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Visual Arts Archives and Artists’ Legacies

Archives and their relationships to artists’ legacies are fascinatingly dense. “The archive” denotes both a theoretical construct and an actual collection of information types, be they physical or virtual. In the domain of the visual arts, archival collections had, until recently, largely been defined as conglomerations of documentation about works of art, their creators, and the contexts in which both are actualized.

Archives at an Exhibition

As an archivist, I tend to think of materials in our collection vis-à-vis their research value rather than aesthetic or possible sentimental value, although these aren’t mutually exclusive categories.

New Meanings through Distinct Sources

A collection of oral history interviews on the subject of an artist’s life increases the resources available to interpret her or his work. As an oral historian, I always see this as a positive outcome.

From Reel to Digital at the New York Studio School

For fifty years the New York Studio School has recorded artists, critics, musicians, poets, and more—among them, John Ashbery, Louise Bourgeois, John Cage, Anthony Caro, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Philip Guston, and Meyer Schapiro.

Please Return

I’m supposed to be writing about archives for Charles Duncan. This will force me to revisit my dissertation on stuff. No, I have never written a dissertation on stuff, but I could.

Firefall (The Benefit of Bad Documentation)

In 2005 I went on a camping trip to Yosemite National Park. While standing on top of the cliff at Glacier Point overlooking the valley 3000 feet below, I overheard a ranger tell his tour group, “And this is where they used to create the waterfall of fire.”


For the past decade, the notion of what constitutes an archive and what role archives serve as sources of facts supporting larger historical narratives has been the source of extensive debate.

The Place of Archives at the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

A certain number of issues and challenges have, of course, presented themselves as we ready the archives for more in-depth research by a wider pool of potential users.

The Spoken Word

Research, if done correctly, requires primary sources: letters, diaries, notebooks, and record books dating from the period when a subject was active. This virgin material is the only true source for original thinking.

From the Horse’s Mouth

As someone who’s worked in the realms of media and contemporary art throughout my career, I’ve realized the importance of capturing primary-source material from living artists while they are still with us, rather than addressing documentation after the fact.

Researching the Club

In 2006, I embarked on a dissertation on Abstract Expressionism’s relation to spirituality, spanning from the 1930s through the 1960s (a dissertation that now seems comically impossible).

Whose Lens is it Anyway?

On a recent foray with a friend, the conversation turned to funding. Because I am a funder, this is not unusual and the opportunity was evident. My friend asked, “how are decisions made, who gets what, and why?” This is a routine query. 

Tracing an Erased Artist in Multiple Archives: Josephine Verstille Nivison Hopper

In June 1976, when I began at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the first (and only) curator of the Edward Hopper Collection, I had no thought of researching his wife, Josephine Verstille Nivison Hopper (1883 – 1968).

The Papers Chase

In 1979, I learned that the archives of author Henri-Pierre Roché (1879 – 1959) were in the collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Unreliability of Primary Sources

Parsing out what you know and what you don’t know from archival material is an intrinsic part of research. Archives and other primary sources are generally considered more reliable than secondary sources, such as art criticism, theoretical studies, and historical texts, because they are first-hand accounts.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

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