Sydney Fitzgibbon, art history student at Texas Christian University, analyzes material in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s artist file on Albert Bierstadt. Over the years, museum staff have developed an extensive set of documents on Bierstadt, a key artist in the museum’s collection. Artist files are often the first stop for art history students starting their research.
At the American Art and Portrait Gallery (AAPG) Library, we are always turning to our Art and Artist Files for items to highlight the breadth of our collections. This was the case when we decided to find some materials that were related to the Smithsonian celebration of JFK 100, the centennial of President John F. Kennedy’s birth. Since both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are participating, we thought it was a great opportunity to see what we could pull from our vertical files.
While our Art and Artist Files collection is made up of files based on artist and institution, we also have subject files where we can file ephemera on subjects that don’t quite fit the other two categories but are necessary for our researchers. For instance, these subject files house ephemeral materials on American Presidents, an important facet of our collection needed to support both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Though our slender subject file on John F. Kennedy mostly consisted of old newspaper clippings and Xeroxes copies, one item caught our eye. It was an unassuming two-paged exhibition pamphlet with a checklist of art works on the inside—all text, black and white. However, this particular exhibition was held in John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Suite at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth and dated the 22nd of November, 1963, the day that he was assassinated.
Notes on the back of the pamphlet indicate that this was passed to the AAPG Library from the Archives of American Art (a relationship that we are extremely lucky to have!), but it doesn’t note when or from where they received it from. However, it does note that it was number 65 of 100 copies, leading us to believe this item is rare. Preserving this original pamphlet is not only helpful for art research but for history research as well. Information in the pamphlet about the owners, curators, and supporters of the exhibition all have historical significance. This can tell a story about the local art scene at the time as well as the intended trajectory of that day, a subject of interest to many historians and conspiracy theorists.
Luckily, the efforts of the coordinators of the exhibition were not in vain. The Dallas Museum recreated the original exhibition in 2013 in their show Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy. The exhibition discussed the importance of the original 1963 exhibition, how it was formed, and the tragedy that occurred and ultimately overshadowed it. Items like the original 1963 exhibition catalog are integral in recreating an exhibition constructed decades before.
When we make discoveries like this it makes us happy to know that we have had a place to put ephemeral materials that can become critical research items in the future.
Like many librarians, I fetishize the past.
My particular obsession is the ‘60s and ‘70s, which inspired a show I organized for the National Gallery of Art library, Companion Pieces: Documenting Concepts, Events, Environments, on view through August 25th . Art movements of the time emphasized ideas, experience and process over tangible objects, and galleries and museums conceived of new ways to record, distribute and exhibit artwork of this character. Many documents from this time—photographs, films, videos, written narratives, and instructions—are now highly valued art objects found in museum art collections. Ephemera in the NGA library’s vertical files, however, are unsigned, unlimited run and intended for broad distribution. Easily printed and widely circulated, they allow for engagement with not only the artwork, but with the experimental spirit of the time.
And they look so good. With a cool reticence (images with no words/ words with no images) that screams, “You had to be there.” Brian O’Doherty in reference to the epic and often challenging 9 Evenings; Theatre & Engineering, however, reassures me: “the historical audience will regret they weren’t there, the actual audience often regretted that they were.” 
 Brian O’Doherty, “New York: 9 Armored Nights,” Art and Artists 1, no.9 (December 1966), 14-17, reprinted in Morris (curator), 9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theatre and Engineering (2006), 75-79.
 Companion Pieces: Documenting Concepts, Events, Environments, exhibition brochure, National Gallery of Art, 2017, https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/library/pdf/itl-companion-pieces.pdf
Editor’s Note: This post officially kicks off a series of articles featuring special items found in artist files. The following comes from Jenny Stone, librarian at the Dallas Museum of Art. Thanks Jenny! Others who wish to contribute to the series, please contact one of the coordinators.
It’s not known when the Dallas Museum of Art’s Mayer Library artist file collection began. Based on contents found in the files, we know that major growth started in the 1940s when Jerry Bywaters, the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, began sending out “Biographical Data” questionnaires to Texas regional artists.
Under the directorship of Bywaters, an artist himself, the DMFA turned a sharp focus towards regional art. To that end, Bywaters sought to create a centralized resource for information on artists of Texas and the Southwest in the museum’s library, which had opened to the public in 1944.
When looking through these questionnaires, it’s easy to feel a sense of connection. My favorite section is where artists are asked to identify their “best and most representative” works.
In addition to filling out the questionnaires, artists were asked to send glossies of recent work, some color slides, and a photograph of themselves at work. This material is often the only information available to researchers on some artists.
Assistance in keeping the files up to date was solicited from the artists as well. As Bywaters plainly stated, “…it is obviously impossible for our museum librarian to keep informed of the manifold of activities of the hundreds of Southwestern artists.” So true.