During WWII, The Museum of Modern Art played an integral role in assisting artists, art historians, dealers, and their immediate families in escaping from Europe to America. After the fall of Paris to the Nazis in June 1940 the Museum began to receive numerous requests for help to flee to the U.S. At a Trustee Committee meeting in October 1940, Museum Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. reported to the board that these requests had become so time consuming for him and his assistant that they were “unable to cope with it,” and designated his wife, art historian and scholar Margaret Scolari Barr (Marga), to take charge of the whole operation.
Each person seeking refuge in the U.S. required the following: a visa from the State Department, an affidavit of financial support, an affidavit of moral sponsorship vouching that he or she was in imminent danger and would not be inimical to U.S. interests, biographical sketches and letters of reference proving identities and the above, and at least $400 for ocean passage. Marga worked with art dealer Curt Valentin, artists Kay Sage and Kurt Seligmann, writer Kay Boyle, and primarily with the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to obtain these items. She also worked closely with Varian Fry, leader of the ERC in Marseilles, to communicate with individuals in Europe and secure their safe passage to America.
Though Marga worked extensively on this project, “spending five or six hours a day,” most of the relevant documentation is not contained within the Museum’s files. In the early 1980s Rona Roob, founder of the MoMA Archives, with Marga’s assistance, began to recollect whatever pieces she could find of this lost history. Rona discovered that the Barrs had assisted art historian John Rewald and artists Jacques Lipchitz, Jean Lurçat, and André Masson in escaping to America by securing their affidavits and passage money through other art collectors and dealers. She also found that the Museum had been involved in the plights of Marc Chagall, Jean (Hans) Arp, Vasily Kandinsky, Louise Straus-Ernst, Paul Eluard, Otto Freundlich, and Leonor Fini. In addition, it was also later discovered that Barr had affirmed Alois Schardt’s identity to Washington as a targeted German art historian while Shardt was being detained at Ellis Island.
However, the list of refugees that MoMA assisted was much longer than this. In a letter that Marga wrote to Rona on February 6, 1980, she states, “After speaking with Pierre