Art shows arranged by artists and their supporters, usually outside the institutional framework provided by museums, art schools, and commercial galleries. Such exhibitions served a particularly important purpose in the early decades of the twentieth century. Because the conservative establishment controlled most venues during that period, anti-academic artists often had difficulty presenting their achievements. Following European precedents, they organized their own exhibitions to show and sell their work. In unjuried shows, the most radical of these events, anyone who paid the entrance fee could show work of his or her own choice. The history of independent exhibitions in Europe goes back at least to 1863, when artists in Paris staged a Salon des Refusés in order to exhibit work rejected that year by the all-powerful, government-sponsored Salon. The eight Impressionist shows between 1874 and 1886 together provide an important early example of artists joining to draw attention to stylistically compatible work. In 1884 Paris artists formed the Société des Artistes Indépendants, which thereafter held annual exhibitions open to anyone who paid a nominal fee. Similar groups sprang up in other European countries, including Belgium and Germany.
In the United States, Robert Henri first made significant use of the independent exhibition as a vehicle for enlarging aesthetic debate. Following two smaller shows in previous years, he provided the impetus for The Eight's 1908 exhibition. In 1910, along with Walt Kuhn and John Sloan, he instigated the “Exhibition of Independent Artists.” Presenting about five hundred stylistically varied works in rented space on West Thirty-fifth Street, this event followed the policy of “no jury, no prizes,” which remained a cornerstone of subsequent independent efforts. Although sales were disappointing, the show drew a huge crowd and provoked controversy, proving that large, inclusive, anti-academic shows could be successful without institutional support. The following year, Rockwell Kent organized a smaller show that numbered among the first restricted to modern art. The Armory Show of 1913 ranks as the greatest American independent exhibition. Three years later, along with a committee of notables, Forum magazine art critic Willard Huntington Wright organized the “Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters” at the Anderson Galleries. This invitational display of about two hundred works by seventeen artists consolidated claims for the importance of current modern work. It included Thomas Hart Benton, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Man Ray, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, Charles Sheeler, and William Zorach.
The notion of the independent exhibition was itself institutionalized in 1917 with the formation of the Society of Independent Artists, modeled on the French example. The first of its annual shows, opening in April 1917 at the Grand Central Palace exhibition hall, presented about twenty-five hundred works by more than eleven hundred American and European artists. Although it surpassed in size any previous New York exhibition (and perhaps all subsequent ones), this show remains particularly noteworthy for a single entry's memorable attack on good taste. Ever alert to a mischievous opportunity, founder-member Marcel Duchamp managed to subvert the open exhibition policy by entering a piece so outrageous that it was rejected. Using the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” he submitted Fountain, simply an inverted porcelain urinal mounted as a sculpture. The following year, John Sloan was elected president of the Society and remained in that post throughout the organization's existence. Through the 1920s its exhibitions were important if uneven events, which gave regular visibility to many experimentalists as well as public exposure to young, untested artists. By the 1930s the exhibitions became less significant, and they were discontinued during World War II. Since then, artists have from time to time organized independent exhibitions, but they no longer serve the key purpose of earlier decades.