Is art only for elites with the money to buy the most brilliant works and the education to enjoy them? Or is art a public good with the capacity to bring communities and nations together? Historian Rachel N. Klein explains how in the 1840s, a New York City organization called the American Art-Union embraced that last interpretation.
The Art-Union grew out of the Apollo Gallery, established by portrait painter James Herring in 1838 as a way for artists to exhibit work for sale. Over the next few years, it began buying up a range of paintings by artists around the country. Subscribers paid a $5 annual fee for the chance to win a piece of art, using the proceeds to pay artists and to keep a free gallery open to the public. By the late 1840s, the organization was the primary market for American paintings other than portraits. Klein writes that over its thirteen-year lifespan, the organization purchased 2,481 works by more than 300 artists. Many of these were landscape paintings, images of everyday life, and pictures that told exciting or funny stories.
The Art-Union was part of a movement on both sides of the Atlantic that saw art as a means of moral improvement for the general population. It opposed the patronage model of painting for elites, and reimagined art as profit-driven popular entertainment. Philip Hone, a former New York mayor who helped establish the union, railed against the “licentiousness” of the penny press and hoped to educate the “taste of the people” for the good of the republic.
And yet, Klein writes, the Art-Union’s economic model took full advantage of a growing popular interest in the expanding consumer and investment economy. Following P.T. Barnum’s lead, it lured people of all social classes to its gallery with a display of paintings and lavish furnishings that extended into the street. Additionally, it offered the chance to win not just its paintings but also limited-edition etchings and medals depicting famous artists. Subscribers were motivated by the hope of a valuable prize: In 1848, when it offered a series of Thomas Cole paintings worth $6,000, its subscriptions jumped from 9,666 to 16,475.
The Art-Union ultimately collapsed under pressure from several directions. Within the world of high art, certain critics objected to the organization’s purchase of what they considered to be mediocre paintings for the sake of providing prizes affordably. Meanwhile, some artists complained they had been overlooked by the union and attempted to create rival institutions.
But Klein writes that the biggest blow came from the penny press—specifically, the New York Herald. The paper railed against the Art-Union as an elitist institution that used its lottery system to take advantage of subscribers. The Herald rallied public opinion to its side, eventually prompting legal action by the New York District Attorney. In 1852, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the organization was an illegal lottery, bringing its work to an end.