Time was when Manhattan's influential Metropolitan Museum turned a marble-cold shoulder to modern art. In 1948, Director Francis Taylor observed that "the contemporary artist has been reduced to the status of a flat-chested pelican, strutting upon the intellectual wastelands and beaches, content to take whatever nourishment he can from his own too meager breast." In 1950, the Met began wooing the pelicans with the first of three big roundups of contemporary U.S. art—and got about as many pokes as pecks for its change of heart.

Survey One (oils) was too conservative for the advance...

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