AXA Equitable Donates Epic Mural Showing 1920s Scenes To Metropolitan Museum of Art

Donation Keeps 10-Panel, Thomas Hart Benton Work Together

By MATTHEW STURDEVANT, msturdevant@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

5:51 PM EST, December 13, 2012


AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co. has donated an epic, 10-panel mural of life in the 1920s to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the company announced this week.

The mural, "America Today" by Thomas Hart Benton, is a panorama most recently displayed in the lobby of the insurer's headquarters, at 1290 Avenue of the Americas. AXA Equitable also has offices in Farmington and Stamford.

The mural was taken down in January 2012 when the building owner renovated the property and has been stored off-site since that time. It was given to the Met in late November.

"This is a momentous gift to the Met and to New York City," Museum CEO Thomas P. Campbell said in a prepared statement. "AXA Equitable's exceptional gift brings to the Museum both a great work of art and a significant cultural landmark, one that forged a new American idiom in the visual arts. It will certainly play a key role in our ideas about modern art at the Met."

Benton created the panels in 1930 and 1931 from sketches he made while traveling in the 1920s.

Benton painted the panels for a third-floor board room at the New School for Social Research on West 12th Street in New York, and nine of the 10 panels were displayed for the first time on New Year's Day in 1931. The 10th panel was finished later, completing a set that showed off 1920s technology and work in different regions, including farmers, coal miners, steelworkers, architects, builders, doctors and teachers.

The paintings filled the walls of a third-floor board room that was 30 feet long by 20 feet wide. The room was later used for classes.

After 50 years of display in the same room, the school decided the murals needed better protection and attention. The school announced the sale of the murals in 1982, with the stipulation that they not be re-sold outside the U.S. or as individual panels. It was difficult to sell the work in its entirety.

In 1984, AXA Equitable, then called Equitable Life, bought the murals after coaxing from New York's mayor at the time, Edward I. Koch, and others who wanted it kept in New York City. The murals were cleaned and restored, and then displayed at AXA Equitable's headquarters on 7th Avenue. The company moved in 1996 to 1290 Avenue of the Americas, where the murals were on display in the lobby.

Koch, who has worked in recent years in the same building as AXA Equitable, said in a written statement: "I have had the pleasure of years of exposure to Thomas Hart Benton's mural — America Today — seeing and appreciating it every morning when entering my office building. Now millions visiting the Met will have that joy."

AXA Equitable would not estimate the value of the mural.

Sheena Wagstaff, chair of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met, said in a prepared statement: "It is a work of immense scale and significance, and represents a uniquely American brand of modernism that condenses the spirit of the Jazz Age, anticipates Regionalism, and holds a fascinating and deeply ambivalent relationship to avant-garde European movements as well as to the Mexican mural movement."