Where do art and the humanities belong? David Kipen on the new American Writers Museum

What were you doing in Los Angeles on the night of Aug. 10, 1939?

Actuarially speaking, hundreds if not thousands of native Angelenos can still answer that question. Even a 5-year-old on that night would only be 82 today.

But how many 5-year-olds in 1939 went to art openings? It’s just possible, then, that no one now alive visited a modest but elegant L.A. art gallery under a candy factory for the unveiling of the most important painting of the 20th century, Picasso’s “Guernica.”

What on earth was Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece doing midway between Bullock’s Wilshire and Lafayette Park, its paint only two years dry? Brought to town by European exiles like Fritz Lang and art dealer Galka Scheyer (and New York exiles like Dorothy Parker) as a fundraiser for Spanish Civil War orphans, did “Guernica” really belong here?

For a new project, I’ve been thinking hard lately about the question of where art and the humanities do and don’t belong. In federal budgets? In course requirements? And while we’re at it, in what universe does the newly opened American Writers Museum belong in Chicago?

The birth of the American Writers Museum

If you’re anywhere between Canada and Mexico and you care about reading, maybe you’ve already heard about the American Writers Museum. It aspires to become a showplace for the discovery and exploration of American literature, and it pretty much started in late 2009 when my office phone rang.

At the time, I was winding down my tenure as director of National Reading Initiatives for the National Endowment for the Arts. Loafers on the desk and the Post in my lap, I felt like Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon” — a book I’d been evangelizing around American cities and towns encouraging my countrymen to read. There was a new NEA chair in town, and literature seemed to rank pretty low among his priorities. On my watch, the writing had always mattered most. Now the writing wasn’t just off the agenda, it was on the wall. I picked up on the first ring.

Seven floors down, I heard the security guard hand off the phone. In a papery brogue that sounded two weeks, tops, out of Dublin Harbor, a man’s voice said — actually said — “I t’ink I’d like to talk to someone about gettin’ a grant.”

As a federal arts administrator, you get calls like these from time to time: Hi, I’m working on a Civil War novel set on Alpha Centauri, and the first paragraph is almost done. Can you spot me a couple grand til Oprah calls?

Ideally, the calls go to voicemail. This one hadn’t. For whatever reason — maybe because I’d been on the needy end of one or two professional calls myself of late — I bit.

“What for?” I drawled, in no hurry.

Charm wafted up the line, fragrant as peat smoke, as I heard him utter the magic spell: “I’d like to start a museum of American literature.”

He said something else too, but I didn’t catch it, because I was already racing downstairs three marble steps at a…

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