gallery.