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Plaut, James S.

    Full Name: Plaut, James S.

    Other Names:

    • James S. Plaut

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1912

    Date Died: 1996

    Place Born: Cincinnati, Hamilton, OH, USA

    Place Died: Boston, Suffolk, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): American (North American) and Contemporary (style of art)


    Founder and first director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Plaut’s parents were Jacob M. Plaut and Alice Sachs (Plaut). Plaut attended a variety of prestigious private grammar schools, including the Auteuil Day School, Paris, 1925-1926 and then the Taft School in Watertown, CT, between 1927 and 1928. He graduated from Harvard university with a B. A. in 1933, marrying Mary E. Friedlander. Plaut continued at Harvard for an A.M., in 1935 teaching art history there while a graduate student. In 1935 he joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as an assistant curator. He left the MFA to found the Institute of Modern Art in Boston in 1939, organizing exhibitions of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Georges Rouault and Oscar Kokoschka. During World War II, Plaut joined the U.S. Navy assigned to North Africa in 1942 and then directing the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the Office of Strategic Services in the Office of Naval Intelligence. He was discharged in 1946. In 1949 the Institute altered its name from “Modern Art” to “Contemporary Art,” launching the show, “Milestones of American Painting in Our Century,” under curator Frederick Stallknecht Van Buren Wight. Despite the catalog’s introduction written by Lloyd C. Goodrich, curator of the Whitney and an exponent of modernist art, Life magazine termed the show a salvo against modern art. The Life piece focused in part on the Institute’s name change. The article met with a firestorm of protest by major art museum directors, denying that the Institute’s show was an attempt to revise modernism, though Plaut cautiously supported the magazine’s reporting. He stepped down as director of the Institute in 1956. In 1958 he served as deputy United States Commissioner to the Brussels World’s Fair, followed by a vice presidency of the Old Sturbridge Village, MA 1959-1961. He retired from the Institute in 1961. He was the secretary general to the World Crafts Council, 1967-1976. Plaut received an honorary D.F.A., from Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, in 1974. In 1976, following his work with the Council, Plaut and his wife began the organization Aid to Artisans, a program to help third-world artisans market their wares. He died at a Boston hospital at age 83.

    Selected Bibliography

    Steuben Glass, a Monograph. New York: H. Bittner 1948, Oskar Kokoschka. New York: Chanticleer Press for the Institute of Contemporary Art, 1948; and Paz, Octavio. In Praise of Hands: Contemporary Crafts of the World. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974; and Perrot, Paul N. Steuben: Seventy Years of American Glassmaking. New York: Praeger,1974.


    James S. Plaut interview, 1971 June 29. Archives of American Art; [obituary:] “James Plaut, 83, Museum Founder.” New York Times, January 17, 1996, p. 17.


    "Plaut, James S.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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