Thomas Messer on Contemporary Art in Boston

Before the Guggenheim ICA Director from 1956 to 1961

By: - Feb 19, 2015

Thomas Messer (February 9, 1920 – May 15, 2013) is best remembered as the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation from 1961 to 1988.
Prior to a 27 year tenure in New York he served as director of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art from 1956 to 1961. Initially,he programmed in what was originally a makeshift structure left over from an arts festival on the edge of the Charles River in Brighton. There he mounted a conservative, yet controversial exhibition of the provocative Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele. It was the artist's first American museum exhibition.

In a move that was viewed at the time as a step toward eventual merger with the MFA the ICA abandoned its Brighton facility and relocated to the second floor of the Museum School.

As a legacy of that relationship Messer advised the MFA on significant acquisitions of works by the Dutch artist, Karel Appel, and the American, David Park.
Many questions surround why that potential merger with the ICA becoming the contemporary department of the MFA ended when Messer left Boston for greater opportunities in New York.

During a press conference in Boston some years ago I asked Messer to verify that there had been plans for a merger with the MFA. He confirmed the plans but did not elaborate.
In dialogue with Belinda Rathbone and her book about her father, former MFA director Perry T. Rathbone, I raised this issue. In her own extensive research for The Boston Raphael documents and correspondence in the MFA's archives confirmed plans for a merger.

While researching for posting the interview with Belinda I found an on line transcript of an extensive interview with Messer conducted with Andrew Decker for the Archives of American Art. It was originally recorded on seven sound cassettes. It was reformatted in 2010 as twelve digital wav files. The duration is 7 hrs., 23 min. and 83 pages transcribed.
The AAA website states that " This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Thomas M. Messer, 1994 Oct.-1995 Jan, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution."

What follows is an edit of the interview focusing on Messer's years in Boston. For brevity and cohesion there are gaps in the transcript. The are indicated as (...). The complete transcript is accessible on line.

While Messer's views of the ICA and Boston are interesting there is no discussion of the strategy to merge the ICA and MFA. It is likely that Decker was not aware of this issue and Messer did not introduce it as a part of their dialogue.

THOMAS MESSER ...We picked ourselves up and bought a second-hand car and drove ourselves to New Mexico, and I stayed there, actually, for three years, of which, however, I spent one at Harvard on a leave of absence from the Museum, to get my M.A. and to take the famous museum course available at the Fogg Art Museum.

(The course was taught by Paul Sachs and was taken by Perry T. Rathbone later director of the Museum of Fine Arts. The training prepared a generation of museum professionals.)

ANDREW DECKER: Okay. So you returned in early '50 for one year -- a year at Harvard.

: Yes. For one year I was doing all sorts of things just re-acclimatizing. And in January '49, we arrived in New Mexico, and stayed there except for my leave of absence until the spring of '52, when we moved to New York...

ANDREW DECKER: In getting your master's at Harvard, did you have to write a dissertation of some form?

THOMAS MESSER: It was more a series of papers, on such subjects as individual works of art in the Boston museums. I was, at that time, interested particularly in seventeenth century Flemish paintings, and Rubens in particular. And I took a very useful and marvelous course in Greek art and archaeology to obtain my masters degree in one year while also continuing at that time to orient myself in the contemporary field both in Boston and New York.

ANDREW DECKER: So in 1952, you left?

THOMAS MESSER: In 1952 I left Roswell for good. So I had one year in Roswell; then my leave of absence in Cambridge, Massachusetts; return to Roswell and another year there to pay my debt of honor, because, after all, they did continue to pay one-half of my salary; the other one having come from the GI Bill of Rights to which I was entitled to. But things started seriously in 1952, when I was first appointed "assistant director in charge of the National Exhibition Service" of the American Federation of Arts.

ANDREW DECKER: When was the American Federation of the Arts started? Do you recall?

THOMAS MESSER: 1909. So it recently was something like seventy-five years old, or more.

ANDREW DECKER: So it was pretty well established by 1952.

THOMAS MESSER: It was pretty well established, but it certainly was a shoe-string operation. Prior to my arrival, it existed in Washington...

ANDREW DECKER: So how long were you with the American Federation for the Arts?

THOMAS MESSER: I was with the AFA four years, from the spring of 1952 to the winter of 1956. I came in as an assistant director, became director of exhibitions, and eventually director of the institution. By that time, I thought it was enough and I had developed a great yearning to get to what I would consider a real museum situation as opposed to a liaison organization that floated next to and above everything else and therefore one very difficult to grasp.

ANDREW DECKER: Were there members of the Boards of Trustees of the AFA who were constructive?

THOMAS MESSER: Yes. Very much so. There certainly were. And furthermore, there are a few that remain friends to me ever since. At the AFA too, I had a guardian angel, and her name is Eloise Spaeth who actually hired me in 1952 when she was Chairman of the Exhibition Committee. And we have been lifelong friends ever since. Neuberger was an AFA trustee long before a museum was named for him, but at the time collected paintings for his brokerage firm. He was particularly involved with American art, which was beginning to be fashionable at that time. I don't mean it that way. I mean that it was becoming more frequent in those post-War years to turn away from Paris and emphasize the American schools as many people did.

ANDREW DECKER: Were those mostly nineteenth century American schools?

THOMAS MESSER: No. It was modernist. Neuberger's great interest was Milton Avery. He collected him in great numbers, but many others, too.
This was also the time at which I met regularly with people like Daniel Catton Rich, the director from the Chicago Art Institute who, later on, became a true friend who supported me very effectively when I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art of Boston and, thereafter, to the Guggenheim. And, of course, I got to know Perry Rathbone well, when I became director of the Institute in Boston.

ANDREW DECKER: He was at the MFA?

THOMAS MESSER: Yes. also George Stout, who was director of the Gardner Museum in Boston. So, I have very dear memories of this time, when I began to penetrate the profession from a sort of curious side position because, as I said, the AFA was something atypical. But I want to stress again that it was very helpful to me, as early professional contacts matured into friendships in many instances...

ANDREW DECKER: Okay. So how did you get to Boston?

THOMAS MESSER: How did I get back to Boston? Well, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has its own somewhat curious history. A history that began in the same year as the Guggenheim's, in 1937. It had by that time, exhausted its first Director, Jim Plaut.

ANDREW DECKER: He worked for the OSS, I believe. Or the Art Loot Investigative Unit during the war. He put together a report on Goering's collections.

THOMAS MESSER: That could well be. Yes.

ANDREW DECKER: He was a formidable person.

THOMAS MESSER: Yes. He certainly was. And he certainly was the first staff head of the Institute. There were other people behind him --for instance, Nat Saltonstall -- who was a Boston architect and an esteemed and marvelous friend. Or Nelson Aldrich, a cousin of the Rockefellers. These were the people who were on the Board in Boston. And when Plaut -- as I say -- exhausted himself after many years of directing the Institute under trying and difficult circumstances, they started to look for somebody to take this on. And they found me. So I spent many years there.

ANDREW DECKER: What was the appeal of going back to Boston? You'd been in New York at the Modern and the Metropolitan around you.

THOMAS MESSER: Well, the appeal was not so much Boston, although I liked Boston. As I told you before, my godfather, who was a viola player in the Boston Symphony, was a very strong magnet in that respect. But I did not go back to for Boston, I went back to direct a public oriented institution, one that greatly appealed to me. The ICA is a Kunsthalle, let us say, because they didn't have a permanent collection. So I was eager, by that time, to function not as I did at the AFA, as a sort of super administrator of a large program in which I could only seldom enter into the creative aspect of exhibition making, but rather to concentrate on a program within a community and doing exhibitions of my choice and work with the public.

ANDREW DECKER: How large a public was there in Boston for contemporary art?

THOMAS MESSER: Small. Small, and I would say rather tortured because --

ANDREW DECKER: [laughs] You're not referring to Mr. Plaut's being difficult here. [laughs]

THOMAS MESSER: [laughs] No, Boston has a strange mentality in this respect. Of course, these are hair-raising generalities that I am saying to you. But I think that Boston --at least, you know, that element of Boston that was representative of what the city connotes -- had the feeling that art is a duty. Particularly Modern art. That was something that had to be done no matter how much they disliked it. [laughs] So you were continuously caught between people who seemed to be telling themselves on every step that this is something that has got to be done and so they did it, even though with a clear distaste.


THOMAS MESSER: And I had quite some problems with modern art in Boston.

ANDREW DECKER: What did they find relatively palatable, if anything?

THOMAS MESSER: Well, mostly the things that were outside of the reach of the Institute of Contemporary Art. In other words, they found the Museum of Fine Arts relatively palatable, or the Gardner even more, and the Fogg, so all that was all fine. But even so, they felt that there's got to be something in Boston like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And if not that much, then at least the Institute, which, incidentally, started as a chapter of the MOMA. The Museum of Modern Art originally meant to be part of the great American dream, and meant to place itself in various communities to split the finances in some ways. But I remember how this didn't work.

ANDREW DECKER: So kind of like the Guggenheim of present day.

THOMAS MESSER: Of present day. [laughs] I didn't think of that. The Guggenheim is worldwide. That was merely American. And I think it stopped with the Boston experiment that collapsed in a very early stage. So I can't tell you what the Bostonians really wanted, but they did come to the museum and the programs that we did at the ICA, or that I had an occasion to do over a period of a few years were not without meaning, I hope.

ANDREW DECKER: Would Matisse have qualified as a contemporary?

THOMAS MESSER: Oh, yes. Matisse would have been greatly liked, and Jim Plaut did some of these things at a time at which it was still possible to organize a Matisse or a Picasso show. In fact, the first shows of classical Modernism that Boston saw was through the Institute, because I think the program of the Museum of Fine Arts ended more or less with Millet and was very cautious about trespassing into the 20th century at all. So the Institute did well already before my time in its function of introducing modernism to Boston. And then, of course, each generation takes it a step further. The Institute continues to do such thing today. And incidentally, the Institute produced two directors that -- within a span of thirty years --came from it to New York. Me and David Ross, who came thirty years later, to the day. [laughs]


THOMAS MESSER: With a very different contribution to make, I might add.

ANDREW DECKER: Did you organize most of the exhibitions at the ICA, or did you also take on loan shows put together elsewhere?

THOMAS MESSER: I mostly organized the shows myself. There were exceptions to that. But the idea was to look around and to develop a program which was about modern art and artists; and so you'll ask me what this was, for instance, and again, I will show you some catalogues when we speak about this again, but what stand out in my memory is the first exhibition of Egon Schiele-- the first museum show in the United States. That was, I think, in '58.

ANDREW DECKER: Was that well received?

THOMAS MESSER: It was sort of a success de scandal. We did have problems with that show, actually, even though I was cautious in my selections because I did not want to introduce Schiele in the same scandalous terms in which he introduced himself in Vienna many decades ago. It did not seem particularly interesting to me to scandalize Boston with erotic images. I wanted to show that he was a great artist. And so my selection was somewhat cautious. But it was still more than Boston could bear at the time, and we did have visits by the police or whatnot, whom I did not receive. Instead I let my staff fence with them, and by the time they got through, the exhibition was over. But they were pressures, no doubt.

ANDREW DECKER: And was your Board of Trustees comfortable with all the attention?

THOMAS MESSER: No, they were uncomfortable, but they behaved themselves. They really were never comfortable with this modern art, and extremely sensitive about criticism. They so much wanted to be liked by everybody else. They had in me a conservative director as I have been all my life to the chagrin of some of my fans. I have always been on the cautious side, and never rushed into the avant garde; partly because I never wanted to do things that I had not myself fully absorbed. And so I was, I think, a rather logical director for apprehensive boards. But I was still ahead of them and thereby caused a certain amount of chagrin.

ANDREW DECKER: Were there other exhibitions of central European artists or movements? Or was there an equal focus on French, Italian, American art?

THOMAS MESSER: Well, I don't know about equal, but among the exhibitions that I remember easily, I brought in some of the great modern collections from Europe. For instance, a selection from the Musée d'Art Moderne--by that time I had my contacts in Paris--a very respectable selection from their permanent collection which was actually very successful in Boston. And that was the sort of a show that attracted people. I did the same with the Stedelijk in Amsterdam with the help of Willem Sandberg, who was a great director at that time in Amsterdam.

ANDREW DECKER: Who was the director?

THOMAS MESSER: Willem Sandberg. I would visit him and he was very open, and lent me some van Goghs and German Expressionist, all very well received, of course.. Obviously, we could not do this all the time. Then I also did Americans. Not really those that have become very famous afterwards, but I very much liked the sculptor Saul Baizerman, who hammered copper and in the process created beautiful works of art. Another one was Atilio Salemme. These were artists who at that time had larger names than they presently do, I think. But their inclusion in the ICA program serves as an indication that American as well as European art was being presented. One of the last exhibitions that I did was a didactic show entitled 'The Image Lost and Found,' which traced the effort toward abstraction and then postulated a certain return of the figurative elements in the work of such artists as Nicholas de Stael and even the late Jackson Pollock and others, to indicate that this absolute division that existed at the time between the abstract and the figurative should not be exaggerated. I did not make myself many friends in New York with this show at that time and was accused of furthering retrograde movement. [laughs]

ANDREW DECKER: Was there pressure on you to bring in work from Europe, or were you pretty much on your own to do whatever seemed appropriate?

THOMAS MESSER: Well, the pressures were related to feasibility and finances. There were no other pressures. No. The people in Boston, unlike the AFA board which had strong notions of what we should be doing, let me do what I wanted to do. They were not always happy, but they did not engage in as active a role.

ANDREW DECKER: Would it have been, or was it possible at the time, to borrow works from Prague from the National Museum there?

THOMAS MESSER: No. Because the years that I spent in Boston were still the tail end of Stalinism. And, in fact, it was only at the end of my stint in Boston that I, myself, got back to visit my parents again in Czechoslovakia. Let's see. I got to Boston in '56 and the visit I made from Boston after the Communists had taken over Czechoslovakia was in '58. I remember both of my parents were alive, but my mother died shortly afterwards, so I was in a hurry.

ANDREW DECKER: In 1958 that was?

THOMAS MESSER: 1958. Yes. I was in a hurry to get there and see her before she died. What was your question? Whether we could borrow from Prague? No, that was very tight and it was very difficult at that time to do anything with central Europe and the Communist world.

ANDREW DECKER: In returning to Prague, was it difficult to get a visa?

THOMAS MESSER: It was complicated. You had to apply for it way ahead and explain why you were going there and all that. And I was not really protected because there was no treaty yet between the United States and Czechoslovakia about mutual protection of their citizens. So if the Czechs had wished to claim jurisdiction over me, there would have been no legal way to prevent this. But I had no reason for assuming they would do this, and they didn’t.

ANDREW DECKER: You continued at the ICA until 1961.

THOMAS MESSER: That's right. From late '56 to early '61.

ANDREW DECKER: Did you maintain relationships with any of the board members at the ICA?

THOMAS MESSER: I was on friendly terms with them.. Most of them have, alas, died in the meantime. We were close to Nat Saltonstall, a marvelous person. And Nelson Aldrich, also, used to contact us from time to time. Both of them have since died. And there were some other collectors with whom I stayed in touch for a little while. Beyond this, no. I then got too busy to maintain such contact.

ANDREW DECKER: Did the collectors in Boston regret not having a contemporary or modern institution to which they could give their works?

THOMAS MESSER: I'm sure they did. Yes. And the idea of the non-collecting institute has always been contested. There always were people who regretted that there was not a modern museum. But there were ideological counter-argument similar to those that existed at the Museum of Modern Art in its inception. The Museum of Modern Art intended originally not to have a permanent collection. You'll find in the charter, I think, that the idea was that when these things became better known, famous and expensive, they would place them in historic museums, like the Metropolitan.

ANDREW DECKER: So it's like the New Museum today.


ANDREW DECKER: Where they can keep things only for twenty-five years.

THOMAS MESSER: Yes. Well, I doubt that they abide by this rule, but as far as I know, the Museum of Modern Art has given a Picasso to the Metropolitan. There is a record of such an intention at any rate. But when, through the passage of time, things become really beautiful and expensive -- treasures -- it's very difficult to make gifts of them. The mistake was, I think, to assume that New York would do what Paris has done. Paris, of course, can do it because there is only one proprietor -- the State. So essentially, the Parisian pattern was the Louvre -- well, the old pattern of the Louvre/Luxembourg, and now Louvre/Jeu de Paume. The pattern is very simple: The State possesses it and puts it either here or there. They do not lose possession. But with separate corporate entities and separate boards, you do lose possession. And you are beginning to make gifts for no material reason that you can justify. So that probably is why it didn't work in Boston. . The other even more potent cause is that the Museum of Fine Arts would never allow a collecting competition to be created in Boston. And the people who are sitting on their museum boards are the same people or their sons and daughters sitting on other boards because the texture of Boston culture is very narrow, and it's usually the same do-gooding families whose younger members are in the more modern area, and whose older, respected family members maintain the seats of power.

ANDREW DECKER: So that sounds, in a way, that they were closer to the Parisian model.

THOMAS MESSER: Yes, closer to the Parisian model without the framework of the State...

Boston, was interesting culturally, partly because of my proximity to my godfather and to the music of the Boston Symphony in which he participated... Harvard, of course, was my one concentrated contact with art history, and I remain very grateful to my teachers. To Jacob Rosenberg, to Charles Kuhn, to Frederick Deknatel, to John Coolidge, to Agnes Mongan, all teachers I held in very high esteem... The ICA in Boston was the first real museum experience, the first time that I could create sensible programs, the first time that I dealt with a community, and with a particular constituency. It led directly to the following experience at the Guggenheim, which was central to my life. Everything up to that moment was prelude. Everything afterwards is postlude.


THOMAS MESSER: So that's what I wanted to say.

ANDREW DECKER: Before we really get into the Guggenheim, I'm wondering about your time at the AFA and the ICA in terms of how important was contemporary American post-war art to your work at those institutions? Were you trying to put together exhibitions of Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning, or were they considered too current really for the institutions that would receive exhibitions from the AFA, or for the ICA itself?

THOMAS MESSER: Well, they were at the time, certainly too current for the ICA. The ICA did have a curiously conservative attitude toward modern art, and in fact, maintained under my predecessor rather steadfastly, a programmatic adhesion to figurative and semi-figurative art. The notion of total abstraction was not easily acceptable, and in fact, there were polemics between the ICA and the Museum of Modern Art. Jim Plaut was considered by the increasingly -- how should I say? -- by dogmatic standards that began already in the late fifties and became even more evident in the sixties-- something of a traitor to the cause. There were very bitter arguments between MOMA and ICA. And actually between ICA and the dogmatically modern scene. I did not participate in these arguments, and was certainly entirely open to non-objective abstraction. But there were two things: First of all, organization of contemporary shows were already then a rather ambitious undertakings, and it was not all that easy to do so; and secondly, it was really not what to me, personally, at that time, was all that close. I was very much attached to the European schools and to European aesthetics, to what is now classical modernism, i.e. to the generations of the Cubists and the Expressionists. And so I also did not rush into what then was the avant-garde. But I was aware of it, and became increasingly so.

ANDREW DECKER: So museums who were subscribers to the AFA were not clamoring for that kind of exhibition.

THOMAS MESSER: No. It is not my recollection that they did. I did bring some AFA catalogs, and we can check whether there's anything in it. I have the recollection of a contemporary show of American work on paper, which followed a similar contemporary show on French art, also, of watercolors and drawings. These two were following each other, and many of the names including, I think, Jackson Pollock, and De Kooning were listed. But the scale was modest, as indeed all AFA shows had to be. I also remember having sent an exhibition to India, under the auspices of the AFA at that time, and it included Arshile Gorky and geometric abstractionist, but I cannot now remember the details...

ANDREW DECKER: When you talk about the split between the ICA and the Museum of Modern Art, and other proponents of modernism, you mentioned last week that the ICA started as a -- more or less -- a satellite of the Modern.


ANDREW DECKER: Was that split part of the reason that it was clear to the Modern that such an arrangement would not work?

THOMAS MESSER: I think it had more complicated causes. The split was in part, at least, due to an inability to find a financial formula that would satisfy both. I think MOMA -- and I really don't have proof for this -- but I think that MOMA looked upon such extensions as something that at least would not add to their financial problems. And ICA probably felt that they could do better alone, rather than paying tribute to MOMA. There were differences in scale and in attitude. There was certain jealousy on Boston’s part of New York, in general. There were probably many aspects of this -- psychological, financial, and so on. But the split came about and remained in permanence. What I should also say is that the Institute had increasing financial problems, and to solve some of these it turned increasingly to design. Design was, for a while, a rather lucrative way for them to meet their budgetary requirements. This was all before my time. And eventually it ran into trouble because the commercial design companies felt that the Institute was unfairly competing under the shelter of tax exemption. And eventually they prevented the Institute from continuing that way.

ANDREW DECKER: Now, when you say design, you mean people in-house would create desks?

THOMAS MESSER: No, not create, but I think there was advice and I think the Institute staff was involved in advisory capacities -- I don't know really to whom anymore -- and received fees for it. There were also contracts with foreign countries. There were design instructions, I think, in Tunisia, and things of that kind. All of which, I think, was certainly legitimate. But it did run into difficulty. And it also removed the Institute at that time more and more from the artistic scene. My appointment changed that. I was seen as the director who brought the ICA back to art.

ANDREW DECKER: I don't know to what degree we touched on this last week, but how many really world-class collectors -- you know, very serious collectors -- were there in Boston, in the late fifties?

THOMAS MESSER: Well, world-class, serious, in the modern field -- if any -- I mean, world-class is a rather --

ANDREW DECKER: It's a disgusting phrase. [laughs]

THOMAS MESSER: Yes. Well, I was aware of two or three people who did buy then-current and important art in Boston. But there certainly were few. They were all with the Institute and we cultivated them. There were, of course, many collectors in the more traditional and historic periods. But to the best of my knowledge, there was no great private collection of Cubism or Expressionism or anything like that.

ANDREW DECKER: So it really kind of stopped about 1900?

THOMAS MESSER: On the one hand, but then, of course, there were a few who collected then contemporary art. American, as well as European. There was, as a matter of fact -- I remember now one rather important collector of American art, whom I would have to look up -- but he was very important indeed. It was Edith Halpert, who had her ways of persuading this person in particular, and over the years, he bought very important things -- both figurative, and later abstract American idioms.

Belinda Rathbone interview on her Father Perry T. Rathbone the MFA and ICA.