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Finding Aids to Oral Histories in the Smithsonian Institution Archives

Record Unit 9600

Lerner, Abram, interviewee

Oral History Interviews with Abram Lerner, 1998

Repository: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C. Contact us at osiaref@si.edu.
Creator: Lerner, Abram, interviewee
Title: Oral History Interviews with Abram Lerner
Dates: 1998
Quantity: 4 audiotapes (Reference copies).
Collection: Record Unit 9600
Language of Materials: English
Summary:

These interviews of Lerner by Sidney S. Lawrence, III, Head of Public Affairs, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, cover the beginnings and development of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden including the architectural design of the building; the preparation for the opening of the museum; exhibitions from 1974 to 1984; gifts and acquisitions; the decision to donate Joseph H. Hirshhorn's collection to the Smithsonian; Lerner's views on modern art; and his social life in Washington D.C. The interviews also include reminiscences of individuals including Joseph H. Hirshhorn, S. Dillon Ripley, Mary Livingston Ripley, Larry Rivers, Raphael Soyer, Fernando Botero, and Henry Moore.

Historical Note

Abram Lerner (1913-2007) was the founding Director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. He was born on April 11, 1913, in New York City. He received his B.A. from New York University in 1935 and studied for five years at various art schools in the city, including the Art Students League and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. During the Great Depression, like many young artists of his generation, he worked as a mural painter for the Federal Arts Project in New York City, a work relief effort of the Works Progress Administration. During World War II, he worked as an illustrator for the Quartermaster Corps, and in 1945, he took a position as the Associate Director for Herman Baron's American Contemporary Art Gallery (A.C.A. Gallery) in New York City. While working there, Lerner met Joseph H. Hirshhorn and eventually began advising him on purchases of modern painting and sculpture for his growing art collection.

In 1955, Lerner left for Europe to travel and study art in Rome and Florence. Upon his return, he took a position as Associate Director of the Artists' Gallery and a year later, he was hired to curate Joseph H. Hirshhorn's collection. Lerner remained Hirshhorn's private curator for over a decade. In 1967, after Hirshhorn donated his collection to the Smithsonian Institution, Lerner was appointed Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden that opened in 1974. In 1984, Lerner retired and subsequently was named Founding Director Emeritus.

His publications include the inaugural book, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974) for which he wrote the introductory essay and served as editor. He also wrote numerous essays on Joseph H. Hirshhorn's collection and made many contributions to museum catalogues on the work of artists such as Gregory Gillespie, Auguste Rodin, and Raphael Soyer. In 1958, Lerner had his first and last solo exhibition at the Davis Gallery in New York City. In addition, he exhibited his work in group shows between 1941 and 1962 at the A.C.A Gallery, Peridot Gallery, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Davis Gallery, and the Hirshl and Adler Galleries.

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Introduction

The Smithsonian Institution Archives began its Oral History Program in 1973. The purpose of the program is to supplement the written documentation of the Archives' record and manuscript collections with an Oral History Collection, focusing on the history of the Institution, research by its scholars, and contributions of its staff. Program staff conduct interviews with current and retired Smithsonian staff and others who have made significant contributions to the Institution. There are also interviews conducted by researchers or students on topics related to the history of the Smithsonian or the holdings of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Abram Lerner interviews were accessioned into the Oral History Collection because of his role in the development of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn collection and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (HMSG).

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Descriptive Entry

The Abram Lerner Interviews were conducted during two sessions in October 1998 by Sidney S. Lawrence, III, Head of Public Affairs, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Lerner's wife, Mrs. Pauline Lerner, also participated in the interviews. The Lerner Interviews discuss the beginnings and development of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden including the architectural design of the building; the preparation for the opening of the museum; reminiscences of staff, trustees, artists, and critics; exhibitions from 1974 to 1984; gifts and acquisitions; the decision to donate Joseph H. Hirshhorn's collection to the Smithsonian; Lerner's views on modern art; and his social life in Washington D.C. The collection consist of approximately 3.75 hours of audiotape, 171 pages of transcript, and occupies 0.25 cubic feet of shelf space. There are three generations of each recording, 4 original audiotape cassettes, 8 digital audio .wav files for preservation, 4 duplicate audiotape cassettes and 8 digital audio .mp3 files for reference. Box 1 contains transcripts of the interviews and cassette copies of the original recordings, which are in security storage.

Additional documentation pertaining to Lerner can be found in the Records of the Office of the Director, and the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Curatorial Records, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which are also housed in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. In addition, the Archives of American Art has information pertaining to Lerner including an oral history interview with Lerner in 1975.

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Use Restriction

Restricted (Tapes only).

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Preferred Citation

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9600, Lerner, Abram, interviewee, Oral History Interviews with Abram Lerner

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Container List

Box 1

Transcripts of Interviews

Discusses the design, installation, and opening of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, reminiscences of staff, the board of trustees, artists, and critics; the opening of the museum, and early exhibitions, including: architect Gordon Bunschaft's vision for the Hirshhorn building; the installation of the collection for the opening of the museum; reminiscences of staff Michael Shapiro, Cynthia Jaffee McCabe, and Inez Garson; the plan and reconfiguration of the Sculpture Garden; the role of the Smithsonian in the new museum; the purpose of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Board of Trustees; reflections on the political climate during the 1970s; the initial objections toward the Hirshhorn Museum prior to its opening; hearings on the museum by the U.S. Congress; moving the collection to Washington, D.C.; the Bicentennial of the American Revolution exhibitions; public attendance and response once the museum opened; ideas on the depth of the collections and the role that research plays in a museum; the The Noble Buyer: John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde exhibition; Hirshhorn's collection of Benin art now housed at the National Museum of African Art; the article by Harold Rosenberg on the opening of the museum; John Beardsley and the Probing the Earth: Contemporary Land Projects exhibition; reminiscences of the sculptor Henry Moore; the exhibition interests of Charles W. Millard, III, the first Chief Curator; The Avant Garde in Russia exhibition and the play Victory Over the Sun; reminiscences of artist Larry Rivers; exhibitions curated by Joseph Shannon, such as the R. B. Kitaj exhibition; the obligation to show overseas exhibitions; the installation of the Jesus Raphael Soto retrospective; the Bicentennial exhibition openings; The Sources of Country Music (Thomas Hart Benton's final mural) exhibition; personal recollections of Thomas Hart Benton and American mural painting; the Raphael Soyer exhibitions; the Smithsonian underground complex; the curatorial staff; the Hirshhorn film program; acquisition of Action in Chains (L'Action Enchainee) Monument to Louis-Blanqui by Aristide Maillol; reminiscences of registrars Brian Kavanaugh and Doug Robinson; reminiscences of artists Fernando Botero and Raphael Soyer; foreign dignitaries; the di Suvero dedication ceremony; the Hirshhorn Holiday program; and reminiscences of Steven E. Weil.
Transcript, pp. 1-85, of audiotape recording, 2.0 hours.

Interview 2: 23 October 1998

Box 1 of 1
Discusses the early exhibitions, trustees, acquisitions and gifts, modern art, S. Dillon Ripley's efforts to persuade Hirshhorn to choose Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian to house his collection; and life in Washington, D.C., including: the Jesus Raphael Soto retrospective and Elie Nadelman exhibition in 1975; George Heard Hamilton, an early trustee of the Hirshhorn; Lerner's thoughts on selling or deaccessioning pieces from the collection; the variety of exhibitions shown at the Hirshhorn; curator Charles W. Millard, III, and his influence on Hirshhorn exhibitions and acquisitions; the Saul Steinberg, David Levine, David Hockney, and Josef Albers exhibitions; commemoration of the Josef Albers Learning Never Ends stamp, in 1980; the Brancusi as Photographer, The Fifties: Aspects of Painting in New York, and the Edwin Dickinson: Selected Landscapes exhibitions; the site for the National Gallery Sculpture Garden and Lerner's thoughts on the design of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden; the modern collection of the National Gallery of Art and other museums; a list of acquisitions to the collection and reminiscences about artists and donors; the work of the artist Gregory Gillespie; Lerner's views on contemporary painting and exhibiting the work of younger artists; reflections on the first Directions exhibit series; his opinions of art after Abstract Expressionism; reminiscences of Joshua Taylor of the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum); Marvin Sadik of the National Portrait Gallery; Lisa Suter Taylor from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Laughlin Philips of the Philips Gallery; collector David Lloyd Kreeger, and Congressman Sidney R. Yates; social life in Washington, including dinners with ambassadors and cultural attachés; scouting various locations and offers to house the collection outside the United States in Italy, London, Israel, and Canada; S. Dillon Ripley and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson's role in securing the Hirshhorn collection for the Smithsonian; reminiscences of S. Dillon Ripley, Mary Livingston Ripley and family; reminiscences of other acquaintances in Washington; and the design of the logo for the museum.
Transcript, pp. 86-171, of audiotape recording, 1.75 hours.

Audio Recordings of Interviews

Interview 1: 22 October 1998

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 2.0 hours
Original Masters: 2 audiotape cassettes
Preservation Masters: 8 digital audio .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 audiotape cassettes and 8 digital audio .mp3 files

Interview 2: 23 October 1998

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 1.75 hours
Original Masters: 2 audiotape cassettes
Preservation Masters: 8 digital audio .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 audiotape cassettes and 8 digital audio .mp3 files