Robert Bruce Inverarity papers, circa 1840s-1997

A Finding Aid to the Robert Bruce Inverarity Papers, circa 1840s-1997, in the Archives of American Art, by Catherine S. Gaines

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Biographical Information

Robert Bruce Inverarity (1909-1999) showed artistic leanings as a boy, and from an early age was fascinated by puppetry and Northwest Coast native culture. During much of his youth, Inverarity's family lived in Canada, but returned to their native Seattle when he was a teenager. After graduating from high school, he made a 500 mile journey on foot along the coasts of the Vancouver Islands, collecting Indian artifacts and studying the area's tribal legends.

He studied briefly with Mark Tobey in Seattle, where the two shared a studio; when Tobey departed for Chicago, Inverarity succeeded him as an art teacher at the Cornish School. He spent the next few years in California working as an artist, exhibiting, and occasionally teaching. From there, he moved to Vancouver where he was Director of the School of Creative Art. In 1932, Inverarity made a three month trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia, for the purpose of studying the Haida Indians.

Upon his return to the United States in 1933, Inverarity joined the University of Washington Drama School as a puppetry instructor; in 1938 he published a highly regarded Manual of Puppetry. During 1936-37, he took a leave of absence from the university to assume the position of State Director of the Federal Art Project, where he remained until 1939. He then became State Director of the Art and Crafts Project (1939-1941). The U.S. Navy appointed Inverarity Chief of Design for Camouflage (1941-1943) and he later served as an Official Navy War Artist (1943-1945).

During his early years as a teacher and administrator, Inverarity continued making art and participated in a wide variety of exhibitions. He published a portfolio, 12 Photographs by R. B. Inverarity (1940). In the following year, Movable Masks and Figures of the North Pacific Coast Indians, a portfolio of his watercolors reproduced as silkscreen prints, appeared. Although Inverarity stopped exhibiting in 1941, he continued to produce art; notable work of this period includes photographic portraits of a number of artist friends (Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray).

After World War II, Inverarity completed his formal education. He earned a Bachelor's degree in art and anthropology from the University of Washington (1946), and then studied with Hilaire Hiler at Freemont University in Los Angeles, where he was awarded a Master's degree in fine arts (1947) and a Ph.D. (1948).

Inverarity began his museum career in 1949 when he was appointed the first director of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a position that combined his interest in, and knowledge of, anthropology and art. While in Santa Fe, he published Art of the North West Coast Indians (1950). During his five year tenure as director, the museum participated in a pilot study for coding visual files, a project of the anthropological group, Human Resources Area Files, Inc. When Inverarity was dismissed from the Museum of International Folk Art in 1954, most of the staff resigned in protest, and the American Association of Museums investigated the situation.

Inverarity then became the first director of the Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, where he remained for eleven years. In addition to planning the museum's building, and developing collections and programs, Inverarity continued his involvement with the visual files project of the Human Resources Area Files, Inc., studying information storage and retrieval, developing a "microreader," and publishing Visual Files Coding Index (1960). In addition, he published many articles on a variety of topics and was active in organizations for anthropologists and museum professionals.

After his 1965 departure from the Adirondack Museum, Inverarity went to California and worked as an illustrator and book designer at the University of California Press. He returned to the east coast in 1969 to assume the directorship of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum. During this period, he remained active in professional associations and traveled to study museums abroad. He retired in 1976 and moved to La Jolla, California.

Robert Bruce Inverarity died in 1999.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The papers of artist, photographer, museum director, anthropologist, and writer Robert Bruce Inverarity are dated circa 1840s-1997 and measure 13.8 linear feet. Biographical information, correspondence, writings and notes, subject files, art work, scrapbooks, sound recordings, printed material and photographs are found within the papers. They document Inverarity's work as Director of the Federal Art Project in Seattle and Director of the Art and Craft Project for the State of Washington, as well as his other professional work. Nineteenth century material consists of a Japanese print, printed material, and photographs.

Among the biographical information are awards and certificates, biographical and genealogical notes, and educational records. Correspondence concerns Inverarity's activities as Director of the WPA Federal Arts Project in Washington State, 1936-1941. Additional personal and professional correspondence, 1929-1993, documents his activities as a museum director, consultant, collector, and writer. Among the friends and colleagues with whom he corresponded are: Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Rockwell and Sally Kent, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Wolfgang Palen, Juliet and Man Ray, Mark Tobey, Edward Weston, and various individuals associated with the WPA.

Manuscripts of a few of Inverarity's many articles on topics such as anthropology, museology, and information storage and retrieval are among his writings and notes. Also included are the manuscript of an unpublished book, Tobey Remembered, along with drafts, notes, correspondence, research materials, and photocopies of Tobey's letters to him and others. Other writings consist of book reviews, children's books, a catalog of the Inverarity Collection, and a copy of his 1946 master's thesis, "The Social-Economic Position of the American Artist." Several journals, 1928-1966, survive, including one that records his 1932 trip to study the Haida Indians of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Subject files include general subjects such as "Folk Art" and "Preservation." Files on the museums where Inverarity was the director contain some official records as well as general information. Art work by Inverarity includes eight volumes of sketch books, 1928-1942, commercial work for Boeing, notes and drawings for book designs. Among the work by other artists are drawings, paintings and prints by friends. Of particular interest are display panels for a small exhibit on airbrush stencil prints produced by the Washington State WPA Federal Art Project. Other noteworthy items are pencil sketches and a watercolor by Mark Tobey, and prints by Hiroshige and Jan Matulka.

Five scrapbooks, 1928-1979, contain newspaper clippings, miscellaneous printed items, and a small number of photographs and letters. Three volumes document his career as an artist and museum director. One consists of biographical information and items designed by Inverarity, and another concerns publication and marketing of his monograph Art of the Northwest Coast Indians.

Sound recordings consist of interviews and conversations. An extensive interview with Inverarity about his life and career was conducted by Craig Gilborn in 1990. Bruce and Jane Inverarity in conversation with former colleague Ernie Johnson and his wife Helen about his departure from the Museum of International Folk Art were recorded in 1980. Also included is a 1981 conversation with Grace T. Stevenson containing references to Mark Tobey and Morris Graves.

Printed material includes many items about or produced by the WPA Federal Art Project. Among the items written by Inverarity are many articles on a wide variety of topics, his book Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, and two published portfolios. Printed material by other authors includes articles, books and reports about or mentioning Inverarity, and books designed or illustrated by him. Among the miscellaneous printed items are catalogs and brochures of the schools where Inverarity taught and studied, and a few ephemeral items designed by him.

Photographs are of art work, people, places, the Washington State WPA Federal Art Project, and miscellaneous subjects. All photographs known to be by Inverarity are clearly marked. Art work includes views of Inverarity's collection of his own work and that of other artists hanging in his home. Photographs of people include artists, friends, colleagues, and various groups. Of special interest are Inverarity's portraits of artists, among them Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Morris Graves, Hilaire Hiler, Rico Le Brun, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning, and Mark Tobey. Photographs of places include the museums where Inverarity was director, places in which he lived, and travel pictures. Of note are a large group of photographs (copy prints) taken in 1932 while studying the Haida Indians in British Columbia. Nineteenth century photographs of family homes, Europe, and South America may have been taken by his father. Photographs of the Washington State WPA Federal Arts Project are of individual works of art, exhibition installations, mosaic procedures and local art centers. Many, probably intended for display, are mounted in groups on large cardboard panels. Miscellaneous subjects include art photographs by Inverarity and the microreader he invented.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged as nine series. Correspondence is in chronological order, Biographical Information and Subject Files are arranged alphabetically by folder title. Other series have been organized into subseries and arrangement is as described in the Series Descriptions/Container List below. Unless noted otherwise, material within folders is arranged chronologically.

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following index terms:

  • Deutsch, Hilda, 1911-
  • Duchamp, Marcel, 1887-1968 -- Photographs
  • Federal Art Project (Calif.)
  • Federal Art Project (Ill.)
  • Federal Art Project (Iowa)
  • Federal Art Project (N.Y.)
  • Federal Art Project (Or.)
  • Federal Art Project (Utah)
  • Federal Art Project (Wash.)
  • Graves, Morris, 1910- -- Photographs
  • Morris, Carl, 1911-1993
  • Museum of International Folk Art (N.M.)
  • Ray, Man, 1890-1976 -- Photographs
  • Tobey, Mark
  • Art and state--Washington (State)
  • Arts administrators
  • Drawings
  • Federal aid to the arts--Washington (State)
  • Interviews
  • New Deal, 1933-1939--Washington (State)
  • Painters
  • Photographs
  • Puppet theater
  • Scrapbooks
  • Sketchbooks
  • Sound recordings
  • United States--Economic conditions, 1918-1945--Washington (State)
  • Works of art


Robert Bruce Inverarity donated his papers to the Archives in several installments between 1965 and 1993. Additional papers were received from his estate in 1999. He also loaned a small number of additional drawings and sketches for microfilming which were returned to him. A few of these drawings were included with the papers he subsequently donated to the Archives of American Art.

Separated and Related Materials

Originals of most of the drawings and sketches loaned by Mr. Inverarity were returned to him after filming and were not subsequently donated. This material is available on 35 mm microfilm reel D/NDA/I, frames 392-409.

How the Collection was Processed

The collection received minimal processing at some point after donation and portions of it were filmed on reels 1121, 1130, D/NDA/1 and NDA-16. The entire collection was fully processed, arranged and described by Catherine S. Gaines in 2005. Researchers should note that the arrangement of the collection as described in this finding aid may not reflect the order of the collection on microfilm.

How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The collection is open for research. Use requires an appointment.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The Robert Bruce Inverarity papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

A portion of the collection is available on 35 mm microfilm reels 1121, 1130, D/NDA/I and NDA-16 at Archives of American Art offices and through interlibrary loan.

How to Cite this Collection

Robert Bruce Inverarity papers, circa 1840s-1997. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory