Holger Cahill

Holger Cahill

Holger Cahill on February 15, 1938
Born Sveinn Kristján Bjarnason
13 January 1890
Skógarströnd, Iceland
Died 8 July 1960 (1960-07-09) (aged 70)
Occupation Art administrator
Art curator
Citizenship American

Edgar Holger Cahill (January 13, 1890 – July 8, 1960) was an Icelandic-American curator, writer, and arts administrator who served as the national director of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal in the United States.[1][2]

Cahill opened the first of 12 forums on the economic status of artists in the U.S., "Shall the Artist Survive?" (November 22, 1936)[3]


Cahill was born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson in Skógarströnd, Iceland on January 13, 1890.[1]

Cahill’s Icelandic family migrated to Canada about 1890 and then to North Dakota as homesteaders, anglicizing their name to Bjornson and eventually, Johnson, although they continued to speak Icelandic at home. Extreme poverty, lack of formal education and domestic strife marked Cahill’s early childhood. When he was young, his father abandoned the family and his mother sent the young Cahill to live and work on a farm owned by an Icelandic family 50 miles away where he was mistreated. His mother remarried and had another child, Anna. That marriage also did not last. After two years with the Icelandic farmers, Cahill ran away at first to neighboring farms where he found work and eventually to Winnipeg, in search of distant cousins. The cousins refused to take him in and he ended up in an orphanage. A Gaelic-speaking family in a nearby cooperative farm community adopted Cahill and he was able to attend school regularly for the first time. After several years with the Gaelic family, he returned to North Dakota in search of his mother only to discover that his mother and step-sister had moved. Eventually he found them working on a nearby tenant farm in 1902. His mother had remarried to a younger man named Samson, and she and her son quarreled. Once again, he left home and did not see his mother again for 45 years.


Cahill's first official position in the field of visual arts was as publicity director for the Society of Independent Artists in 1921 where he met many of the leading modernist artists of the period including John Sloan. As a former journalist, Cahill knew how to write and effectively create new interest in the Society’s exhibitions. The following year, he was hired by John Cotton Dana to become his assistant at the Newark Museum. At Newark, Cahill managed publicity, organized radio and newspaper coverage of the museum’s activities, purchased works by contemporary artists for the museum’s growing collection and, in 1930 and 1931, organized the first museum exhibitions of American Folk Art. During his tenure at Newark (1922–30), he continued (with Dana’s encouragement) to write fiction, essays and short stories including art criticism for Shadowland magazine, International Studio and the New York Herald Tribune. He published a novel, Profane Earth in 1927 and, in 1930, a biography of Frederick Townsend Ward and his role in the Taiping Rebellion of 1861, A Yankee Adventurer. At Newark, he met his future wife, Dorothy Canning Miller whom he married in 1938.[4]

In 1932–33, Cahill served as acting director of the Museum of Modern Art when the founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., took a leave of absence. He organized several notable exhibitions including American Sources of Modern Art, American Folk Art: Art of the Common Man in America and a survey exhibition, American Painting and Sculpture 1862–1932. In 1934, he directed the First Municipal Art Exhibition at Rockefeller Center in New York; the exhibition coincided with the destruction of the mural by Diego Rivera and many of the artists threatened to withdraw. When Cahill left Newark, he employed Dorothy Miller as his assistant on his various projects. At the First Municipal Art Exhibition, Miller stepped in as Director when Cahill landed in the hospital and was unable to continue which led to her later position as curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

Holger Cahill, national director of the Federal Art Project, speaking at the Harlem Community Art Center (October 24, 1938)

From August 1935 until April 1943, Cahill was the national director of the Federal Art Project, the role for which he is best known today. His contributions to the research, documentation and understanding of the visual arts in America were wide ranging—from the earliest crafts of the Native Americans to the abstract expressionists. In the 1920s, his early endorsement of American folk art as well as the early American modernists introduced their work to a larger public through exhibitions, catalogues and criticism. During his tenure of the WPA, his oversight of the Index of American Design established a greater understanding of the variety and quality of American iconographic imagery.

Cahill proved to be an imaginative, sensitive and skillful administrator. Under his leadership community art centers were established in over 100 towns and cities nationwide, murals drawing upon the geographical environment were painted in public buildings throughout the country, and some 10,000 artists and craft workers were sustained through the Great Depression. An entire generation of artists was nurtured, their work exhibited, and an expanded public for art was created.

In 1938, Cahill married Dorothy Canning Miller, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. The following year, he took a leave of absence from the WPA to stay in New York City and direct a large survey exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair, American Art Today. Through Miller, he continued to meet new artists and he was an avid and interested spectator of all of the programming at the Museum of Modern Art.


When the Federal Arts Project ended in 1943, Cahill returned to New York to concentrate on writing novels and essays. Hampered by various illnesses after his busy tenure as Director of the Federal Art Project and a severe heart attack in 1947, he managed to complete two novels, Look South to the Polar Star, in 1947, and The Shadow of My Hand, in 1956, set in the Midwest of his youth. In the same year he began studying poetry with Stanley Kunitz, and taped a memoir for the Columbia University Oral History Project. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship for work on his novel Stone Dreamer, which was left unfinished at his death in 1960.

Cahill died on July 8, 1960 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he is buried in the town’s cemetery.[1]


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