Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Holger Cahill


On this day in 1887, Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson was born in Skogarstrond, Iceland. For those familiar with the art world, he is far better known as Holger Cahill.

Life was not easy for Sveinn and his family. After a move from their native country of Iceland to Western Canada, they later settled in the upper Red River Valley. Sveinn's childhood was far from ideal as his parents fought constantly and there was never enough food or money in the home. When Sveinn's father abandoned the family, there was no choice but to send 11-year-old Sveinn to live with a local Icelandic farming family. After a few years, Sveinn ran away from North Dakota, spending time in Canada as a farm hand and later in a Winnipeg orphanage. He returned to North Dakota in a search of his mother and sister, eventually finding them living as farm workers.

Just before World War I, Sveinn made his way to New York City. Enrolling in night classes at New York University, he learned journalism and creative writing. This was a pivotal time in Sveinn's life, as he met a man named Mike Gold. Mike, who was the editor of the Bronxville Review and the Scarsdale Inquirer, hired Sveinn as a reporter. It was during this time that Sveinn changed his name to Edgar Holger Cahill, the name he would be known as for the rest of his life.

Holger's life changed dramatically while working as a journalist. After writing the publicity for the Society of Independent Artists, he became friends with a group of amazing sculptors and painters known as "The Eight". Due to this friendship, Holger was able to join the staff of the Newark, New Jersey Museum. In 1932, his expertise and organization lead to a job as acting director of the Museum of Modern Art. Specializing in exhibits of early American folk art, unknown artists and the distinction between folk art and fine art, Holger Cahill had become the nationwide authority in folk art.

His writing and his art connections lead him to Washington DC in 1935, where he became the organizer for the Works Progress Administration program for artists around the country. As part of FDR's "New Deal", over 40,000 painters, sculptors, writers, song writers and actors benefited from the WPA program. In that same year, Holger was appointed national director for the Federal Art Project. Under his leadership, art centers were established in hundreds of towns and cities across America, and artists were supported and encouraged.

From his humble and poor upbringing in the Northern Red River Valley, Holger Cahill grew to become a leader, an author and an authority in the American art scene.

Sources: The New York Public Library- Holger Cahill Papers, 1907-1983

Dictionary of Art Historians-

Holger Cahill (1887-1960) National Director, Federal Art Project, Works Projects Administraion (1935-1943)