Archives Of American Art

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In 1954 Lawrence A. Fleischman, a young, determined collector of American art in Detroit, took a puzzle to Edgar P. Richardson, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The problem was a painting that Fleischman had bought for $15,000, the work of an obscure Philadelphian named Thomas Anshutz. Who was Anshutz? If anybody knew, surely it would be Richardson, who was then engaged in writing his splendid book Painting in America: The Story of 450 Years (1956). Richardson could say only that no book about Anshutz existed, that “probably somewhere in Philadelphia there was information” about him, but he did not know where. It was known that he was a pupil and friend of the great Thomas Eakins, that he had been a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and that was about all.

The Anshutz, Steelworkers—Noontime , that caused Richardson and Fleischman to bemoan the scarcity of information about American artists in general has since had an impressive history. This painting, a rather small one by an artist almost entirely unknown eighteen years ago, sold at auction in 19712 for $250,000, an auction record at that time for a nineteenth-century American work. Far more important than that, however, the obscurity of its maker was one of the chief provocations for the creation of the Archives of American Art, surely one of the most extraordinary scholarly resources in the country, albeit one of the youngest.

Richardson and Fleischman put their heads together. Would it be possible, they wondered, to search out primary material about American art, microfilm it, and bring it together in one centrally located place? They demonstrated that it was indeed possible, for now the Archives, which became a division of the Smithsonian Institution in 1970, has well over five million frames of microfilmed documents, a collection of more than severity thousand photographs of American artists and their works, and twelve hundred taped interviews with artists, museum directors, dealers, collectors, and critics. The Archives’ holdings on microfilm are now available in five cities in which there are branch offices; their purpose is not just to disseminate information but to discover new material for the collections. The principal collecting office is in New York because that is the center of America’s art world. The processing of the material goes on in the Archives office in Washington in the same building—a splendid Greek revival structure, once the home of the Patent Office—that also houses the National Collection of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery. The Boston office is tucked away in the elegant Bulfinch mansion on Mt. Vernon Street that is occupied by the Colonial Society. San Franciscans provided quarters for the Archives in the tower of the de Young Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts continues to be the Archives’ home in the Middle West. More than that, as we shall see, Detroit is still the most imaginative and vital source of the Archives’ support.

Four or five years ago I had occasion to talk about the Archives with Thomas P. Moving, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was at a time when plans, now matured, were germinating for a vast expansion of the American Wing and galleries and storage for the American collections of the museum, and there was some notion that the Archives might become part of that complex. I mentioned, among other holdings of the Archives, the fact that it had the complete records of the Macbeth Gallery, which had been one of the most important dealers in American art for sixty-two years (from 1892 to 1954): its correspondence files, its ledgers, photographs, scrapbooks, and catalogues, some 180,000 items in all. Hoving could hardly believe it. “Think what it will be worth to scholars two hundred years from now!” he said.

The Archives is primarily concerned not with objects of art (indeed it conscientiously avoids owning any, because it does not want to compete with museums or private collectors) but with people. It is a vast storehouse—vast in documentation, not in size—of the social history of the American plastic arts—of the people who make them, buy them, commission them, sell them, talk and write about them, display and study and preserve them, and of the people who support the artists spiritually as well as materially and some who pretend to but don’t. It would be fashionable today to say that the Archives is concerned with the “total environment” of the plastic arts in America. I prefer to call it the atmosphere of the arts, because it deals in intangibles, in moods and speculations, as well as in facts and places and cupboards, sometimes empty, sometimes full to bursting. Atmosphere is even more ephemeral than environment, more difficult to capture and more difficult to retain.