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AXA Equitable Donates America Today, Thomas Hart Benton's Epic Mural Cycle Celebrating Life in 1920s America, to Metropolitan

  AXA Equitable Donates America Today, Thomas Hart Benton's Epic Mural Cycle
          Celebrating Life in 1920s America, to Metropolitan Museum

PR Newswire

NEW YORK, Dec. 12, 2012

NEW YORK, Dec. 12, 2012 /PRNewswire/ --American artist Thomas Hart Benton's
epic mural America Today—a sweeping panorama of American life, celebrating the
promise of modern industry and technology and the accomplishments of working
people in the boom years of the 1920s—has been donated by AXA Equitable Life
Insurance Company to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The announcement was made
jointly today by Thomas P. Campbell, the Museum's Director and CEO, and Mark
Pearson, AXA Equitable Chairman and CEO.

(Photo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20121212/NY28443 )

Benton (1889–1975) created the ten-panel mural cycle in 1930–31 as a
commission for the third-floor boardroom of the New School for Social Research
in New York City. Referring to sketches he made during his travels around the
U.S. in the 1920s, Benton initially executed nine of the panels, which were
first seen by the public when the International-style building designed by
Joseph Urban at 66 West 12th Street opened on New Year's Day, 1931; he
completed the tenth panel later. The mural cycle filled the four walls of the
30-by-22-foot boardroom. Figures of farmers, coal miners, steelworkers,
architects and builders, doctors and teachers surrounded viewers, representing
a cross-section of American life. In 1986, American art scholar Lloyd Goodrich
remarked that Benton "took the whole face of America and tried to make a work
of art out of it....It was a new technique completely in mural painting, of
actually taking reality and making mural art directly out of it." Although
Benton received no fee for the commission, America Today established him as
his era's leading American muralist. Its success provided the impetus for the
Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural programs of the Great Depression.

In announcing the acquisition, Mr. Campbell stated: "This is a momentous gift
to the Met and to New York City. 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."

While discussing AXA Equitable's decision to give Benton's great painting to
the Metropolitan Museum, Mr. Pearson noted: "America Today embodies the very
spirit of America and its technological genius. Above all, the mural is a
monumental tribute to the American worker, and as such, we felt it was the
right moment to make a gift of it to the American people, in keeping with AXA
Equitable's commitment to preserve the masterwork's legacy for future
generations."

Sheena Wagstaff, Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan
Museum , added: "This extraordinary gift greatly enriches the Museum's
narrative of 20th-century American art. 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. In addition to presaging
subsequent Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, its full blown presentation of
American culture includes remarkable allusions to industrialization, race
relations, and social values."

When America Today is installed at the Metropolitan Museum, its original
spatial arrangement will be recreated so that the mural cycle can be viewed as
Benton conceived it.

The Mural's History

After more than 50 years at the New School for Social Research in a room used
first as the boardroom and later as a classroom, America Today was not
receiving the physical protection or public attention it deserved. In 1982,
the school announced the sale of the mural cycle to the Manhattan art dealer
Maurice Segoura, with the condition that it would not be re-sold outside the
United States or as individual panels. But the work proved difficult to sell
as a whole and the likelihood increased that the panels would be dispersed.

America Today was acquired by AXA Equitable (then Equitable Life) in 1984,
after efforts on the part of then-Mayor Edward I. Koch and others to keep it
intact and in New York City. Two years later, after extensive cleaning and
restoration, America Today was unveiled to critical acclaim in AXA Equitable's
new headquarters at 787 Seventh Avenue. When the company moved its corporate
headquarters again in 1996, to 1290 Avenue of the Americas, America Today was
put on display in the lobby. There it remained until January 2012, when the
company was asked to remove it to make way for a renovation. The removal
triggered AXA Equitable's decision to place the historic work in a museum
collection. Curators Pari Stave, on behalf of AXA Equitable, and H. Barbara
Weinberg, on behalf of the Met, were instrumental in moving the project
forward.

"This is an example of a dynamic civic partnership between AXA Equitable and
the Metropolitan Museum, both venerable institutions with connections to New
York City that date back to the mid-19th century," said Mayor Michael R.
Bloomberg.

"Thanks to AXA Equitable's civic leadership, we'll be able to preserve an
important part of our collective cultural legacy. This act is an affirmation
that private and public institutions can work together effectively to ensure
New York City's position as a world financial and cultural capital."

Former Mayor Koch—whose administration's efforts in the early 1980s to
preserve the mural and keep it in New York City have now been made permanent
through the gift to the Metropolitan Museum, and who in recent years has
worked at 1290 Avenue of the Americas, where the mural has been on view in the
lobby—added: "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."

To share company history with the America Today mural, AXA Equitable invites
the public to visit www.axa-equitable.com/axa/benton-mural.html.

America Today

America Today was Thomas Hart Benton's first major mural commission and the
most ambitious he ever executed in New York City. It remains his best-known
work.

Not wishing to work in true fresco directly on the wall—as Jose Clemente
Orozco elected to do for his concurrent commission in the New School's public
dining room and student lounge—Benton painted off-site on panels that were to
be installed in the boardroom after they were completed. He availed himself of
a loft that Alvin Johnson, the school's director who had commissioned the
mural cycle, obtained for his use on the twelfth floor of a nearby building;
constructed wallboard panels reinforced by 1-x-3" pine cradling; glued onto
the surfaces heavy linen and primed it with seven coats of gesso and two
layers of Permalba (a commercial composite oil paint) to create a smooth,
white, plaster-like surface; and applied an under painting of distemper
(pigments mixed with water and a glue or casein binder) and a final coat of
egg tempera (dry pigments mixed with egg and water), a venerable medium of the
old masters with which he was eager to experiment. He then enriched the color
in some of the darker areas with transparent glazes of oil paint. Finally he
treated the murals with a coat of natural resin varnish and a thin layer of
wax, producing an almost luminous, eggshell-like surface. Here and there, he
attached to the murals straight and curved molding segments covered with
aluminum leaf. These helped to organize the complex narratives and to separate
the scenes. As Benton scholar Emily Braun noted: "Like a Gershwin tune, the
murals evoke a jazzy rhythm syncopated visually by the jaunty silver bolts of
the moldings."

Informed visually by Benton's characteristic stylized realism, America Today
celebrates the development of new technology and of workers in all regions,
from the farmers whom the artist knew as a native Midwesterner to steelworkers
and construction crews engaged in building modern cities. Instruments of
Power, the central and largest panel, faced the viewer entering the boardroom.
Occupying the south wall, it extended almost from floor to ceiling and was
bracketed by two windows that looked out onto the life of the city. Devoid of
human presence, Instruments of Power announced Benton's passion for the
Machine Age by juxtaposing icons of modern industry and transportation,
including a rushing train, an airplane, and a dirigible. These and other forms
declare that industry and technology will thrust America into the future.

The other three walls of the room were also lined with large panels, but
unlike Instruments of Power, these contained figures that crowded the viewer
on all sides. The varying scale at which Benton portrayed these figures is
typical of his style: some are life-size and loom over the viewer and each
panel contains at least one immense, iconic figure. On the west wall were
three panels (beginning closest to the door): Deep South, Midwest, and
Changing West. These focused on the principal agricultural regions and the
West, included vignettes of labor by prosperous and poor, white and black
citizens, and underscored the evolution of farming methods from antiquated to
modern. On the east wall were three panels (beginning closest to the door):
City Building, Steel, and Coal. These distilled activities from the industrial
East Coast and included some of the cycle's strongest social commentary in
figures such as an exhausted coal miner. On the north wall, flanking the door,
were two panels depicting urban life: City Activities with Dance Hall and City
Activities with Subway. Here the settings ranged from speakeasies to movie
houses and sleazy dance halls to Wall Street and the dramatis personae—more
numerous than in any of the other panels—ranged from boxers to strippers to
Salvation Army singers. The tenth panel, an over-door, which was installed
between the two urban scenes, was entitled Outreaching Hands. "It wasn't clear
there was a Depression until I was almost finished," Benton said later, "so I
put that breadline over the door."

Executed before the effects of the 1929 stock market crash and the seriousness
of the Great Depression were fully understood, America Today is imbued with
the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. This is apparent in the scenes'
kaleidoscopic variety, their surging, cinematic vitality, and the invitation
they offer to read them in sequence, crosswise, or around and across the room.
Benton scholar Henry Adams described the room as "an all-enveloping visual
sensation... unlike anything achieved in American painting."

A computer-generated model of the original interior of the boardroom at the
New School for Social Research, showing the installation of the mural, and
images of the ten individual panels, are available online at
www.axa-equitable.com/axa/benton-mural.html and http://met.org/QUh9ZE.

Note: Key sources consulted for information on America Today include the
following:
Emily Braun and Thomas Branchick,Thomas Hart Benton: The America Today Murals,
exhibition catalogue (Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College Museum of Art; New
York: The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, 1985).
Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, exhibition catalogue
(Kansas City, Missouri: The Nelson Gallery [now The Nelson-Atkins Museum of
Art]; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989).

About The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the world's largest and finest
museums, with collections of nearly two million works of art that span more
than 5,000 years of world culture, from prehistory to the present and from
every part of the globe. Located at the edge of Central Park along Fifth
Avenue in Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum welcomed 6.28 million visitors
last year.

About AXA Equitable
In business since 1859, AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company (NY, NY) is a
leading financial protection company and one of the nation's premier providers
of life insurance, annuity, and financial products and services. The company's
products and services are distributed to individuals and business owners
through its retail distribution channel, AXA Advisors, LLC (member FINRA,
SIPC), and to the financial services market through its wholesale distribution
channel, AXA Distributors, LLC.

Find AXA Equitable on Facebook and Twitter or visit the company's multi-media
newsroom The Source @ AXA Equitable.

AXA Equitable, a subsidiary of AXA Financial Inc., is part of the global AXA
Group, a worldwide leader in in insurance and asset management, with 101
million clients in 57 countries as of December 31, 2011. "AXA Group" refers to
AXA, a French holding company for an international group of insurance and
financial services companies together with its direct and indirect
consolidated subsidiaries.

For more information, visit www.axa-equitable.com.

SOURCE AXA Equitable; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Contact: For the Metropolitan Museum: Elyse Topalian or Alexandra Kozlakowski,
+1-212-570-3951, communications@metmuseum.org; For AXA Equitable: Discretion
Winter, +1-212-314-2968, MediaRelations@axa-equitable.com