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The  Macbeth Gallery Records: A Rich Digital Resource

By Stephanie Ashley

April 25, 2018

Photograph of the first location of the Macbeth Gallery at 237 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.
Macbeth Gallery, ca. 1896 / unidentified photographer. Macbeth Gallery records, 1838-1968, bulk 1892-1953. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Macbeth Gallery records have come to feel like an old friend. They have been with me in one form or another from my very first days as a project archivist at the Archives of American Art when, in 1999, I was hired to process the Kraushaar Galleries records with a grant from the Getty Grant Program, and got my first behind-the-scenes look at the intricacies of the early twentieth century New York art market. Founded in 1892 by William Macbeth, and closed in 1954 by Robert McIntyre, William’s nephew and eventual successor, Macbeth Gallery was the first major New York art gallery devoted entirely to American painting and sculpture. Working with the collection, I quickly became aware that the Macbeth Gallery was at the center of this market.

Page from a Macbeth Gallery stock book dating from 1906 to 1909
Macbeth Gallery stock book page, 1906-1909. Macbeth Gallery records, 1838-1968, bulk 1892-1953. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As I uncovered the connections between the two galleries in exhibition, sale, and loan records, and in correspondence with and about the artists they championed, my interest in the Macbeth Gallery was further piqued by Richard Wattenmaker, director of the Archives from 1990–2005. He often stopped by my office to ask me what I was finding in the Kraushaar records, clearly keeping an eye open for anything that pertained to members of “The Eight”—a group of artists who were part of Macbeth’s landmark 1908 exhibition, and who were also consistently represented in the Kraushaar records. Richard’s enthusiasm and knowledge of those artists and the market at that time further educated me on the significance of the two galleries, and when I was asked to process the Macbeth Gallery records a couple of years later, I felt that the project dovetailed perfectly with the work I had already done. Intern Jetta Samulski, then intern Erin Kinhart, and I merged portions of the collection that had been donated separately and microfilmed, to more accurately reflect the gallery’s operations and history. Processing was completed in 2004, and a 250-page finding aid to the collection was written—one of our first to be launched electronically, fully marked up in Encoded Archival Description

Portrait of sculptor and medalist Chester Beach
In a letter found among the digitized correspondence, sculptor Chester Beach and his new wife Eleanor Hollis Beach wrote to William Macbeth from Maine on August 6, 1910, shortly before embarking on a two-year trip to Rome. He remarked how “It will be hard to leave this all. The clouds and hills and lake make sculpture more beautiful than man can make.” Chester Beach, ca. 1908 / Gertrude Käsebier, photographer. Macbeth Gallery records, 1838-1968, bulk 1892-1953. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Items from the Macbeth collection were some of the first documents to be individually digitized at the Archives, including many of the collection’s wonderful photographs of artists. When we began scanning entire collections in 2005, with funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art, we needed to test and perfect our workflows on smaller collections before tackling one as extensive as Macbeth. Nonetheless, we always felt that it would ultimately be an ideal candidate for digitization, not only because this was a collection with profound research value, but also because many of the documents within it were vulnerable to the passage of time. Much of the gallery’s outgoing correspondence was printed on highly acidic paper that crumbles to the touch. Financial and shipping records providing detailed documentation of the gallery’s financial transactions—which are a fascinating window into the art buying and collecting tendencies of the first half of the twentieth century—were housed in fragile volumes that were difficult to handle and deteriorated further with every use. Digitization would not only enhance access immeasurably, but would drastically reduce future handling of the physical items. Furthermore, while the microfilm of the collection continued to be used, the arrangement on film no longer accurately mirrored the more cohesive, updated, arrangement of the original papers, proving an access challenge to the Archive’s reference staff and researchers.

The fragile and deteriorating Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks were stabilized, rehoused, and digitized in 2015 with a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s Women’s Committee. In 2017 we were thrilled to learn that further digitization of the collection would be possible: continued funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art and The Walton Family Foundation allowed us to begin digitizing the correspondence in Series 1, which includes correspondence with so many of the major and minor American artists of the twentieth century. Further funding from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc., has made possible the digitization of the financial and shipping records, inventory records, and the Macbeth Gallery publication Art Notes, which ran from 1896–1930, and is an excellent source of information on the early history of the gallery. These efforts will continue throughout 2018 as more correspondence, and the letterpress books from Series 1 are digitized and made available online.

Page 1 of letter from Maynard Dixon to William Macbeth
Page 2 of letter from Maynard Dixon to William Macbeth
Artist Maynard Dixon sent William Macbeth a letter illustrated with a picture of himself working on a mural for the Spring Valley Water Company. "Sunol Water Temple" was completed in 1924. Maynard Dixon to William Macbeth, 1923 June 26. Macbeth Gallery records, 1838-1968, bulk 1892-1953. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

The significance of the Macbeth Gallery records remains unchanged since Garnett McCoy, curator emeritus of the Archives, wrote in his 1967 essay “The Archives of American Art,”

 

Over 70,000 items, chiefly correspondence, business papers, and photographs, faithfully reflect the operation of the art market and the shifting trends in taste during a period of radical transition. They also provide important documentation on hundreds of works of art.

 

Since the first donation of Macbeth Gallery records in 1955, many staff at the Archives of American Art have been involved in curating, processing, preserving, describing, raising funds for, scanning, and providing access to this endlessly rich collection. I am fortunate to have spent many hours working directly with the physical documents that form this treasure trove of American art history. It is immensely satisfying to now help shepherd more of the collection through the process of digitization to become an online resource for researchers worldwide.

Stephanie Ashley is a processing archivist at the Archives American Art.

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