Members of the ARLIS/NA Artist Files SIG usually work with files about individual artists. At the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, artist file material is handled a little differently: among the array of topics represented in the kaleidoscope of pictures in the Picture Collection, filed after “Artillery — Naval,” are several artist-related subjects, including “Artists,” Artists — Cartoons,” and “Artists — Materials.” These files contain a surprising variety of pictures taken from all kinds of sources that feature artists doing artist stuff: painting, drawing, sculpting, etc. There are images from books about artists, magazines featuring people making art, newspaper comic strips, and postcards collected together to present the complex picture of what it looks like to be an artist.

Selection of pictures found in the subject file on “Artists.” New York Public Library Picture Collection

One gem among these pictures is a comic from the July 25, 1857 issue of Punch; or, The London Charivari captioned, “What an Artist has to Put Up With. ‘O? look’ee ‘ere, Jane, ‘ere’s one of the Harcobats a-goin’ to do the ladder-trick!’” The wood engraving exemplifies the misunderstood life of the artist, a favorite theme of the illustrators of Punch. The illustration is unsigned, but was possibly drawn by Charles Keene or John Tenniel, who were both active contributors to Punch at the time.

“WHAT AN ARTIST HAS TO PUT UP WITH.” Cartoon published in Punch, July 25, 1857. New York Public Library Picture Collection
Lander Crayon Portraits advertisement, 1898. New York Public Library Picture Collection

An advertisement from 1898 similarly highlights the zany creativity required by artists for portraiture. We have it filed in our Advertising subject heading, but Mr. Lander and his crayon portraits would be an ideal addition to an artist file as well.

Anyone can download the entire list of Picture Collection subject headings.

Librarians and archivists often approach collections of donated ephemera with assumptions about their contents and organization. Once processing starts, however, the collection demands we rethink our initial assumptions. Upon its arrival at the NGA Library in 2015, the Evans-Tibbs Collection posed many challenges: chief among them was determining how best to describe the collection to facilitate access.

During his lifetime, Thurlow Evans Tibbs Jr., an accomplished art appraiser, broker, collector, and dealer, as well as the founder and director of his eponymous art gallery, compiled approximately forty-five linear feet of material documenting the history of African American art and artists from 1810 to 1998. The Evans-Tibbs Collection has accurately been referred to as an archive—and indeed, it includes personal correspondence, insurance appraisals, and other gallery records. But it also contains clippings, photographs, slides, posters, pamphlets and other ephemera organized by artist name—artist files! Over the past three years, the librarians at the NGA have grappled with how to meaningfully arrange and describe Tibbs’ important legacy.

Contents of the Betye Saar file in the Evans-Tibbs Collection

The first phase of processing the collection began in 1996 when Tibbs bequeathed the collection along with thirty-three works of art to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Regarded as a collection with archival significance, materials were housed in original order, and a list of the artist files was also created. When the collection arrived at the NGA, we immediately uploaded these lists to our OPAC, creating searchable file-level records. I also created a finding aid, a collection level document that describes the depth and breadth of this unique collection.

We were amazed and excited to eventually read the deed of gift signed by Tibbs and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which refers to the collection as both an archive and a research library. The primary source documents in the collection are to be preserved, while also allowing them to grow. The hybrid arrangement we created—a mix of file-level and collection-level records—which, though unorthodox, adds a certain mystique to the materials and seems to reflect Tibbs’ original intent. Most importantly, the intellectual and cultural value of the materials remains unchanged.

Learn more about the National Gallery of Art Library vertical file collections.

Archibald Motley registration card, The Art Institute of Chicago, in the Evans-Tibbs Collection

Recently the Art Collection at The New York Public Library received several generous donations of ephemeral material for our artist files. Sorting through boxes of catalogues and brochures (and an occasional birthday card or bill), we came across some amazing exhibition announcements. These are not the normal two-sided variety that provide the basic who, what, and where information; instead, they are truly unique pieces that intrigue viewers to go and see the exhibitions they promote. We still have another 40+ boxes to open, and I’m sure more treasures are waiting to be discovered! Here are some example invitations:

A silver key ringed around a card providing admission to the Caravanserail W139 Amsterdam exhibition (1994)
A tie wrapped in a gift box announcing an exhibition at the Haines Gallery for the artist Ray Beldner (1998)
A light stick within a small black box for a James Turrell exhibition at Pace Wildenstein (2004)
ceramic plate with a photographic portrait of Leona Helmsley for the POPcentric exhibition at the Gering & Lopez Gallery (2007)
A folding fan announcing the “Encounters” exhibition at Pace Beijing (2008)