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PRINT February 1979

The Big Show: The First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Part I

The modern artist must understand group force; he cannot advance without it in a democracy.

Jane Heap (in a review of the Independents, The Little Review, Winter 1922)

THE FIRST ANNUAL EXHIBITION of the Society of Independent Artists opened at the Grand Central Palace in New York City on the evening of April 10, 1917. Thousands gathered to celebrate what was to be the largest art exhibition ever held in New York—almost twice the size of the famous Armory Show four years earlier. This First Independents’ Exhibition, or “the Big Show” as Rockwell Kent later dubbed it,1 contained some 2,500 works of painting and sculpture, by 1,200 artists, from 38 states.2

Sheer bulk was undoubtedly the exhibition’s most celebrated feature, and the unusual quantity and diversity of the work shown was a result of the liberal principles of the society, whose goal it was to establish an organization dedicated

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