Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood show in works at LACMA

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A major exhibition on the American painter Thomas Hart Benton is in the pipeline at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- one that would dovetail very nicely with the new movie museum that could be part of LACMA’s campus by fall 2015, when the Benton show is tentatively scheduled to open.

The news of the Benton exhibition came Wednesday when the National Endowment for the Humanities announced its latest round of grants, including $40,000 to LACMA for the show’s planning. The grant was modest -– less than half the average of $82,000 in a round that totaled $17 million and included much bigger ones for the Getty Research Institute, UCLA, USC and UC Santa Barbara.


But the show whose planning it will support is a biggie: “Benton, Hollywood and History,” co-organized by LACMA and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., will feature about 100 works, including 75 paintings and murals and 25 preparatory studies and drawings, plus a selection of Benton’s historical prints, illustrated books and never-exhibited ephemera and photographs.

A written description LACMA released after The Times inquired about the grant says the show “will be the first exhibition to examine the visual strategies that Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) pursued to become the preeminent history painter of 20th century America, and the ways those strategies intersected… with the strategies of Hollywood, America’s paramount myth-making machine.”

The Nelson-Atkins Museum boats hundreds of works by Benton, who was born in rural Missouri and died in Kansas City, including 10 of the 14 mural panels the artist completed for “American Historical Epic,” which he conceived as a much larger series but had to set aside.

LACMA, which owns eight works by Benton, said the show is planned to open at the Nelson-Atkins early in 2015, then come to L.A. in the fall. When LACMA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last October that they were partnering on a movie museum in the former department store building now known as LACMA West, it was estimated that the venue could open in 2014. The curators for ‘Benton, Hollywood and History’ are Margaret C. Conrads, senior curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins, and Austen Barron Bailly, associate curator of American art at LACMA. Bailly’s dissertation at UC Santa Barbara was “Painting the American Historical Epic: Thomas Hart Benton and Race, 1919-1936,” and her thumbnail bio on LACMA’s “Unframed” blog says the mural series is her favorite work of art.

According to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the “American Historical Epic” paintings “signaled a new aesthetic from [Benton’s] previous abstract paintings to a new vision of modern American art that came to be known as Regionalism.”

LACMA notes that the NEH was also the largest funder of ‘Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico,’ which opens April 1, and last year’s ‘Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts.’


In the News: Thomas Hart Benton

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Academy has long sought to build prominent film museum in L.A.

-- Mike Boehm