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The Art Curator

Originally published in The Milford Orange Times

When my daughter started high school about 10 years ago, new parents were invited to tour the Yale Museum of Art’s newly renovated modern art wing. The space was reconfigured to allow works in their originating collection, the Société Anonyme, to be displayed for the very first time and in their entirety (due to their size, many had either remained hidden in storage or exhibited in a partial state). As a graduate of art school, I was excited to get a better understanding of the renovation and the collection. 


At the end of the tour, we gathered in a small room with personal effects of the curator of the collection, Katherine Sophie Dreier. One wall was covered by a photograph of the founding curator with her partner and friend, Dada artist Marcel Duchamp in her studio – in Milford, CT. 


Now wait a minute… I live in Milford, CT. Why had I not heard of her? What was her story? I had just started my directorship with the Milford Arts Council, there had to be a connection… for the city of Milford, the MAC, and Yale Museum of Art.


In 1877 Katherine Sophie Dreier was born to a privileged family in New York and afforded the opportunity to study in Europe due to her parents’ success and progressive attitudes. Katherine and her sister, Dorthea, followed their love of art, studying the classics and post-impressionists. Soon Katherine found herself among artists of the modern movement, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Her artwork became influenced by its beliefs and aesthetics, and she became friends with many of the artists, and especially close friends with Marcel Duchamp. 


Frustrated by the poor reception of their works by the professional art world and the viewing public, she became their champion, patron, and collector. In 1920 Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray founded the Société Anonyme, with the original goal to serve as a “reference library” of works embodying the new movements and defending modern art from claims of novelty and immaturity. The term “Société Anonyme” is also the French equivalent of “corporation,” making the group’s name a redundant and surreal sendup of industrialized capitalism. The collection never had a permanent home, instead Dreier and Duchamp took the works “out on the road” presenting the collection itself as a “museum without walls”, curating new works continuously as a “progressive moveable feast” of work including exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and publications.


In 1926, the Société hosted a massive exhibition titled the ‘International Exhibit of Modern Art’ at the Brooklyn Museum, featuring over 300 works by 106 artists. The size itself was impressive; however, the most innovative element was Dreier’s insistence on hanging the work in a single row at eye level, breaking with the salon tradition of stacking works in rows one on top of another. This single act changed the look of galleries and museums forever.


Over the next couple of decades, portions of the collection were exhibited in various cities including New York City at the Guggenheim, and a few pieces were donated to their growing modern art collections. Soon there were dreams of finding a permanent home where artists could stay-in-residence to work, exhibit, perform, and lecture;  helping the collection continue to evolve. It was the hope to make this happen on the farm Dreier owned in West Redding, CT, which included a large barn, main house and other out buildings. However, her requests to Yale to support the dream were never granted, even as she continually donated works over the years.


In 1941 Dreier donated what remained of the entire collection of the Société Anonyme to the Yale Museum of Art and retired to her new home in downtown Milford, Ct, on the corner of Maple and West River St (quite expansive, the home was originally a secretarial school with large rooms, tall  windows and high ceilings) where she lived until her death in 1952, all the while continuing to curate the collection with a final donation of over 1000 works by nearly 200 artists.


As one of the executors of Dreier’s estate, Duchamp organized a 1952 memorial exhibition of her collection and her own work at Yale University, including a published catalog for which he praising her as a “pioneer collector of modern art,” with “infallible taste,” and a “clairvoyant mind.”


I recently took my daughter to see the exhibit, and nowhere was Dreier even mentioned. This woman was the champion of an entire artistic movement, nearly single handedly bringing modern artists and their works to the US, and yet – by her own design, the Société Anonyme remains how it started, an ever-changing collection of modern art. 


She was an art curator first and foremost. Yet she should not be forgotten. Perhaps there would be a way to connect a Milford property to the Yale Museum or School of Art and propose to fulfill her dreams with ‘The Katherine Sophie Dreier Studio Gallery & Artist-in-Residence’? Just a thought…


Today, museums are the main curators of permanent or traveling art collections, often presenting the overall history of art through the centuries, culturally specific collections, or by specific genres such as Illustration or modern. Whereas arts organizations, small galleries, art guilds and personal collectors are the curators of living art. It is our job to present and offer support, a platform, validation and voice to new and undiscovered artists. 


As the Executive Director of Milford Arts Council, the MAC, this is an essential part of our mission. This year we celebrate 50 years of supporting and presenting every genre of art, one of the – if not the only arts organization to do so in the state of Connecticut. And I believe we are a product of Dreier’s Société Anonyme being a “progressive moveable feast”, experiencing music, theater, artwork,written word, and dance under one roof – and often simultaneously. This is the intimate experience in the arts our audiences, artists and performers thrive under. I like to think, somewhere, Katherine Sophie Dreier is smiling.


Paige Miglio is the Executive Director of the Milford Arts Council, the MAC, celebrating 50 years of service in 2022 supporting and presenting all genres of art to the greater Milford Community. Visit: www.milfordarts.org for information on the MAC, and send your events in the arts (*include dates and details) to executivedirector@milfordarts.org

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