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About the Collections and Oral History Program
Our resources serve as reference for countless dissertations, exhibitions, catalogs, articles, and books on American art and artists, and preserve the untold stories that—without a central repository such as the Archives—might have otherwise been lost.
Our vast holdings are a vital resource to anyone interested in American culture over the past 200 years and consist of more than 20 million letters, diaries, scrapbooks, manuscripts, financial records, photographs, films, and audiovisual recordings of artists, dealers, collectors, critics, scholars, museums, galleries, associations, and other art world figures. The Archives also houses the largest collection of oral histories anywhere on the subject of art.
Founded on the belief that the public needs free and open access to the most valuable research materials, our collections are available to all who wish to consult original papers at our research centers or use our reference services remotely every year, and to millions who visit us online to consult digitized collections.
The Archives is still growing! Each year, our collecting specialists travel the country seeking the papers of artists, dealers, and collectors, and once new collections are acquired, professional archivists preserve the materials and create easy-to-use guides.
Through collecting, preserving, and providing access to our collections, the Archives inspires new ways of interpreting the visual arts in America and allows current and future generations to piece together the nation’s rich artistic and cultural heritage.
The Archives of American Art has one of the oldest and most respected oral history collections in the country. Since 1958, our Oral History Program has preserved the distinct voices and human memory of the American art world in more than 2,300 interviews. The purpose of the Archives’ Oral History Program is to create unique, lengthy exchanges between interviewers and narrators, conversations that yield a richness of detail and a sense of character not available in other primary sources. These recordings chronicle the great diversity of the American art scene, augmenting and refining our perception of individual artists, dealers, critics, and curators and their social and professional worlds. Common themes, such as artists' educational backgrounds, working methods, sources of inspiration, technical innovations, and issues of patronage emerge across artistic mediums and across generations.
With seed money from the Ford Foundation, the Archives set out in 1958 to record the life stories of the artists, collectors, dealers, and others who have shaped the visual arts in the United States. At that time, there were a number of living artists whose memories stretched back to the early 20th century. The first taped interviews were with painters Abraham Walkowitz, (1878–1965), Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), and Edward Hopper (1882–1967). They not only led distinguished and influential careers, but all three had also participated in the landmark Armory Show of 1913, the first large-scale exhibition of modern art in the United States. Their spoken reminiscences and observations of this event would be of obvious benefit to present and future historians. These first three interviews point out the unpredictability of a free and open dialogue with an interviewee: Walkowitz commented on the principal organizers of the Armory show; Sheeler remembered the collectors who purchased works from the show; and Hopper's interviewer did not ask any questions about the Armory Show. While collectively these interviews contribute to a fuller understanding of the past, each is unique, giving a sense of immediacy and revealing a richness of detail and character not available in written records.
In other interviews Josef Albers answered the question, "Why squares;" Ilya Bolotowsky recalled the Russian Revolution; Leo Castelli described his first American curatorial effort, the Ninth Street Show of 1951; Marcel Duchamp drew a distinction between found objects and his "readymades;" Roy Lichtenstein commented on humor as a creative catalyst; and Katharine Kuh talked about her gallery in Chicago as the lone outpost for modern art in the mid-1930s. As these examples demonstrate, the Archives’ oral history program preserves life stories and first-hand accounts that are central to the history of American art.
The Archives' Oral History Program was modeled after the Columbia University Center for Oral History. Like many other programs, we have kept up with best practices in the field while attempting to produce more interviews, better, and faster, and with fewer resources. While we typically produce in-depth oral histories in multiple sessions, we have also focused interviews around particular issues or moments in art history. In 2001, we began providing access to oral history transcripts online. We are currently exploring ways to provide access to the audio online and ways to use crowdsourcing for transcription and indexing.
Within the Oral History Program, the Archives of American Art has produced focused initiatives with separate but interrelated interviews exploring a specific theme, time period, or geographic region. Major oral history initiatives include:
- The Nanette L. Laitman Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America
- Elizabeth Murray Oral History of Women in the Visual Arts Project
- The New Deal and the Arts
- Mark Rothko and His Times
- Viola Frey Oral History Project
- The Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project
- Chicago Art and Artists: Oral History Project
- Archives of American Art and the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Art Reference Library Oral History Project
- US General Services Administration, Design Excellence and the Arts Oral History Project
- Pandemic Oral History Project
Over the years, the Oral History Program has been made possible by the generosity of many funders. Our major oral history funders over time include:
- A G Foundation
- Art Dealers Association of America
- Artists’ Legacy Foundation
- The Brown Foundation, Inc.
- California Arts Council
- Ford Foundation
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation
- Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation
- Jewish Communal Fund of New York
- John Sloan Memorial Foundation
- Keith Haring Foundation
- Lannan Foundation
- The Mark Rothko Foundation
- New York State Council on the Arts
- Pasadena Art Alliance
- The Pew Charitable Trusts
- Ruth Cole Kainen Grant
- Save America's Treasures
- Terra Foundation for American Art
- Warner Communications
- Widgeon Point Charitable Foundation
- William & Mildred Lasdon Foundation
- Wyeth Endowment for American Art
Research and reference services provides help finding, accessing, and using the collections at the Archives of American Art.
Original material can be consulted by appointment in our Washington, D.C. Headquarters.
Select holdings are available on microfilm at the Archives' offices in Washington, D.C. and at our New York Office.
Copies of unrestricted microfilm materials can be obtained through one of our affiliated research centers.