For almost a decade, I held the unique position of a curator of archives at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections, with a focus on documenting New York City’s Downtown art scene from the 1960s to 1990s. In my role as senior archivist, I spent much of my time in intimate consultation with artists, performers, musicians, gallerists, and art-collective members in loft apartments, studios, and storage units, helping them decide whether to donate (or, rarely, sell) their archives to our library. It was an easy argument to make. We offered a safe environment for long-term preservation, with state-of-the-art HVAC systems and a dedicated conservation lab; we had a robust reference program that provided free access to diverse publics; and because we had so many collections, the archive collectively formed an incredible resource. Our primary problem wasn’t persuading people to donate; it was having to sometimes break the news that we couldn’t take their materials due to limited resources.
The histories of artists, movements, markets, and activism are told through archives (things like letters, emails, notebooks, posters, photo documentation, and other primary sources). When those materials aren’t preserved, we get historical narratives that are partial or distorted. So my colleagues and I saw our task of saving precarious archives as an obvious social good. But sometimes, our work felt like it served the mega-research institutions and their competitions for prestige more than the communities that had created or wanted access to the collections. Thankfully, over the last decade or so, a new paradigm has been gaining ascendancy in the archives profession, inspired by decades of work by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and other minoritized communities. This approach focuses on supporting, serving, and learning from communities that preserve and activate their own legacies.
The Ethics of Collecting
My generation of activist archivists inherited responsibility for collections that had been formed by decades of racist and sexist collecting policies creating histories that were heavily skewed towards stories of “great white men.” Our antidote was to “fill the gaps,” seeking to form new canons and creating collecting areas that brought the overlooked and the marginalized into mainstream collections. We also sought to prioritize ethics of care, foregrounding professional humility and a commitment to service. This meant insisting on mutual consent and self-determination in the donation process. When I started a new area of collecting at NYU in 2010 to document the feminist youth movement Riot Grrrl I worked with friends who had been early founders of the movement to shape the collection’s parameters. Through this process of working with people close to me, I came to regard the historian’s mandate to remain objective with suspicion; rather than representing a conflict of interest, I began to see that my personal involvement in the community made me a better curator and caretaker. My lived experience gave me a kind of knowledge that an outsider could never have. At the same time, some people in my community were asking why the collection couldn’t be formed in the towns where the scene had begun. Why did their archives have to be ingested into mainstream institutions, replicating the cycles of commodification and objectification that the movement had been formed to subvert?
As much as we archivists shifted our practices to involve and value donors, the practice of building institutional collections is fundamentally extractive. And while we as archival curators might prioritize the agency of donors, the end result is the same: Archives are removed to a context where their creators have less control and less access. Perhaps more troublingly, collecting practices predicated on “filling the gaps” rest on a misguided savior mentality, and beg the questions: Who is doing the collecting, and who decides what the “gaps” are? Shouldn’t the people who have historically occupied those gaps be the ones to shape and control collections, not institutional curators?
Of course, the answer to the second question is “yes,” and there have been many inspiring models of community-based archiving over the last half-century, often from LGBTQIA+ communities who took it upon themselves to self-document. Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, for example, was formed in the 1970s when a group of women involved in the Gay Academic Union realized that Lesbian history was “disappearing as quickly as it was being made.” More recently, projects like the South Asian American Digital Archive and the Black Baltimore Digital Database are expanding the possibilities of what archives can be. In solidarity with and inspired by these community-driven projects, a new generation of professional archivists has largely turned its energy away from institutional collecting and toward using their skills and training to support community archives, focusing on what UCLA’s Community Archives Lab and its influential founder Michelle Caswell call “liberatory memory work.” Yet despite this shift, the resources—such as they are in this famously underfunded profession—tend to remain firmly in the hands of collecting institutions, not in communities of creation.
The mission of the nonprofit I lead, Hauser & Wirth Institute, is to advance equity and innovation in the field of artists’ archives. Our primary goal is to increase access to the archives of contemporary artists and organizations. We also prioritize supporting and elevating awareness of the labor of the people who care for archives and fund educational grants to help foster diversity in a profession that is overwhelmingly white. In the early stages of our formation, our Board of Directors thought we might form a physical collection of artists’ archives. Instead, we adopted a two-pronged “non-custodial” model: We catalog and digitize art archives as a free service and help place those archives as donations in collections where they will be widely accessible; and, we give grants to help others create and steward their own collections. These grants support organizations that serve historically marginalized communities and that take creative approaches to broadening access to archives. Last year, we gave $25,000 to Asia Art Archive to fund the processing and digitization of the archives of Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941–1999), the influential Pakistani artist known for combining abstraction and modernism with traditional forms such as calligraphy and miniature painting. Based in Hong Kong, Asia Art Archives builds tools and communities that expand knowledge about recent art in Asia through research, residencies, and educational programs. Using a collecting model that is non-extractive and radically accessible, they process and digitize archives in situ, leaving the original materials with their creators and making digital versions freely available online.
Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW) is another inspiring model for self-determined archiving. Founded as a collective almost fifty years ago, the mission of this arts center and artist residency in New York’s Hudson Valley is to maintain a workspace that encourages the voice and vision of individual women and trans, intersex, nonbinary, and genderfluid artists. Around five years ago, they began giving careful consideration to the future of their archives, which include artist books, artist files, institutional records, photographs, and silkscreen posters. As Executive Director Lauren Walling recently explained, “typically, what organizations like ours do is give their institutional archives to a major library…. When you place your record in a larger institution, that gives your work greater legitimacy.” After seeking input from archivists and curators (myself included), and exploring creative alternatives to the old-school donation model, WSW decided to keep its archive and make a long-term commitment to its accessibility into the future. What they’ve found so far is that the materials aren’t just supporting scholarly research, they are enthusiastically used by resident artists as well. But the work doesn’t come cheap, and archives have never been alluring to funders, which is why Hauser & Wirth Institute recently awarded $180,000 to fund WSW’s first archivist position. But this story isn’t about us. As Walling puts it, “We don’t need the recognition of institutions by putting our history in someone else’s hands. We want ownership of our own records and ownership of our own story.”
Of course, there is never just one right way. Back when my Riot Grrrl peers asked why archives couldn’t remain in the community where they were created, my response was: There can be both. There should be archives in institutional collections and in community collections. There are so many exciting models for community-driven archives that keep control in the hands of creators, and people want the agency that comes with this kind of self-documentation. But there are also artists and communities who want to be part of the big institutional collections, to see their life’s work recognized, and to challenge the monocultural canon from within. It must always be the choice of the people who create the archives. But we must make sure there is a choice in the first place. If there are no resources—money—for community archives, there really isn’t a choice at all.