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Edgar Holger Cahill (January 13, 1887 – July 8, 1960) was an Icelandic-American curator, writer, and arts administrator who served as the national director of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal in the United States.[1][2]

Holger Cahill
Holger Cahill on February 15, 1938
Holger Cahill on February 15, 1938
BornSveinn Kristján Bjarnason
13 January 1887
Skógarströnd, Iceland
Died8 July 1960 (1960-07-09) (aged 73)
OccupationArt administrator
Art curator
Cahill opened the first of 12 forums on the economic status of artists in the U.S., "Shall the Artist Survive?" (November 22, 1936)[3]



Cahill was born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson in Skógarströnd, Iceland on January 13, 1887.[1]

Cahill’s Icelandic family migrated to Canada about 1890 and then to North Dakota as homesteaders, anglicizing their name to Bjornson and eventually, Johnson, although they continued to speak Icelandic at home. Extreme poverty, lack of formal education and domestic strife marked Cahill’s early childhood. When he was young, his father abandoned the family and his mother sent the young Cahill to live and work on a farm owned by an Icelandic family 50 miles away where he was mistreated. His mother remarried and had another child, Anna. That marriage also did not last. After two difficult years with the Icelandic farmers, Cahill ran away at first to neighboring farms where he found work and eventually to Winnipeg, in search of distant cousins. The cousins refused to take him in and he ended up in an orphanage. A Gaelic-speaking family in a nearby cooperative farm community adopted Cahill and he was able to attend school regularly for the first time. After several years with the Gaelic family, he returned to North Dakota in search of his mother only to discover that his mother and step-sister had moved. Eventually he found them working on a nearby tenant farm in 1902. His mother had remarried to a younger man named Samson, and she and her son quarreled. Once again, he left home and did not see his mother again for 45 years.


Cahill's employment in the field of visual arts began in 1921 when he was hired by John Cotton Dana at the Newark Museum and the Society of Independent Artists to write publicity about their activities. As a former journalist and editor, Cahill had learned how to write effectively and he helped create new interest both organizations in the media. Through his friend, the artist John Sloan, Cahill knew many of the leading artists of the day and he encouraged Dana to purchase works by contemporary artists for the museum’s growing collection. After Dana's death in 1929, Cahill organized the first major museum surveys of American Folk Art at the Newark Museum in 1930 ("American Primitives") and 1931 ("American Folk Sculpture"). While at Newark, he also published fiction, essays and short stories including art criticism for the magazines Shadowland International Studio and the New York Herald Tribune. He published a novel, Profane Earth in 1927 and, in 1930, "A Yankee Adventurer" a biography of Frederick Townsend Ward and his role in the Taiping Rebellion of 1861. At Newark, he met his future wife, Dorothy Canning Miller whom he married in 1938.[4] Together with the galleries Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery, Cahill published a monograph on Pop Hart in 1928, Max Weber in 1930 and Jules Pascin in 1931. Halpert and Cahill also launched a magazine called Space that ran for three issues in January, March and June, 1930.

In 1932–33, Cahill served as acting director of the Museum of Modern Art when the founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., took a leave of absence. He organized several notable exhibitions including American Sources of Modern Art, American Folk Art: Art of the Common Man in America and a survey exhibition, American Painting and Sculpture 1862–1932. In 1934, he directed the First Municipal Art Exhibition at Rockefeller Center in New York; the exhibition coincided with the destruction of the mural by Diego Rivera and many of the artists threatened to withdraw. When Cahill left Newark, he employed Dorothy Miller as his assistant on his various projects. At the First Municipal Art Exhibition, Miller stepped in as Director when Cahill landed in the hospital and was unable to continue which led to her later position as curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

Holger Cahill, national director of the Federal Art Project, speaking at the Harlem Community Art Center (October 24, 1938)

From August 1935 until April 1943, Cahill was the national director of the Federal Art Project, the role for which he is best known today. His contributions to the research, documentation and understanding of the visual arts in America were wide-ranging—from the earliest crafts of the Native Americans to the abstract expressionists. In the 1920s, his early endorsement of American folk art as well as the early American modernists introduced their work to a larger public through exhibitions, catalogues and criticism. During his tenure of the WPA, his oversight of the Index of American Design established a greater understanding of the variety and quality of American iconographic imagery.

Cahill proved to be an imaginative, sensitive and skillful administrator. Under his leadership community art centers were established in over 100 towns and cities nationwide, murals drawing upon the geographical environment were painted in public buildings throughout the country, and some 10,000 artists and craft workers were sustained through the Great Depression. An entire generation of artists was nurtured, their work exhibited, and an expanded public for art was created.

In 1938, Cahill married Dorothy Canning Miller, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. The following year, he took a leave of absence from the WPA to stay in New York City and direct a large survey exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair, American Art Today. Through Miller, he continued to meet new artists and he was an avid and interested spectator of all of the programming at the Museum of Modern Art.


When the Federal Arts Project ended in 1943, Cahill returned to New York to concentrate on writing novels and essays. Hampered by various illnesses after his busy tenure as Director of the Federal Art Project and a severe heart attack in 1947, he managed to complete two novels, Look South to the Polar Star, in 1947, and The Shadow of My Hand, in 1956, 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 for work on his novel Stone Dreamer, which was left unfinished at his death in 1960.

Cahill died on July 8, 1960 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he is buried in the town’s cemetery.[1]


Further readingEdit

  • Jeffers, Wendy (Fall, 1992 [actual issue date] Volume 31, #4, 1991). Archives of American Art Journal. "Holger Cahill and American Art". pp. 2–11.
  • Jeffers, Wendy (September 1995). Antiques magazine. "Holger Cahill and American Folk Art". pp. 326–335.
  • Kelly, Andrew. "Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture:. Lexington, Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8131-5567-8
  • Contreras, Belisario R. "Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art". London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983.
  • WPA: Art for the Millions, 1973 Francis O'Connor, Essay by Holger Cahill "American Resources in The Arts".


  1. ^ a b c "Holger Cahill, 67, Art Expert, Dies. Head of W.P.A. Project. Was Aide of Modern Museum". New York Times. July 9, 1960. Retrieved 2010-07-26. The Federal Art Project died, with Mr. Cahill at the helm, in 1943 and was never revived. Holger Cahill came naturally by his love of American life and its ...
  2. ^ "Holger Cahill, WPA Director, Sees 'Cultural Erosion' Diverting Talent". The New York Times. December 19, 1937. Retrieved 2010-07-26. Without government projects, art in this country "virtually has no place to go," Holger Cahill, national director, Federal Arts Project of the WPA, told the second American Artists Congress yesterday afternoon at the New School for Social Research, 66 West Twelfth Street.
  3. ^ "Forum for Artists to Open Next Week". The New York Times. November 15, 1936. Retrieved 2015-06-19.
  4. ^ Jeffers, Wendy "Holger Cahill and American Art", Journal of the Archives of American Art, fall 1992, volume 31, #4, 1991. pp. 2–11.

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