Cardboard Boxes Hold the History of Art

By Grant, Daniel | The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1990 | Go to article overview

Cardboard Boxes Hold the History of Art


Grant, Daniel, The Christian Science Monitor


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, resumes, 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.

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. …

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