Leadership Changes and Philosophical Differences in the Early History of MoMA’s Photography Department

By Claire Bradach

“The Road to Victory,” exhibit curated by Edward Steichen at MOMA in 1942


The Museum of Modern Art, now an iconic cultural institution of New York, was established in 1929. The MoMA’s photography department was founded in 1940, and the first two decades of the museum’s life reflect the debates surrounding what photography should be included in the museum’s collection and exhibitions. A critical turning point occurred in 1947, when Beaumont Newhall was ousted from his position as curator of the Department of Photography and replaced by Edward Steichen, a man Ansel Adams called “the anti-Christ of Photography.” This shift in leadership within the MoMA’s photography department was representative both of shifts within the MoMA more broadly and within the world of New York at the time. Beaumont Newhall, Nancy Newhall, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Ansel Adams, advocated strongly for avant-garde art, while Edward Steichen and the Rockefellers were more mindful of the museum’s finances and therefore tended to be more conservative in their artistic sensibilities in the interest of not offending any potential museum patrons.

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