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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
To a considerable extent the Archives has been a hand-to-mouth operation from the start. Fortunately the hand has been extremely ingenious, and the mouth has not been too intemperate in its appetite. For the first decade of its existence it was almost entirely financed by Detroiters who were proud that their city should have been the home of this national cultural resource. They raised money by holding auctions of everything from furniture out of Grosse Pointe attics, jewelry from the safes of Detroit matrons, and pictures off the walls of suburban houses to, perhaps most surprising of all, machine tools that were no longer needed by big factories and were coveted by small operators. The first such machinery auction netted the Archives ninety thousand dollars. A New York trustee invented the “airlift,” the first use of what has now become a commonplace method of fund raising for cultural institutions. The airlifts have taken members of the Archives (its members now number sixteen hundred) to the Soviet Union (as far as Samarkand), to India, to Greece, to Turkey, where in each case arrangements were made in advance for the travellers to have access to private collections, to parties given for them by governments, to museums opened especially for them at hours when the public was not admitted. It was a great gimmick while it was exclusively the Archives’ doing; it no longer contributes the fat sum it did—some fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year to the kitty. Now somewhat less ambitious trips are taking members to collections on this continent.
As the Archives grew in usefulness as well as in size it felt the need to be affiliated with a larger organization, and the Smithsonian Institution was eager to cooperate with both space and financing. The Archives, however, had no intention of losing its identity in the maw ofthat vast organization, and it maintains its own board of directors and raises its share of the funds for keeping its archival vacuum cleaner going.
What the vacuuming picks up is obviously interesting only for immediate or potential usefulness. The number of scholars, editors, critics, and curators who consult the Archives is double what it was three years ago, but the figures are meaningless. It is what ultimately comes out of these researches that matters. It can be said without reservation, I believe, that no book of any consequence on the arts of America is published these days that does not acknowledge the help of the Archives. It has, in other words, become an essential and basic tool of the man or woman behind the typewriter trying to throw light into the often dark recesses of our art history.
Recently, in a newsletter that the Archives sends to its members (in addition to its quarterly journal, which discusses its findings and holdings in a scholarly but by no means pedantic way), there was a list of a few new books based on the Archives’ materials. There are a dozen of them—including monographs on Stuart Davis, David Smith, Moholy-Nagy, Ben Shahn, and Roy Lichtenstein. There is a volume on Six Black Masters of American Art by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson; there are catalogues of exhibitions of American art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the museum in Dallas, one for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and so on.
No one, I think, would presume to say that the Archives has been responsible for the extraordinary revival of interest in the arts of America and especially those of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. No one would say that it was the Archives that made the price of the Anshutz with which this article started jump from fifteen thousand dollars to a quarter of a million dollars in twenty years. But no one should presume to underestimate its influence, either. A decade ago there was scarcely a college or university that gave a course in the American arts; now there are dozens. The first scholarly conferences on the American arts were not held by museums or universities; they were set up in the early i goo’s by the Archives. The attitude toward American art is very different today. Witness the flood of publications about American artists, the Hudson River School paintings brought up from the cellars of museums and proudly hung in newly decorated galleries, the vast exhibition of nineteenth-century art with which the Metropolitan Museum celebrated its centennial, the number of dealers and auction houses that gloat over a sketch by Bierstadt of an imaginary mountain or a drawing of a schoolboy by Eastman Johnson.
It is not these objects that the Archives worries about; that is a museum’s business. It is why these objects came into being, why their makers were as they were, thought as they thought, saw as they saw, lived as they lived that concerns the Archives. It is the air they breathed, the atmosphere that sustained them, caught on millions of pieces of paper there waiting to be recycled, one might say, into the lives of men.