The Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) recently announced its 2011 Awards for Excellence in museum catalogues, articles and exhibitions—“the only awards where curators honor their fellow curators.” AAMC members chose an essay by Randall R. Griffey, the Mead Art Museum’s curator of American art, to receive the award for Outstanding Catalogue Essay.

Randall R. Griffey
Randall R. Griffey

Titled “Reconsidering ‘The Soil’: The Stieglitz Circle, the Regionalists and Cultural Eugenics in the Twenties,” Griffey’s essay is featured in Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, the catalogue (edited by Teresa A. Carbone) that accompanied the Brooklyn Museum’s nationally touring exhibition of the same name.

The essay reconsiders the relationship between two groups of U.S. artists in the 1920s: the Stieglitz Circle—which included photographer Alfred Stieglitz, painter Georgia O’Keeffe and painter Marsden Hartley, among others—and the Regionalists, including painters Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. Scholars have traditionally seen these groups as oppositional to one another, but Griffey explains how both groups were invested in the idea of “an authentic American art” that would grow from “the soil” of a metaphorical American “garden” of apprentice artists, tended by a leading artist who was like a “gardener.”

The essay further links the art world to the eugenics movement of the 1920s. This garden metaphor, Griffey pointed out in an interview, “is also the same language that eugenics spokespersons were using to sell eugenics to a wider American audience, which is to say that eugenics is like a gardener who is tending to the garden of humanity—that the weeds in the garden of humanity should be pulled, so that the good plants can grow.” In addition, the essay reveals that many of the plant varieties depicted in the works of the Stieglitz Circle had, in fact, recently been bred into existence according to eugenic principles.           

The 2011 Award for Excellence is not Griffey’s first such award from the AAMC: he has also won for “Marsden Hartley’s Aryanism: Eugenics in a Finnish-Yankee Sauna,” an article that appeared in the journal American Art in 2008.

Before arriving at the Mead in 2008, Griffey was assistant curator and then associate curator of American art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., where he contributed writing to the 2007 book The Collections of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: American Paintings to 1945. His research interest is American modernism, and he holds a B.A. in fine arts from Bethany College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in the history of art from the University of Kansas.