Art for the Community: The Met’s Circulating Textile Exhibitions, 1933-42



Furnishing silk ca. 1750 (Elizabeth Cleland, 2020) via The MET

Between 1933 and 1942, The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized one of its especially noteworthy landmark educational initiatives to bring the Museum’s collection to as many New Yorkers as possible. Called the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, the series consisted of small, thematic displays of select artworks presented in New York Public Library branches, high schools, city universities, and settlement houses. The effort, which was developed in response to an inquiry from a high school teacher, reached more than two million visitors and will be the focus of the exhibition Art for the Community: The Met’s Circulating Textile Exhibitions, 1933–1942, on view October 31, 2020, through June 13, 2021, in honor of The Met’s 150th anniversary.

Cut and Uncut Polychrome Voided Satin Velvet, ca. 1675-1725 (Elizabeth Cleland, 2020) via The MET

Art for the Community will showcase the important role of European textiles in these traveling exhibitions, with a selection of seven textiles displayed alongside documents from The Met’s archives. The textiles will range from Italian Renaissance velvet to French 18th-century printed cotton and will include the first showing in decades of The Met’s exquisite cope made for Antonio Barberini, nephew of the infamous Pope Urban VIII. These highlights will be joined by an extraordinary series of 1930s photographs capturing the original exhibitions, their locations, and their visitors. The design of the installation itself will evoke the past exhibitions.

The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions were set in motion by a Queens high school teacher, Jessie Clough, who in 1913 wrote to Henry W. Kent, secretary to The Met’s Board of Trustees, asking if the Museum would consider loaning some historic European textiles to her school, emphasizing how beneficial it would be for her pupils to be able to look closely at actual works of art rather than black-and-white reproductions. While her request was initially declined, archived memos reveal that Clough’s persistence got the senior administration thinking, and eventually a small traveling show of textiles from the Museum’s collection was organized. The initiative grew to include installations for the general public featuring European textiles, arms and armor, ancient Egyptian art, and Chinese and Japanese art.

Floral print with figures, 1785-90 via The MET (Elizabeth Cleland, 2020)

The Met partnered with institutions across the city to host these temporary displays, creating opportunities for those who, due to time or distance, could not visit the Museum. It sought public venues that were strongly embedded within their communities and that had fireproof buildings, adequate lighting, and safe display space. The exhibitions were ultimately brought to more than 30 locations across Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx throughout the life of the program (Brooklyn was supported by the Brooklyn Museum’s own educational outreach programs).

A map of all the New York institutions that hosted exhibitions

Art for the Community is co-curated by Elizabeth Cleland, Curator, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts; Eva Labson, Senior Collections Manager, Antonio Ratti Textile Center; and Stephanie Post, Senior Digital Asset Specialist, Digital Department; with the aid of Giulia Chiostrini, Associate Conservator, Department of Textile Conservation; and James Moske, Managing Archivist.

Art for the Community: The Met’s Circulating Textile Exhibitions, 1933-1942 will be on view from October 31, 2020 through June 13, 2021 in honor of The Met’s 150th anniversary.