Dorothy Canning Miller

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Dorothy Canning Miller

Dorothy Canning Miller (February 6, 1904 – July 11, 2003) was an American art curator and one of the most influential people in American modern art for more than half of the 20th century.[1] The first professionally trained curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA),[2] she was one of the very few women in her time who held a museum position of such responsibility.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Miller, the daughter of Arthur Barrett Miller and Edith Almena Canning, was born in Hopedale, Massachusetts and grew up in Montclair, New Jersey.[4] After graduating from Smith College in 1925,[5] she trained with John Cotton Dana of the Newark Museum, which was then one of the most creative and ambitious museums in the country,[1] and worked there from 1926 to 1929.[3] From 1930 to 1932, she worked for Mrs. Henry Lang cataloging and researching a collection of Native American art[4] which was to be donated to the Montclair Art Museum.

Career at MoMA[edit]

The Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929, did not yet have its own building in the early 1930s and was housed in a series of temporary quarters. Miller first came to director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.'s attention in 1933,[3] when she and Holger Cahill[6] (with whom Miller was living in Greenwich Village[1] — they married in 1938[3]) were curating the First Municipal Art Exhibition in space donated by the Rockefeller family.[1] Some of the participating artists wanted to boycott the show after the Diego Rivera mural Man at the Crossroads was deliberately destroyed during the construction of Rockefeller Center. Miller asked Barr to intercede in the controversy, which he did.

Not long after that she put on her "best summer hat"[1] and went to the Museum to ask him for a job. Barr hired her as his assistant curator in 1934 and over the years she progressed through the ranks, becoming Barr's most trusted collaborator[1] and, by 1947, curator of the museum collections.[4]

In 1959, Miller was appointed to the art committee for One Chase Manhattan Plaza,[7] serving with Gordon Bunshaft (chief designer for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill), Robert Hale (curator of American painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), James Johnson Sweeney (director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), Perry Rathbone (director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

In 1968, she was appointed to a commission to choose modern art works for the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection in Albany, NY.[8]

After her retirement from MoMA in 1969, Miller became a trustee and art advisor for Rockefeller University, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.[4][5] She was an honorary trustee of MoMA from 1984 until her death in 2003 at age 99.

The Americans shows[edit]

From the early 1940s through the early 1960s, Miller organised six contemporary Americans shows[9][10][11] which introduced a total of ninety artists to the American museum public.[3] In contrast to the usual large group shows, in which hundreds of artists are represented by one work each, Miller devised a format in which larger selections of works by a smaller number of artists were represented in individual galleries.[12] She famously said, "What you try to achieve are climaxes—introduction, surprise, going around the corner and seeing something unexpected, perhaps several climaxes with very dramatic things, then a quiet tapering off with something to let you out alive."[13]

Americans 1942: 18 Artists From 9 States[edit]

1946: Fourteen Americans[edit]

1952: Fifteen Americans[edit]

1956: Twelve Americans[edit]

1959: Sixteen Americans[edit]

Americans 1963[edit]

The New American Painting[edit]

On an international scale, Miller's most influential show was The New American Painting,[4][14] which toured eight European countries in 1958 and 1959.[15] This exhibition significantly changed European perceptions of American art,[5] firmly establishing the importance of contemporary American painting,[2] particularly the American abstract expressionists,[3] for an international audience.

The New American Painting tour showcased eighty-one paintings by seventeen artists:


  • "She was a straight shooter, very respectful of the art and the artists and the museum, something you don't get that much of anymore. The Americans shows set the tone for my time. ... They were exhibitions of what was going on, pointing to the future" – Frank Stella[5]
  • "Her eyes were just incredible, smart and very important in the art world. There will never be anyone quite like her again." – Ellsworth Kelly[1]
  • "She brought sparkle and prestige and credibility to American art." – James Rosenquist[1]
  • "Miller's career was marked by an uncanny ability to recognize new and innovative artists encompassing many different styles. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, she left many more conservative curators in her wake." – Wendy Jeffers[2]


Awards and honors in recognition of Dorothy Miller's contributions to museum connoisseurship[3][4][5] included:


(This is an incomplete list.)

  • 1981: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. With Lee Boltin, William Slattery Lieberman, Nelson Rockefeller, and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Manchester, Vermont: Hudson Hills Press. ISBN 0-933920-24-5.
  • 1983: Edward Hicks: His Peaceable Kingdoms and Other Paintings. With Eleanor Price Mather. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. ISBN 0-87413-208-8.
  • 1984: Art at Work: The Chase Manhattan Collection. With Willard C. Butcher, David Rockefeller, Robert Rosenblum, and J. Walter Severinghaus, the project manager for One Chase Manhattan Plaza.[16] Marshall Lee, ed. Boston, Massachusetts: E. P. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24272-4.
  • 1985: Art for the Public: The Collection of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. With Sam Hunter. New York City: The Authority. ISBN 0-914773-00-3.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Lindsay Pollock (November 3, 2003). "Mama MoMA". New York. Unlike her mentor, who tended to spend most of his time amid the white-glove set on the Upper East Side, Miller was most comfortable in the bohemian casualness downtown. ... Her favorite hangout in the thirties was Romany Marie's Cafe, on 8th Street, which served cheap Romanian food and beer and had, at the time, the best salon ... 'At Marie's, people didn't have enough money to get drunk. People just talked and talked and talked,' she said.
  2. ^ a b c Wendy Jeffers (November 2003). "Dorothy C. Miller: The discerning eye of the collector-curator". Christie's art auction catalogue. Remarkable both for its quality and breadth, the Dorothy C. Miller collection echoes the lively aesthetic debates that took place in and around her Greenwich Village apartment during the intellectual genesis of Abstract Expressionist art in the 1930s and 1940s. ... Alexander Calder ... fabricated the mobile The Red Ghost for the focal point of the ceiling of her apartment. As Miller told the story, Calder arrived with pliers, a suitcase full of wires and various biomorphic shapes which, after mounting a rickety wooden stepladder, he hung from a chandelier finial in her ceiling.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Rona Roob (September 2003). "Dorothy C. Miller 1904-2003 - Front Page - Obituary". Art in America. Robert Rosenblum: "Dorothy Miller ... played a brilliant role in tracing, at the right time and in the right place, two astonishing decades of American art. She wrote a major history of those incredible years ... through a series of living visual events that steered spectators, both sophisticated and naive, through the most uncharted and thrilling seas the New York art world has ever known."
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Dorothy C. Miller Papers". Museum of Modern Art Archives. Archived from the original on 2007-11-23. Retrieved 2008-01-25.
  5. ^ a b c d e Michael Kimmelman (July 12, 2003). "Dorothy Miller Is Dead at 99; Discovered American Artists". The New York Times. The Americans shows began in 1942 with a selection of what were then mostly unknown artists of eclectic styles from across the country. The format was to have a select group of artists, abstract and figurative, each presented in some depth. The slender catalogs had statements by the artists. Typically, Ms. Miller wanted them to speak for themselves rather than presuming to speak for them. She was invariably a step ahead of public taste.
  6. ^ Michael Kimmelman (May 14, 1993). "Art in Review: Dorothy Miller and Holger Cahill Archives of American Art". The New York Times. Unfortunately, their names are no longer familiar to many in the art world who owe them a sizable debt, but Holger Cahill and Dorothy Miller helped to put American art, especially American modernist art, on the map. ... contrary to what many people still believe, American modernism achieved prominence, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of Cahill and Miller, well before the New York School was formed in the 1940s.
  7. ^ "Wall Street Treasure". Time. June 30, 1961. Archived from the original on February 4, 2011.
  8. ^ The Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection and Plaza Memorials. Rizzoli International Publications. May 3, 2002. p. 11. ISBN 0847824551.
  9. ^ John Russell (February 5, 1982). "Art: She Found the New in American Painting". The New York Times.
  10. ^ "Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States". Exhibition catalogue description, AntiQbook. Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2008-01-25.
  11. ^ "Americans 1963". Exhibition catalogue description, International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ Lawrence Campbell (January 1996). "Objects on parade - paintings by Herman Rose". Art in America.
  13. ^ Michelle Elligott with Romy Silver (2010). Butler, Cornelia; Schwartz, Alexandra (eds.). Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. p. 518.
  14. ^ (AHB). "The New American Painting 24 February – 22 March 1959". Tate Britain. Archived from the original on 21 November 2007.
  15. ^ "The New American Painting: As Shown in Eight European Countries, 1958–1959". Museum of Modern Art. Archived from the original on June 5, 2011.[ISBN missing]
  16. ^ David W. Dunlap (October 20, 1987). "J. Walter Severinghaus, 81, Former Architect". The New York Times.
Further reading

External links[edit]