In the early twentieth century, it was no easy feat for artists to get their work in front of the public eye. Established art societies imposed restrictive admission policies that often excluded artists from entry into salons and exhibitions, while galleries tended to represent the more distinguished set, resulting in an insular and impenetrable art scene. The Society of Independent Artists in 1916 changed all that by upending the typical process by which artists could showcase their work. Formed by a group of vanguard modern artists—including Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and William Glackens, among others—the association sought to provide artists—little known and renowned, figurative and abstract—the opportunity to present their paintings in annual exhibitions. To participate, all that was required was an SIA membership for a small fee. The artworks were hung alphabetically by artist name, shedding any traces of hierarchy. And, by doing away with exclusionary and often fussy practices, with its adopted motto “No Jury, No Prizes,” as declared in its first exhibition catalogue, the society leveled the playing field, allowing for greater diversity in members—especially paving the way for more women exhibitors, who often found themselves overlooked by museums and galleries.
The Delaware Art Museum is commemorating the centennial of the opening of the SIA’s groundbreaking first exhibition with No Jury, No Prizes: The Society of Independent Artists, 1917–1944, a selection of about forty works from its collection—encompassing paintings, prints, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures— created and exhibited by the society’s members. A number of the paintings included were purchased and exhibited by John Sloan, a cofounder of the Ashcan school, who also served as president of the society for more than two decades. The heterogeneity of styles and techniques was the strength of the SIA, and is evident in the museum’s presentation as well. In the exhibition you’ll find Untitled, an abstract painting composed of jagged and curved amorphous forms by Giorgio Cavallon not far from Peggy Bacon’s bustling restaurant scene Lunch at the League. Strikingly graphic posters designed for the annual exhibitions in New York by such artists as Fred Biesel and Theodore Butler will also be on display, alongside SIA postcards, invitations, and floor plans. A digital slideshow of photographs by Walter J. Russell documenting the installation of the SIA show in 1940 offers a glimpse of the scale and scope of these exhibitions, which gave artists on the periphery of the art world a valuable forum to share their work.
No Jury, No Prizes: The Society of Independent Artists, 1917–1944 • Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington • February 4 to May 14 • delart.org