Found in the Artist Files Series

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.

Front and Back of "An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy" Exhibition, 1963
Hotel Texas, An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, front and back, exhibition catalog, Fort Worth, Texas, 1963, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, Smithsonian Libraries, Art and Artist Files

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.

Front and Back of "An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy" Exhibition, 1963
Hotel Texas, An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, inside, exhibition catalog, Fort Worth, Texas, 1963, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, Smithsonian Libraries, Art and Artist Files

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, Environmentson view through August 25th [2]. 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.

Wesleyan University, Transfer: A Happening (For Christo), by Allan Kaprow, poster/invitation, Middletown, Connecticut, 1968, National Gallery of Art Library, Vertical Files
New York University, Dan Graham: Performance, Film, Television, & Tape, invitation, New York, New York, 1970, National Gallery of Art Library, Vertical Files, Vogel Collection
Franz Dahlem, FLUXUS: Joseph Beuys, Henning Christiansen, invitation, Munich, Germany, 1967, National Gallery of Art Library, Vertical Files

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.” [1]

25th Street Armory, 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, program, New York, New York, 1966, National Gallery of Art Library, Vertical Files

References

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Page 1 , Velma Dozier

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.

Page 2, Velma Dozier

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.

Velma Dozier at work

Ben Ortega – Canyon Road Art Gallery – Page 2
Ben Ortega – Canyon Road Art Gallery – Page 1

So today I was randomly fishing around in the Amon Carter’s artist files for something to illustrate my first blog post as newly-elected Co-Coordinator of the ARLIS/NA Artist Files Special Interest Group. It wasn’t long before my eyes landed on the “Ortega, Ben” file. Mr. Ortega’s file had one lonely item: a folded leaflet, printed on both sides, date unknown—though I place it sometime in the 60s. I interrogate it, and it reveals a good deal. We learn that Mr. Ortega was born in northern New Mexico in the early 20s and lived there all his life, save time in the war; that a prominent family in Santa Fe launched his career; that he worked in Los Alamos (an intriguing nugget); that he was a prolific father; that this is his first gallery exhibition; and that his work was sought after. We also have a picture of the artist with examples of his work, which corroborates that his work is in the primitive vein. And we also learn something about the Canyon Road Art Gallery, including its address, logo, and that a variation of its name is “Jean Seth’s Canyon Road Gallery” (no Library of Congress authority file for either name). By the way, who is Jean Seth?—another puzzle to solve.

I just Googled “Ben Ortega,” and I’m chagrined to not find the Amon Carter’s file within the first few pages of results. I also learn that this item is not in WorldCat. So how do I provide access to the riches contained in an item like this?—a chronic problem facing managers of artist files.

So why are artist files so special?

Well, they’re so special that they are their own distinct category reserved for files that capture the voluminous “small stuff” about artists (or made by artists) that quite often ends up being “big stuff.” I cite the example above to prove it. Similar items are peppered across collections around the globe. Artist files are collections so elemental to our line of work, so much part of our parlance, that we accept them as part and parcel of our professional reality. Or at least I do. They are collections chiefly associated with art libraries, and they are often cited as one of the most prominent “hidden” collections within those institutions.

Artist files are among the most valued and heavily used resources in art research facilities. These files often provide critical documentation about well established artists, as well as lesser known artists not well documented in the literature. Researchers rely on artist files to establish chronologies, flesh out exhibition histories, review stylistic developments and assess the critical reception of artists over time. Artist files often do not circulate due to their unique and irreplaceable nature. Artist file collections frequently have regional strengths that make them particularly vital repositories for communities. [1]

Another thought: you could think of an artist file as something akin to an artist’s scrapbook. How special is that? They are so unique that ARLIS/NA created a special interest group to facilitate professional discussion about them. And, by the way, it’s not “artist’s files,” “artists’ files,” or even “artists files.” Our group has ruled that they shall be called “artist files,” a term sanctioned by the Art & Architecture Thesaurus.

I know librarians collect ephemera on any number of topics, so we’re back to the original question: why are artist files so special? In the Amon Carter’s case, those before me recognized that this kind of material had value and that we needed to save it. As far as I know, we’ve always had an artist files collection (we call ours “bio files” because they cover, to a lesser degree, collectors, art historians, and the like). This collection could never be replicated. So many hands have built it over the years: contributions from librarians, curators, artists, so many. It is our bedrock collection. If someone comes into the reading room and wants to research an artist, we instinctively pull the artist file. It’s always the perfect starting point.

You could think of an artist file as something akin to an artist’s scrapbook.

But even before we collect it, the stuff has to be produced, right? There is a swirl of publications, both print and digital, surrounding artists: material produced by galleries and museums, material produced by artists themselves, to name a couple of examples. Sometimes it’s big stuff like books and sometimes it’s small stuff like the Ortega leaflet above. And, sometimes, it is made by the artists themselves. And to confound the matter, sometimes it’s unpublished material. We must also recognize that these files are often full of pretty stuff, sometimes “original” art, making them uniquely alluring. As I said earlier, we might also think of them in terms of artist’s scrapbooks, a fascinating mix of published and unpublished items.

Today, I present this roaming blog that I hope inspires others to think about the character of artist files and to energize thinking about the scope of the SIG’s work for the next couple of years. I feel certain that the lion’s share will revolve around figuring out effective and sustainable solutions for letting the world know about and use these collections. I tip my hat to previous leaders of this SIG for the work they have been able to accomplish as documented in our minutes. Contact either of your co-coordinators with any comments or ideas that move us forward.

References

[1] Artist Files Working Group, ARLIS/NA. Artist Files Revealed: Documentation and Access. Art Libraries Society of North America, 2009, 2010, p. 3. http://www.arlisna.org/images/researchreports/artist_files_revealed.pdf