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Brooklyn art prof remembers historic festival

At the historic September 1963 Brooklyn Museum art fundraiser for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, right-left: Virginia Cantarella, artist Elaine de Kooning and Cynthia Dantzic. Photo by Jerry Dantzic

160 artists participated in event at Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

This month is the 50th anniversary of an event that, at the time, was unusual for the art world, for the Brooklyn Museum, and for a young graduate student at Pratt who suddenly was able to enlist some of the nation’s most famous artists and photographers in her cause.

The event was a benefit for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the Brooklyn Museum. It was the brainchild of then-MFA student Cynthia Dantzic; her friend Virginia Cantarella, a medical illustrator and painter; and Jan Swan, Dantzic’s landlady in Crown Heights and a microbiologist.

Last week, Dantzic, now a senior professor of fine art at Long Island University, visited the Eagle to talk about the event.

Dantzic, who grew up in Brooklyn and had graduated from Yale before studying at Pratt, was very supportive of the civil rights struggle that was then dominating the headlines. She thought of a fundraiser that would involve the art world and decided upon the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as a beneficiary. With few political or business connections, she and her colleagues approached the Brooklyn Museum with the idea.

At first, she said, the museum rejected the idea, citing insurance and other problems. Eventually, they agreed. She and the others then approached some well-known people as sponsors.

Among those who signed on as sponsors were author James Baldwin, then-City Comptroller and later Mayor Abraham Beame, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, longtime socialist leader Norman Thomas and Barnard College President Rosemary Park. Ruth Bunche, the wife of pioneer African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche, served as honorary chair.

Showing this reporter typewritten letters from Park and Baldwin’s representative, Dantzic said such personal communication with people who aren’t well known would be unheard of today.

The fundraiser (or “Art Festival,” as it was billed) was held from Sept. 11 to Sept. 22, 1963, at the museum’s Auditorium Court. In keeping with the customs of the time, the invitation listed the organizers by their husband’s names, as “Mrs. Francesco Cantarella, Mrs. Gerald Dantzic and Mrs. Donald Swan.”

One hundred and sixty artists were represented in the show, including some of the best-known artists of the day. “One of Bert Stern’s famous photos of Marilyn Monroe was in the show,” Dantzic recalled. “Now, they’re selling for huge amounts. At the time, nobody would buy it.”

The event was widely covered in the local press, including the Brooklyn Heights Press, the Eagle’s sister paper. The Brooklyn edition of the long-defunct New York World Telegram and Sun especially featured the exhibit. “A De Kooning for $600 – To Fight Bias,” said the World Telegram, referring to famed artist Elaine de Kooning, who donated the first painting to the fundraiser.

“The fundraiser lasted for 10 days, and we raised $2,000, which was a lot of money at the time,” said Dantzic.

September 23, 2013 - 9:15am


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