Kuniyoshi as Organizer

This is the third and final blog post by the Archives of American Art's Mary Savig and Jason Stieber focused on the life of the artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The exhibition Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art is on view in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, and is organized in conjunction with The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi on view at at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The challenges of being an "alien of enemy nationality" during World War II activated yet another facet of Yasuo Kuniyoshi's remarkable and complex character, that of organizer. Within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuniyoshi gathered with other Japanese artists living in New York City to draft a letter of allegiance to the United States. Kuniyoshi was also sympathetic to the plight of his fellow Japanese Americans on the West coast. He donated his artistic and executive talents to the Woodstock Harvest Festival Dance, a fundraiser to aid Japanese Americans who were restricted to internment camps in the western half of the United States for the duration of the war.

In 1942, Kuniyoshi worked with the Office of the Coordinator of Information, a federal intelligence and propaganda agency, to broadcast a speech over Japanese radio waves about American culture. Kuniyoshi praised his adopted home as "a country of all races—gathered together here because they share a belief in democratic ideals."

Kuniyoshi painting a mural for the Woodstock Harvest Festival Dance, 1945?, unidentified photographer. Yasuo Kuniyoshi papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

After World War II and the subsequent waning of government support for the arts, Kuniyoshi led a group of artists and organizers to found the Artists Equity Association (AEA) in 1946, an organization tasked with strengthening social and legal support for artists. The organization quickly attracted more than 160 artists, united "to advance the economic interests of painters, sculptors, and graphic artists." Kuniyoshi was elected the AEA's first president in 1947 and worked to establish regional chapters across the United States.

To see more photographs of Kuniyoshi in his studio and to read Kuniyoshi's artist statements, correspondence, and notes for his unpublished biography, visit Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art. You can explore his artworks in the online gallery, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi.