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Archives Of American Art
What was Whistler’s mother really thinking about? You might find out in the
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
Not only did Richardson’s pilot project prove the validity of collecting other institutions’ collections in a manner that made them readily available to scholars, but it also made it clear that the process was a protection to their valuables. “The idea … was welcomed,” Richardson has said, “because the Archives is not in competition with, or attempting to replace, existing collections or libraries, but enlarging their usefulness. No organization in this country was bringing together such documents on a national scale. … The microfilm copy protected rare and fragile papers from repeated handling.” The Archives also helped to create a change in mood among some institutions that had in the past jealously clutched their papers to their bosoms and would let no one consult them unless they came to their chambers. They had felt that somehow their authority was diminished, their treasures demeaned, if scholars were not required to come in person to consult them, and that microfilmed copies were a threat to the institutional dignity to which exclusivity contributed. The New-York Historical Society, once very chary of permitting its holdings to be microfilmed by the Archives, is now cooperating fully and enthusiastically. Among its holdings are the complete records of the American Art Union, the first large-scale art promotion in this country, which did a roaring trade in paintings and engravings in the 184o’s and 5o’s and involved most of the major artists of the period. Just last year the Archives completed microfilming the papers of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (also called Fenway Court) in Boston, including correspondence on the formation of that extraordinary collection in which Bernard Berenson played such an important part. The papers had been carefully withheld from inspection for years.
But mining the rich veins of other institutions’ resources is by no means the only, or even the primary, concern of the Archives. It is as fearful that the present may escape as that the past may not be recoverable. In each of the five branches of the Archives the work of discovery and. retrieval goes on, and it is the persuasiveness of the retrievers and (if the metaphor may be excused) their doggedness that keeps a constant flow of papers coming into the Archives.
Take, for example, albeit a rather spectacular one, the case of Rockwell Kent. Kent was on a list of artists whose papers Butler Coleman, the regional director of the New York office of the Archives, was determined to acquire. Kent, a figure of great prominence as a painter and illustrator in the 1920's and as an explorer and writer before that, had made himself suspect and unpopular in the i93o’s and 4o’s as a political activist far to the left of what was considered tolerable by the vast majority of his contemporaries. His work, moreover, had generally gone out of fashion, and the generation of rising artists and critics of the 5o’s thought him old hat. He had sent the manuscripts of several of his books to the Soviet Union rather than give them to an American institution, and with a fondness for remote places (his early books were about the Arctic wilderness) he removed himself, physically if not intellectually, from the centers of art and letters.
A series of communications from Coleman to Kent, asking for his papers for the Archives, had brought friendly though evasive replies, but Coleman and Paul Cummings, the Archives’ most skillful interviewer for its oral history program, made a date to see him in Au Sable Forks in upstate New York in February, 1969. While Cummings interviewed Kent with a tape recorder in his studio Coleman sat in the kitchen with Mrs. Kent, successfully, as it turned out, persuading her to encourage her husband to turn over his papers to the Archives. After Coleman’s and Cummings’ visit the Kents put the artist’s papers into cartons, and then in the early spring Kent wrote to Coleman inviting him to Au Sable Forks to discuss the details of transferring the papers to the Archives. Just two days after he mailed the letter, his isolated house was consumed by fire; his valuable library, including first editions of William Blake, was destroyed. The Kent papers, however, easily portable in the cartons, were carried outside by neighbors in time to escape the fire.
“There is at this time little for us to be glad about,” Kent wrote to Coleman on May first, “but it is a matter of deep relief to us that our ‘archives’ are to be shipped to Detroit, and that our decision to do this was reached long before disaster struck us. … We wish the whole house with all its now irreplaceable contents had been sent to the Archives.”
The story would be smaller and prove less about the value and nature of the Archives if the salvage had not been so rich in letters from Kent’s contemporaries—artists, literary figures, dealers, and movers and shakers from the days when Alfred Stieglitz was running his 291 Gallery and Arthur B. Davies and Walt K’fchn were organizing the notorious Armory Show of 1913. As Garnett McCoy, the chief archivist, said, “The collection as a whole is a major historical quarry which will be worked for years to come by art historians, biographers, and American Studies scholars.” In all it consists of about fifty thousand items.