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Cardboard Boxes Hold The History of Art

THE New York City branch office of the Archives of American Art has a perpetual just-moved-in look about it, even though it has been located there for some time. Dozens of cardboard boxes, piled five and six feet high, line the walls. Those boxes and what's in them, however, are the reason for everything (and everyone) else there. Inside them are the papers - letters, diaries, receipts, sketchpads, photographs, catalog, resum'es, newspaper clippings of artists, art collectors, and dealers, as well as museum curators and directors.

One knows what American art looks like from a trip to a museum, but the story of what went on in the minds of the artists who created it, the collectors who bought it, the art dealers who sold it, and the curators who displayed it is what the Archives of American Art is all about. About 3,000 researchers, who include college students and art critics as well as scholars and private collectors, come annually the six offices of the archives - Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

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Researchers don't rifle through the boxes of documents for interesting tidbits, however. They look through microfilm projectors at photographs of these papers; sorting the materials and getting them on microfilm is the main task of the archives. There are over 10 million documents on microfilm, millions elsewhere, and more always coming in.

Those artists, collectors, dealers, and curators who save their correspondence and other pertinent written material may well be gratified that there is some place that wants this stuff. It wasn't always that way. E.P. Richardson, director of the Detroit Institute of Art from 1945 to 1962, and a scholar of American art, was frustrated in his attempts to research certain artists whose papers had seemingly vanished. In 1954 he founded the Archives of American Art and began the long process of collecting material on art. In 1969 the search for papers was widened as the archives became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, and over time offices were established around the country.

Now headquartered at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where papers are cataloged, microfilmed, and permanently stored, the archives contains over 5,500 collections of documents. On the average, 300 more collections (representing 300,000 papers) come in every year. If the six regional offices didn't bring in enough already, one other ``project'' office exists in Philadelphia.

Perhaps because it is where the greatest number of artists and art galleries are that the New York City office is the most active in terms of bringing in material. It averages 80 or so collections of papers a year, according to its past regional director, William McNaught. A collection may mean between one and 50 boxes of papers, he stated, and each box may contain up to 1,000 items. Documents from the Betty Parsons Gallery, for instance, added up to 40 boxes, while Jackson Pollock's papers only filled two.

The New York office is also the busiest in terms of the number of researchers who come by, making 1,200 visits annually.

``We're not a high profile organization,'' McNaught said. ``We'd like more people to know about us. A lot of my job is contacting older artists to tell them to save their papers, that there is a place that wants their papers.'' He added that ``most of the material we get is willed to us or given through an estate, and a large part of my job was looking at obituaries.''

The archives has also developed an oral history project, which currently contains over 2,000 interviews with artists, collectors, and dealers. The goal is to interview living artists, McNaught said, pointing out that the interviews concern ``what has happened in their careers.''

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Among the artists on tape are Edward Hopper, Roy Lichtenstein, Fairfield Porter, and Charles Sheeler, and the transcripts for these interviews - as microfilm - are available at each regional office of the archives or elsewhere through inter-library loans. In addition, people associated with the archives have visitedartists' studios, attended art openings, and even invited artists to become members of the agency - all to increase its visibility and bring in more material.

Until 1983, the archives had devoted itself primarily to building its collection, and its national director up to that point, William Woolfendon, had emphasized each office competing against each other for the most collections. There is no less of an interest in expanding the collection now, but the emphasis has dramatically shifted with the appointment of Richard Murray in 1983.

Murray declared a moratorium on collecting for a time in 1984-85, as the costs of storing and processing the burgeoning number of documents was becoming too high. He has requested that each office more carefully scrutinize potential collections as well as do more scholarly research on papers already in the archives' collection.

It has been a stated goal of the archives to become a ``think tank'' for the art world but, for an underfunded agency which has only four people in each office who must wade through boxes of papers and solicit material, that may be some time in coming. The Smithsonian did increase the archives' publications budget a few years ago and, little by little, the archives is achieving recognition.

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