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Associated American Artists

Associated American Artists: Thomas Hart Benton's

Thomas Hart Benton's "Going Home"

American

Born in the midst of the Great Depression, the Associated American Artists organization was the first of its kind to market art to the middle class, a populist approach that would play a significant role in the growth of art as an industry.

The AAA was founded in 1934 by Reeves Lewenthal, who had until then been working in public relations and as an artist agent. Realizing the limits of selling high-priced art to the narrow segment who had access to it and who could afford it, Lewenthal created a business model of selling art to the masses by way of affordable prints: He would commission well-known American artists to produce a lithograph, pay the artist $200 for each edition, then market the lithographs to the middle class and sell them for $5 each, plus $2 for a frame.

At the time the AAA was formed, an original piece of art had become a nearly impossible luxury for most Americans, and artists were struggling to sell their work at traditional galleries. Although the Federal Art Project (a division of the WPA) distributed thousands of commissioned fine art prints throughout the Depression, the prints were free of charge and the artists made little money from them. Lewenthal’s offer of $200 per edition was amenable to many well-known Regionalist artists including Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood.   

Within its first year Lewenthal and the AAA were selling “signed originals by America’s great artists” at more than fifty department stores, through mail-order catalogs and by subscription. Lewenthal, a consummate promoter, marketed his prints as educational resources, as "art for the people", as a way of improving social stature, and as a “patriotic” choice. Collectors sprang up across the country. The most popular images were familiar scenes of everyday life; these strong and idealized depictions of America dovetailed with the political views of the New Deal and acted as a sort of talisman for a nation still reeling from economic turmoil.

By the late 1930s Lewenthal’s business model had been so successful he was able to open a gallery on Fifth Avenue on New York City – perhaps a move counterintuitive to his original concept. Associated American Artists eventually expanded into moderately priced original artworks, then, in the years after World War II, houseware, greeting card, porcelain and textile design. Instead of bringing art to the masses, Associated American Artists was bringing mass consumerism to art. Other companies quickly adopted and continue this practice of hiring artists to design a line of goods, forecasting the downfall of the AAA.

In what can be considered a very “American” success story, original Associated American Artists prints sold for just a few dollars now command thousands at auction. 

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