(This is Part 1 of a series in honor of Women’s History Month and the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show—click here for Part 2, on women artists!)
The Armory Show took place in New York City exactly 100 years ago, introducing the American public to the contemporary art coming out of Europe. Many saw the avant-garde abstractions as shocking—one viewer referred to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Despite its raucous reception, no one doubts the impact the Armory Show has had on artistic developments in the United States.
The exhibition has been celebrated as an iconic success for the male modern artist, yet this success hinged on the women patrons who not only opened their purses to help make it happen, but also made significant purchases at the exhibition. Of the 24 financial contributors, all but five were women. Despite being characterized by Meyer Shapiro as the stereotypical wealthy wives and daughters of magnates who were preoccupied with their money,¹ these women actually came from diverse backgrounds. Some of the contributions came from women who donated only five dollars—equal to about $100 today. Without the financial support of women, the organizers could not have pulled off the Armory Show.
Not only did 80 percent of the funding come from women, but also one-third of the buyers and lenders were female. It is clear that these women were about the business of defining cultural taste. They did not feel threatened by the changing socio-political world around them, they embraced it. For example, Mable Dodge, the quintessential “New Woman,” helped gather artwork from private collections, apparently at ease in selecting pieces for the exhibition. In her memoirs, she explains that as soon as she wrote a check in support of the show, she felt she owned it: “It became, overnight, my own little Revolution.”² Katherine Dreier is another example. She was both an exhibiting artist in the Armory Show and a patron, loaning a Van Gogh painting and buying two other works. She immersed herself in establishing modernism in America and her extensive collection of modern art now resides at the Yale University Art Gallery. Additionally, patron Lillie Bliss bought several pieces at the Armory Show—her collection formed the basis for the Museum of Modern Art in 1929.
Perhaps women supported this revolutionary exhibition because it was one way they could claim a part of modernity for themselves and participate in a community that sought a broader definition of modern culture. The women in the Armory Show were not mere witnesses to the changes in the art world: they were part of it, engaging in the consumption and production of the imagery of their time.