In 1981, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (at the time it was named the National Museum of American Art) received nearly 1,500 photographs as a transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts. The gift was significant on several counts: it represented the first NEA grants ever made specifically for the medium of art photography; the photographs formed a newly created department of photography at the museum and became the first photography division at the Smithsonian devoted specifically to photography as art; and finally it marked my exchange of curatorial duties in the department of painting and sculpture to those of the museum’s first curator of photography. The collection that arrived at the museum (it was subsequently turned into an exhibition Exposed and Developed: Photography Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts), give or take a few mid-century masters like Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, represented a generation of young photographers who appeared at the beginning of the seventies, Master of Fine Arts degrees in hand, who cared more about making images than about making perfect prints. And though it was evidenced in different stylistic ways, they also believed that art is a valuable and meaningful aspect of society, not to be taken for granted or ignored. It is to NEA’s credit that at a crucial period in the development of the medium, photography was given the interest and support it needed to progress and thrive. Now, from the perch of 25 years on, I have no doubt that the NEA fostered an atmosphere congenial to the new artist/photographer of the 1970s. NEA approval—to get an NEA grant was kind of like winning a MacArthur grant (minus the big bucks) now—relieved photography from the pressure of proving itself to be art, and in so doing suggested an atmosphere of acceptance that allowed other possibilities. In their own quest for a definition of the medium, photographers discovered a new attraction in the very artificiality of picture taking. New image-making technologies (then as now) offered possibilities beyond the traditional silver print. Photographers fully vested and NEA-granted as artists no longer felt subservient only to observed reality. Their work, whether traditional or avant-garde, black and white or color, was directed toward the photographic experience. It is also worth noting that all of this activity happened in a pre-retrospective moment, before the 1989 celebrations of photography’s inception began, and with them the greater interest in photography’s past rather than its future.
John Baldessari received an NEA in 1982, rather late in the NEA grants game, and I suspect it came as more of an honorific than any encouragement to be bold, a photographic stance he had held since the 1960s. As he writes in his click! commentary, it wasn’t “photography that I was interested in, but what art might be.” By the 1980s photography had become an important player—perhaps the most important—on the field of contemporary art. By then the special NEA photography program had been folded into the rest of the Visual Arts Program. And today of course there are no artist fellowships at all. “What art might be . . .” It might be time to look again at photography in the 1970s; it seems to have much to teach us about the making of the art of photography. See more photographs transferred from the National Endowment for the Arts to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.