Holger Cahill (1887-1960)
National Director, Federal Art Project,
Works Projects Administration (1935 to 1943)

(The following is a biography from the New York Public Library at: http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/spe/rbk/faids/cahill.html

Holger Cahill was a novelist, art critic, museum curator, an authority on the folk art of the United States and the arts of Central America, and national director of the Federal Art Project of the Works Projects Administration from 1935 to 1943. He was the son of Bjorn Jonsson and Vigdis Bjarndottir of Skogarstrond, Iceland, where he was born in 1887 and christened Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarson. Cahill died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1960.

Shortly after his birth the family emigrated to western Canada and later moved to North Dakota. His early childhood was blighted by poverty and domestic conflict. When he was eleven his father abandoned the family and his mother became ill. Unable to care for her children she sent Cahill to live with a nearby Icelandic farming family. Two years later he ran away to Canada where he briefly worked as a farmhand and began the wanderings and search for his mother and young sister that consumed much of his adolescence. He spent some time in a Winnipeg orphanage and in a Gaelic-speaking farm community where he attended school. Returning to North Dakota he renewed the search for his mother and sister, and eventually found them working on a farm. Shortly thereafter Cahill left and did not see his mother again until 1947.

He worked as a cattle-driver in Nebraska and later in Minnesota. In St. Paul he took a job as a clerical worker for the Northern Pacific Railway and attended night school. He worked on ore boats on the Great Lakes and as a coal passer on the Empress of China which took him to Japan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, where he jumped ship. His experiences in the Orient led in later years to the writing of two books: China: A Yankee Adventurer (1930) a biography of Frederick Townsend Ward which outlined his role in the Taiping rebellion; and a novel, Look South to the Polar Star (1947).

After his return from China, Cahill sold insurance and books and washed dishes in hotels before heading for New York City just before the outbreak of World War I. He worked as a short-order cook in lower-Manhattan and attended night classes in journalism and creative writing at New York University where he met the future novelist, Mike Gold. When Gold later became the editor of the Scarsdale Inquirer and the Bronxville Review, in Westchester County, he gave Cahill a job as a reporter. It was at about this time that Cahill took the name, Edgar Holger Cahill, by which he would be known for the rest of his life. When Gold left for Harvard Cahill took his place as the editor of the two small weekly newspapers and ran them for three years before returning to New York to work as a freelance journalist and to attend courses at Columbia University and The New School for Social Research. In 1919 he married Katherine Gridley. They were divorced in 1927. They had one daughter, Jane Ann.

Around 1920 Cahill was brought into contact with the painter John Sloan while writing publicity for the Society of Independent Artists. Through Sloan Cahill became friends with a remarkable group of painters and sculptors including Robert Henri, George Bellows, Max Weber (for whose important show in 1930 at The Downtown Gallery he wrote the catalogue), Mark Tobey, Walt Kuhn, Jules Pascin, Joseph Stella, and William Zorach. Thanks to his friendship with these extraordinary artists he soon got caught up in the city's bohemian life and became involved with the visual arts. A turning point in his life came in 1922 when he joined the staff of the Newark Museum, which had been successful in popularizing contemporary art through its exhibitions program. Encouraged by the Museum's director, John Cotton Dana, Cahill in 1930 and 1931 organized American Primitives, and American Folk Sculpture, two comprehensive and significant exhibitions of American folk art.

In 1932 Cahill served as the acting director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and organized an exhibition of early American folk art. In his catalogue for the exhibition, American folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900, Cahill emphasized the individual qualities (within the framework of communal utilitarian traditions) of the largely unidentified artists and craftsmen and drew attention to the kinship of much of their work with modern art, intentionally blunting the customary distinctions between fine art and folk art, high culture and popular culture. In the same year he arranged an important show of American paintings and sculpture from 1862 to 1932, followed in 1933 by the notable American Sources of Modern Art exhibition which examined the pre-Columbian art of Mexico, Peru, and Central America, especially in the light of its influence on Gauguin, the fauvists and cubists, and a generation of Latin American muralists.

By 1934 Cahill's catalogues and articles had firmly established his reputation as a writer on art. Early in that year Cahill directed the first Municipal Art Exhibition of New York and was the co-editor with Alfred Barr of Art in America in Modern Times, and, in 1935, Art in America: A Complete Survey. In that year, when he was planning to devote full time to writing he was summoned to Washington to help organize the Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief program for some 40,000 painters, sculptors, musicians, writers and theatre people. In the late summer of that year Cahill was appointed national director of the Federal Art Project which administered funds allocated for needy painters, sculptors, graphic artists, craftsmen, and art teachers. He proved to be an imaginative and skillful administrator. Under his leadership public art gained new meaning, art centers were established in over a hundred towns and cities, an index of American design was produced, and a generation of artists was encouraged, supported, and nurtured.

When the Federal Art Project ended in 1943 Cahill returned to New York to concentrate on writing novels, although he did some articles on art and the history of the Federal Art Project. Despite being hampered by various illnesses and a severe heart attack in 1947 he managed to complete two books, Look South to the Polar Star, in 1947, and The Shadow of My Hand, in 1956, which was set in the midwest of his youth. In the same year he began studying poetry with Stanley Kunitz, and taped a memoir for the Columbia University Oral History Project. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on another novel, The Stone-Dreamer, which was left unfinished at his death in 1960.

In 1938 Cahill married Dorothy Canning Miller (born 1904; died 2003), who was his colleague at MoMA and later became the museum's curator of paintings and sculpture.

Biography from "A Finding Aid to the Holger Cahill Papers, 1910-1993," in the Archives of American Art by Jean Fitzgerald and Stephanie Ashley, 1998:

Holger Cahill was born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarson in Iceland in a small valley near the Arctic Circle, on January 13, 1887. His parents, Bjorn Jonson and Vigdis Bjarnadottir, immigrated to the United States from Iceland sometime later in the 1880s. In 1904, his father deserted the family, forcing Sveinn to be separated from his mother and sister to work on a farm in North Dakota. He ran away and wandered from job to job until settling in an orphanage in western Canada, where he attended school and became a voracious reader.

As a young man, he worked at many different jobs and attended night school. While working on a freighter, he visited Hong Kong, beginning his life-long interest in the Orient. Returning to New York City, he eventually became a newspaper reporter, continued his studies at New York University, and changed his name to Edgar Holger Cahill. In 1919 he married Katherine Gridley of Detroit. Their daughter, Jane Ann, was born in 1922, but the couple divorced in 1927. Cahill met John Sloan in 1920, and wrote publicity (until 1928) for the Society of Independent Artists, through which he made many friends in the arts. From 1922 to 1931, he worked under John Cotton Dana at the Newark Museum, where he received his basic experience in museum work, organizing the first large exhibitions of folk art.

From 1932 to 1935, he was the director of exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art. In 1935, Cahill was appointed director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project (FAP), until its end in June 1943. In 1938, Cahill organized a countrywide exhibition "American Art Today" for the New York World's Fair. He also married MoMa curator Dorothy Canning Miller in that year.

Profane Earth, Cahill's first novel, was published in 1927, followed by monographs on Pop Hart and Max Weber, miscellaneous short stories, and a biography of Frederick Townsend Ward, entitled A Yankee Adventurer: The Story of Ward and the Taiping Rebellion. Following the end of the Federal Art Project, Cahill wrote two novels, Look South to the Polar Star (1947) and The Shadow of My Hand (1956).

Holger Cahill died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in July 1960.

The following references and information were contributed by Wendy Jeffers:

"Holger Cahill and American folk Art," by Wendy Jeffers, The Magazine Antiques, September 1995, pages 326- 335.

"Holger Cahill and American Art" by Wendy Jeffers, Journal of the Archives of American Art, Fall 1992 [actual issue date] Volume 31, #4, 1991, pages 2-11.

Cahill's appointment as acting director at MoMA was the Fall of the 1932 through May 1933. He became director of the WPA Federal Art Project in August 1935.

Biography Page
Who's Who in New Deal Art Projects
E-mail Nancy

© 2006 Nancy Lorance
All Rights Reserved.