The chief objective of this study is to examine the post-1948 life of forty-six paintings, originally a part of the United States Department of Stateís Advancing American Art collection. When given a second life after the collectionís aborted international tour and subsequent auction, these paintings helped shape the university/museum collections and identities of four regional academic institutions: Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama; the University of Georgia, Athens; the University of Oklahoma, Norman; and the University of Washington, Seattle. No one has yet treated the domestic aftermath of the Advancing American Art exhibition and the fate of the State Departmentís collection. Yet the acquisition of paintings from Advancing American Art by colleges and universities formed the nuclei of their collections of American art. In the process, the acquired works vivified the study of American contemporary art in the 1940s and 1950s, helped develop the modernist canon in the United States, advanced the careers of American artists associated with the exhibition, and contributed to the development of prominent regional cultural facilities, and by extension the universitiesí respective identities. In addition, an analysis of the post-exhibition lives of these paintings amplifies the socio-political context of the exhibition beyond what has been written.
Traditional study of American art has focused on the artists and stylistic movements emerging from major metropolitan areas, particularly in the northeastern U.S., thus marginalizing other sections of the country. Little has been written about the role played by regional fine art collections and the museums that house them in defining the nationís art history. The Advancing American Art exhibition offers an important opportunity to study that role. Instead of making the controversial paintings disappear into the depths of storage vaults, universities displayed them as important examples of avant-garde American art. Furthermore, the dissemination of the paintings to the South, Midwest, and Northwest broadened the audience for vanguard art domestically. Thus, this study of regional collections, using the wealth of virtually untapped archival resources available, aids understanding of the reception of contemporary art outside larger metropolitan areas. A rigorous reconsideration of the subject demonstrates that the dispersal of paintings to four forward-thinking regional public academic institutions contributes to our more nuanced understanding of the regional reception of modernist art.
More important, a study of the unanticipated consequences of the cancellation of the touring exhibition also provides insight into the institutional histories of regional American museums. Regional universities had a critical need for original paintings, as they developed new curricula in contemporary visual arts to accommodate increased student enrollment due to returning military personnel from World War II. Thus, the dispersal of the collection contributed to the growth of academic programs, the stimulation of interest in current American art, and the development of the prominent fine art museums now located on these campuses. Based in part upon previously untapped archival resources, this study considers for the first time these four institutional recipients of paintings from the Advancing American Art collection and paves the way for future scholarship on the exhibitionís regional impact.