Acquisitions: Athena Tacha Papers

By Mary Savig
July 16, 2020
Detail of photograph of slide box belonging to Athena Tacha

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue (vol. 59, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at

Athena Tacha and crew construction Streams in Oberlin, Ohio in 1976
Photograph of Athena Tacha constructing Streams, Oberlin, Ohio, September 1976. Photographer unknown. Athena Tacha Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Writing in her journal on May 17, 1974, Athena Tacha observed, “I was thinking the other day that everybody creates their own measure of time. I mean that time runs differently for different people.” Tacha’s career as a sculptor was about to expand into large-scale, public projects. In 1975, she committed her individual artist grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create Streams (1976) for a park in Oberlin, Ohio. A sculptural array of steps and stones descending toward the local Plum Creek, Streams brought people to the water’s edge, their movements and thoughts in cadence with the flowing water. In the following decades, Tacha’s work continued to foster immersive experiences that recalibrated one’s sense of time and place. Her papers, first collected by the Archives in 1998 with a substantial addition in 2019, document her prolific career as a multidisciplinary artist and educator. 

Photograph of slide storage box holding Athena Tacha's project slides
Slide storage box labeled “A. T. Spear, Form in Nature: Animate,” ca. 1969–2005. Athena Tacha Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Voluminous public art project files and related images show how Tacha shifted scales of perception. Several boxes of slides contain abstractions of nature such as clouds, lichen, spider webs, and sand waves. From these sources she imagined monumental mazes, gardens, walkways, arcades, and memorials that pushed viewers to see beyond themselves. As Tacha noted about Streams in a 1999 interview, now preserved in the collection, “We’ll all die—we won’t necessarily disappear, just merge with the universe. We really have to be not afraid of it and to understand the immensity and grandeur and beauty of it all. . . .  So, ultimately that is the message—look outside of yourself and enjoy what you see.” The Archives’ collection details the complex procedures through which Tacha’s transformative visions were realized, in the form of proposal revisions, drawings and plans, governmental and legal communications, materials research, labor deliberations, and detailed recommendations on maintenance. Pivotal project files include Green Acres, a biomorphic courtyard design for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton (commissioned 1985, completed 1987); Connections, a comprehensive two-acre park design in Philadelphia (commissioned 1981, completed 1992); and the ambitious Muhammad Ali Plaza, in Louisville (designed 2003, completed 2007). Additional files document dozens of rejected proposals and destroyed artworks like the brickwork maze Marianthe, for the Fort Myers campus of the University of South Florida (completed 1986, destroyed 2000).

The Tacha Papers enhance existing collections of women artists whose contributions to sculpture (in its expanded forms) and civic art have enjoyed critical attention in recent years, among them Beverly Buchanan, Claire Falkenstein, and Nancy Holt. Finally, the papers intersect closely with those of art historian Ellen Hulda Johnson, a dear friend and Oberlin colleague. Tacha was the executor of Johnson’s estate and donated a final addition of Johnson’s papers to the Archives in late 2019.


Mary Savig is the curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art.

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