Street fairs and public art exhibits have become such a huge part of city life that it is easy to forget the humble beginnings of these outdoor showcases. One such much-anticipated event is the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit.

In 1931, as the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, a struggling artist in need of money for food and rent decided to set up his artwork on the sidewalk near Washington Square Park. His name was Jackson Pollock and he had moved to New York in 1929 to study under Thomas Hart Benton at the New York Art Students’ League. Shortly thereafter, his friend from the Art Students’ League and fellow cash-strapped artist Willem de Kooning joined him. Their public display attracted the attention of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art (which was then located nearby on West 8th Street), and Alfred H. Barr Jr, Director at the Museum of Modern Art. This chance meeting on Washington Square Park would eventually help propel both artists’ careers into national, and then worldwide, recognition.

The following spring, in May of 1932, the first official Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit was held. Sponsored by the Artists’ Aid Committee, which was founded by Vernon Carroll Porter, it lasted nine days and showcased the works of ten New York artists, most of who lived below 14th Street. A New York Times article from June 5, 1932 that marked the occasion noted that this was the first open-air art show in New York City. The article read,

New to us, these outdoor exhibits are familiar sights in several European cities, and in Philadelphia. Hard times have hit the artists of the Village; the outdoor sale was held to help them market their wares and perhaps to gain recognition for their talents.”

The third outdoor exhibit, held in April of 1933, welcomed 500 artists and 20,000 visitors. Other early exhibitions showcased the works of Alice Neel, Saul Berman, Ilya Bolotowski, and Beauford Delaney. In the early years it became customary to turn paintings deemed offensive to the wall. By 1948, the exhibit was struggling and, according to an article written by Sharon L. Butler for the Brooklyn Rail, “to save the exhibit, a community steering committee, led by Nell Boardman, a respected Greenwich Village painter, stepped in and took control. The event grew to include more than 1200 artists.”

A 2010 Villager article recounted,

In the 1970s, standards were imposed; works are now juried by artists, via submission of slides or digital images — and a $20 first-time jury fee. Nudity is permissible, and the show opened up to include photography and crafts, provided each craft piece is one of a kind and handmade.”

The exhibit is still a twice-yearly event, held every Memorial Day Weekend and the weekend that follows and every Labor Day Weekend and the weekend that follows. Today, donated cash prizes are awarded to artists based on selections made by artist judges. Pollock and de Kooning would certainly be proud of the long-time tradition they created in the Village!

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