Thomas M. Messer records
Scope and Content Note
The Thomas M. Messer records document the activities of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's (SRGM) third director. The bulk of the records in this collection coincide with the 27 year duration of Thomas M. Messer's (TMM) directorship of the SRGM from 1961 until 1988. This collection contains correspondence, reports, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, memoranda, department records, exhibition information, loan forms, and legal documents. Incoming and outgoing correspondence is heavily represented in the collection, including exhibition proposals; congratulatory notes; invitations; loan request; acquisition acknowledgement letters; and communication between TMM and artists, scholars, collectors, and colleagues at other museums and arts institutions. Some letters include attachments of photographs, invitations, newspaper clippings, exhibition brochures, and financial documentation. Most records document TMM's administration of the SRGM, including the expansion of its permanent collection. Records related to TMM's activities outside the SRGM can be found in Series 6. Personal and Professional and Series 7. Scholarship.
Series 1. Governance includes the governing documents of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF) and documentation of the activities of the SRGR Board of Trustees (BOT), primarily through copies of BOT meeting minutes, agendas, and other meeting materials. Further insight into the structure of the museum administration is provided in Series 2. Administration, which includes reports generated by various museum departments documenting their activities, organizational charts, and personnel information. This series, along with Series 4. Director's Office Files, documents the day to day activities of museum operations. Series 4. Director's Office Files contains the records of Susan Halpert, Linda Konheim (Kramer), and Floyd Lattin, who worked directly under TMM in the Director's Office.
Information on the physical expansion of the SRGM and the various renovations of the Frank Lloyd Wright building are well documented in Series 2. Administration. The series also contains various materials gathered by TMM on the history of the SRGM and on various institutions and art subjects. Series 2. also contains information on events held at the SRGM.
Series 5. Exhibitions and Objects contains information related to artists of interest to TMM, exhibitions, loans, acquisitions, and information on works of art in the permanent collection. The exhibition files contain correspondence, checklists, wall lists, research, publications, traveling exhibition information, loans, and newspaper and magazine clippings pertaining to numerous exhibitions held or planned to be held at the SRGM during TMM's tenure as director. While Series 5 contains research on artists as well as some correspondence with artists directly pertaining to SRGM exhibitions, the majority of correspondence between TMM and artists is located in Series 3. Artist Correspondence. This series reveals the personal relationships TMM developed with a number of artists over the course of his career and addresses artist development; works of art; exhibitions; and the New York, national, and international art communities.
TMM's biographical information, involvement with other art organizations, participation in non-SRGM juried exhibitions, and his leadership roles in various professional organizations are documented in Series 6. Personal and Professional. TMM's involvement in the American Federation of Arts, the International Council of Museums, the American Association of Museum Directors, the International Exhibitions Committee within the American Federation of Arts, and the MacDowell Colony are especially well represented in this series. Series 7. Scholarship contains material on courses taught by TMM, interviews with TMM conducted by and for other organizations, his published and unpublished writings, lecture materials, and his art historical research.
The Day files in Series 8 were established in 1961 under the directorship of Thomas Messer and was discontinued in 1990 under the directorship of Tom Krens. The Day files consist of copies of all outgoing correspondence from Solomon R. Guggenheim professional staff, 1961–1990. Neither original correspondence nor incoming correspondence is included in this series. Series 8 is restricted.
The correspondence index found in Series 2. Administration has been digitized and is available to view online through links in the folder list below. Additional digitized highlights from the collection can be seen at https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/category/findings.
- 1931-2002 (bulk 1961-1988)
Language of Materials
Collection is primarily in English.
The collection is partially restricted, including the entirety of Series 8. Please contact the Manager of the Library and Archives for further information.
Requests for permission to publish material from this collection should be discussed with the Manager of the Library and Archives.
Thomas M. Messer (TMM) was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia on February 9, 1920 to Dr. Richard and Agatha (née Albrecht) Messer. TMM's father was an art historian and educator who taught at Charles University in Prague.
TMM came to the United States in 1939 as an exchange student through the Institute of International Education and entered Thiel College in Greeneville, Pennsylvania, where he studied chemistry. He later transferred to Boston University and studied modern languages, earning a B.A. in 1942. TMM enlisted in the United States Army in 1943, serving in France and Germany. After the end of WWII, he remained in Europe and formally studied art for the first time at La Sorbonne in Paris, earning a degree in 1947.
Between 1949 and 1952, TMM served as Director of the Roswell Museum of History and Art (now Roswell Museum and Art Center) in Roswell, New Mexico. TMM joined the staff of the American Federation of the Arts in 1952, becoming the Director of Exhibitions in 1953 and Director in 1955. TMM then became the Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston from 1957 to 1961. Under his leadership funds were raised for a permanent building for the ICA, which was completed in 1960.
TMM's relationship with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (SRGM) began when he was appointed Director in January 1961, a position he held for 27 years until his retirement on June 30, 1988. At the time of TMM's appointment, the SRGM's iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building had opened less than two years prior and its viability as a museum was still a topic of great controversy. Working with curatorial staff that included Lawrence Alloway, Edward F. Fry, Angelica Rudenstine, Margit Rowell, Louise Svendsen, and Diane Waldman, among others, TMM organized temporary exhibitions that proved the museum's viability and expanded the scope of its exhibition program. TMM organized exhibitions such as "The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painters and Painting in the 1960's" (1965-1966) and "Joseph Beuys" (1979), which brought new forms of contemporary art to United States audiences. The last exhibition organized under TMM's administration was "Modern Treasures from the National Gallery in Prague" (1988).
TMM significantly expanded the museum's permanent collection through the acquisition of two important collections, the Thannhauser Collection and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. TMM was able to negotiate a gift of a significant collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early modern works from Justin K. Thannhauser (JKT). The collector was TMM's neighbor and their friendship began in the 1950's. The Thannhauser Collection, which broadened the SRGF collection beyond its 20th-century focus, was housed in the Thannhauser Wing of the museum's Monitor building from 1965 until TJK's death in 1976. The collection was legally transferred to the SRGF in 1978. JKT's wife, Hilde Thannhauser made additional gifts to the collection, including a bequest of ten paintings upon her death in 1991.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, including the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where it was and remains housed, was formally donated by Peggy Guggenheim (PG) to the SRGF in 1976. PG was courted for years by TMM and Presidents Harry F. Guggenheim (Solomon R. Guggenheim's nephew) and Peter Lawson-Johnston (Solomon's grandson); she was invited to show her collection at the SRGM, resulting in the exhibition "Works from the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation" in 1969. The SRGF assumed management and full responsibility for the collection upon PG's death in 1979. The painting and sculpture from the PGC further extended the span and depth of the collection to include works from movements such as Surrealism, which had previously been underrepresented in the New York museum.
Outside of the SRGM, TMM was an active member of many museum professional organizations. He assumed key leadership roles in many of these organizations, including the American Association of Museums (AAM), American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD), and the International Council of Museums (ICOM), among others. TMM received numerous honors during the course of his career, which included: Knight First Class, Royal Order of St. Olav, Norway in 1966; Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1975; Officer's Cross of the Order of Leopold II, Belgium in 1978; and the Chevalier Legion of Honor, France in 1980. After his retirement as director of the SRGM and SRGF, TMM remained involved in the art world by serving as trustee and advisor to various arts organizations, such as the Noguchi Museum, the Institute of International Education, and the Calder Foundation.
Biographical / Historical
- February 9, 1920 Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia
- 1939 Came to United States as an exchange student under the auspices of the Institute of International Education
- 1939-1941 Attended Thiel College
- 1942 Received B.A. from Boston University
- 1944 Became a naturalized U.S. Citizen
- 1947 Received degree from La Sorbonne, University of Paris
- 1948 Married Remedios (Remi) Garcia Villa
- 1949-1952 Served as Director of the Roswell Museum of History and Art (now Roswell Museum and Art Center), Roswell, New Mexico
- 1951 Received M.A. from Harvard University
- 1952-1953 Served as Assistant Director of the American Federation of Arts (AFA), New York City
- 1953-1955 AFA, Director of Exhibitions
- 1955-1956 AFA, Director
- 1957-1961 Served as Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
- 1960 Adjunct Professor, Harvard University
- 1961 Appointed Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (SRGM) in January
- 1963 Justin K. Thannhauser (JKT) bequeathed works of his collection to the SRGF
- 1965-1976 The Thannhauser collection was placed on loan, as a promised gift, to the SRGM and housed in the Thannhauser Wing until JKT's death in 1976.
- 1966 Senior Fellow, Center for Advanced Study, Wesleyan University
- 1966, 1970 Adjunct Professor, Barnard College
- 1969 "Works from the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation" opened at the SRGM
- 1973 "Edvard Munch" monograph published by Harry W. Abrams, Inc., New York
- 1974-1975 Served as President of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD)
- 1976 After the death of Justin K. Thannhauser, the Thannhauser Collection formally entered SRGM holdings; the gift of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (PGC) and the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was formalized
- 1976-1978 Served as Founding Chairman, International Exhibitions Committee of the American Federation of Arts
- 1977-1980 President of the MacDowell Colony, Inc.
- 1978 The Thannhauser Collection was legally transferred to the SRGF
- 1979 SRGF assumed management and full responsibility for the PGC upon the death of Peggy Guggenheim
- 1978-1984 Chariman, International Council of Museums (ICOM), Committee of the American Association of Museums (AAM), Washington, D.C.
- 1980 Appointed Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF); Appointed the first director of the PGC
- 1984 Guest Professor at Hochschule für angewandt Kunst, Vienna, Austria
- 1988 "Modern Treasures from the National Gallery in Prague" was the last exhibition held under TMM's administration; Retired as SRGM and SRGF director effective June 30
121 cubic ft. (277 boxes)
Thomas M. Messer (TMM) served as Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (SRGM) from 1961 until 1988 and as Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation from 1980-1988. He was the museum's third director.
The Thomas M. Messer records document the activities of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (SRGM) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF) director, Thomas M. Messer (TMM). The bulk of the records in this collection span the duration of TMM's directorship of the SRGM. This collection contains correspondence, reports, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, memoranda, departmental records, exhibition information, loan information and legal documents. Information on acquisition of new artwork, SRGM exhibitions, museum renovations, TMM's professional and scholarly activities outside the SRGM, communications between TMM and artists, scholars, and colleagues at other museums and arts institutions can be found in this collection.
Organized into 8 series: 1. Governance; 2. Administration; 3. Artist Correspondence; 4. Director's Office Files; 5. Exhibitions and Objects; 6. Personal and Professional; 7. Scholarship; and 8. Day Files.
- Art -- Exhibitions. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Art museum directors. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Art, Modern -- 19th century. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Art, Modern -- 20th century. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Artists -- Correspondence. Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Thomas M. Messer records
- Finding aid prepared by NHPRC grant project staff
- February 2011
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Code for undetermined script
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.
- The processing and select digitization of this collection was generously funded in part by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
Part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives Repository
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