In June 1933, Don, a German Shepherd, was given to The Museum of Modern Art by Vanity Fair magazine’s kennel department. Frank Crowninshield, editor of the magazine, was a trustee of the Museum.
Don was two years old, weighed 80 pounds and had very strong, white teeth. Alan R. Blackburn, Jr., then executive secretary for the Museum, stated that Don had completed a short training course in “museum management” and burglar detection.
Don’s duties began at 6:00 p.m. He was trained to follow the watchman carrying the clock. He was not kept on a leash, so he could roam freely to smell any thieves. Don was able to run from the basement to the penthouse in one-and-a-half minutes.
In Selma Warlick’s article “German Shepherd Dog Guards Art Treasures of Museum,” published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 18, 1933, Don’s vicious behavior became known: “At one bite he could make a hole in a plank and that—the guard says—is nothing to what he’d do to a burglar if he ever catches one.”
During the daytime Don slept in the backyard of the Museum, or chased stones thrown by Museum staff. In the afternoons he was taken to the penthouse and allowed to run or sleep in the sunlight on the roof. Though he had no interest in art, Mr. Blackburn stated, Don had barked at a Mayan stone statue installed on the second floor.
Warlick’s article stated that Don was the only museum watchdog in New York, though the Louvre in Paris was said to have a school for training dogs for museum security work. In this country, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Fogg Museum employed guard dogs, as had the Chicago World’s Fair in guarding the paintings displayed. With Don’s acquisition there was a burst of nationwide publicity, with articles published about him in San Diego, Chicago, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Butte, Montana city newspapers.
Already in 1933 sophisticated security measures had been in place. In Diana Rice’s article “Museum Paintings Closely Guarded: Recent Brooklyn Thefts Direct Notice to the Measures Widely Employed,” published in The New York Times on May 7, 1933, it was reported that most large museums, and many smaller ones as well, had electric circuits and alarm signals that would set off gongs and alert the police via direct wire connections to their command centers should a painting be touched. At night, plainclothes staff would make rounds every half hour, often carrying keys used to turn switch boxes that would sound in the foreman’s room. Should there be an interruption in the switch box schedule, an immediate investigation would ensue. Alan R. Blackburn, Jr., defined four classes of museum visitors that warranted caution. “Persons-cranks” who may attempt to slash a painting for no reason at all, aim to destroy rather than possess; “the casual thief,” with little knowledge of art beyond its high prices, steals the work to sell it; “the curious but well-meaning public” may want to “finger” a painting, which will spot a work of art and eventually ruin it with continued touching; and the “expert thieves” remain a “mythical class that appear to escape detection.” Mr. Blackburn stated that in addition to security guards, MoMA’s paintings were locked into the wall and wired. If touched, an alarm would ring on every floor, which resulted in all exits being instantly locked.
Despite the modern security precautions that had been put in place due to an unusual number of valuable works of art stolen during 1931–33, the art world was once again rattled when the Brooklyn Museum was plundered with the theft of 10 notable paintings from their fourth-floor galleries during a night of May 1933. Consequently, a new MoMA security feature was welcomed, by the name of “Don.”
Yet one short month after Don’s hiring, reports arose that his professional watchdog performance—and when needed, ferocious behavior—had rapidly deteriorated. According to a July 18, 1933, article in the Journal, New York, “Police Dog Turns Tame as Rabbit,” Mrs. (Lucie) Rosen, owner of Caramoor, was searching out a police guard for her estate. Having heard that Frank Crowninshield had one guarding MoMA, she made a special trip to visit Don. Upon her arrival she was astonished to learn that he had become so sweet and amiable that he had been placed in solitary confinement, until he could learn to be wary rather than pleasant to strangers. On July 20 a second article, “A New Yorker at Large,” by Mark Baron of the Trenton Times, stated, “Such an esthetic environment brought a complete change in the savage beast. It has become so gentle and friendly that the museum officials are having to train it all over again to make it suspicious of strangers.”
Further information about Don’s tenure at the Museum and his private life thereafter remain elusive, but we continue to sniff around for more tidbits about this famous canine. All the information about Don was obtained from the Department of Public Information Scrapbooks and Records, 1929–1997, in the MoMA Archives. For additional information about The Museum of Modern Art Archives collections, please refer to our holdings page. Archives reading room appointments may be scheduled by completing our online request form.
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