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Lerner, Abram

    Full Name: Lerner, Abram

    Other Names:

    • "Al" Lerner

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1913

    Date Died: 2007

    Place Born: New York, NY, USA

    Place Died: Canaan, Litchfield, CT, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): sculpture (visual works)


    First director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1974-1984. Lerner was the son of Lower East Side Manhattan immigrants, Hyman Lerner, a garment presser, and Sarah Becker (Lerner), both originally from Russia. While a student at New York University in art history, he gained experience curating the annual student show. After graduation in 1935, Lerner worked as an apprentice muralist for the WPA (Works Progress Administration), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal program which included employment for artists and writers. In 1943 Lerner married Pauline Hanenberg (d. 2003). After World War II, hoping to supplement his painting career, Lerner took an assistant’s job at the A. C. A gallery in 1945 in Manhattan, painting in his spare time. There he met the art collector and uranium magnate/investor Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981). The two developed a strong friendship. Hirshhorn financed Lerner, who quit A.C.A. and traveled to Florence in 1955 to studying art in hopes of advancing his painting career. He returned to the U.S. and worked again selling art in another gallery, the Artists’ Gallery. Hirshhorn established his own foundation in 1956 and by 1957, Lerner was supervising the research, conservation and installation of the paintings and sculptures for it. The collector continued to acquire art for his 24-acre estate in Greenwich, CT, and Manhattan office, with Lerner, under the title of curator, managing it. Lerner also accompanied the collector on his whirl-wind acquisition jaunts, advising only his headstrong and brusque boss only slightly. Hirshhorn decided to create a public museum for his art, taking Lerner to England where an offer give land had come from Queen Elizabeth. In 1966, S. Dillon Ripley, (1913-2001) secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, organized a lunch with President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) at the White House, convincing him to build and endow a modernist museum for the nation. Lerner supervised the transfer of the nearly 6,000 paintings and sculptures to the Hirshhorn Museum beginning in 1967. The Museum opened in 1974. Lerner became director of the museum overseeing the installation of newer donations by Hirshhorn. Hirshhorn died in 1981 leaving a $5 million-bequest and the remainder his collection to the museum. Lerner retired in 1984, succeeded by James T. Demetrion, moving to Southampton, NY. He resumed painting in retirement. He died of heart failure in a retirement community at age 94. Lerner owed his position as first director of a major art museum to his long-standing relationship with its founder, similar to the position of David Finley when the National Gallery was first founded. Unlike Finley, however, Lerner took an active role in the installations and shows. At first a Washington outsider, he was accepted by the greater art-administrational community. He wrote no works except those catalogs co-authored by art historians.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Nochlin, Linda. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1974.


    Hyams, Barry. Hirshhorn, Medici from Brooklyn: a Biography. New York: Dutton, 1979, pp. 103, 128-129; [obituary:] Hevesi, Dennis. “Abram Lerner, First Director of the Hirshhorn Museum, Dies at 94.” New York Times November 9, 2007, p. 25.


    "Lerner, Abram." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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