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Betty Parsons Gallery records and personal papers, 1916-1991, bulk 1946-1983

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Kathleen Brown, Jennifer Meehan, and Stephanie Ashley
Scope and Contents
The Betty Parsons Gallery records and personal papers measure 61.1 linear feet and date from 1916 to 1991, with the bulk of the material dating from 1946-1983. Records provide extensive documentation of the gallery's operations from its inception in 1946 to its closing in 1983 and of the activities of Betty Parsons as one the leading art dealers of contemporary American Art in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Over one third of the of the collection is comprised of artists files containing correspondence, price lists, and printed materials. Additional correspondence is with galleries, dealers, art institutions, private collectors, and the media. Also found are exhibition files, exhibition catalogs and announcements, sales records, stock inventories, personal financial records, and photographs. Betty Parsons's personal papers consist of early curatorial files, pocket diaries, personal correspondence, and evidence of her own artwork, including sketchbooks, and files documenting her personal art collection. Personal papers also include personal photographs.
Artists files, the largest and most extensive series, consist of a wide variety of documents, including biographical materials, correspondence with or related to the artist, exhibition catalogs and announcements, sales and expense invoices, clippings, price lists, and photographs of the artist, exhibitions, and artwork. The files reflect Parsons's close personal relationships with certain artists, particularly Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. Extensive documentation is also found for Forrest Bess, William Congdon, Paul Feeley, Thomas George, Alexander Liberman, Seymour Lipton, Richard Pousette-Dart, Jesse Reichek, and Jack Youngerman. Historians and researchers will find these files to be an invaluable resource both in tracing Betty Parsons's role in promoting Abstract Expressionism and researching individual artists.
Exhibition files primarily document the gallery's infrequent group or themed exhibitions. Of particular note are the files on The Ideographic Picture, which was organized by Barnett Newman and included his work, as well as that of Pietro Lazzari, Boris Margo, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, and Clyfford Still. Price lists, artist biographies and exhibition schedules are housed in the general exhibition files. Loan exhibition files provide documentation of artwork borrowed by other galleries or institutions for exhibitions, as well as shows outside of the gallery that were organized by Betty Parsons. Also found are gallery exhibition guest books, and announcements and catalogs.
Gallery correspondence is primarily with galleries and dealers, museums, arts organizations, and collectors. Scattered letters from artists are also found, although the bulk of the artists' correspondence is filed in the Artists Files. Also found here are memoranda and letters between Betty Parsons and her staff that contain detailed information concerning Parsons's schedule and gallery activities. Similar correspondence is found amongst the correspondence files within the series Betty Parsons papers.
Appraisal and conservation files include correspondence, appraisal invoices, forms, and appraisal requests and other information from the Art Dealers Association of America, and conservation invoices and reports. The majority of the appraisal records contain information about the specific works of art, including artist, title, date, current owner and the estimated value at the time of the request. Conservation records document conservation treatments undertaken by outside conservators to gallery stock.
Sales, purchases, stock and inventory are well documented in the sales and inventory records. The records provide detailed information about individual sales, prices of individual pieces of artwork, consignments, and loans. Most sales records also include detailed information about the buyer and are a valuable resource for provenance research. Files documenting the general administration, routine business operations, and financial transactions (not individual sales) of the gallery are housed in the general business and financial records. These records include ledgers, receipts, tax records, and banking records. There is some limited information about works of art scattered amongst the receipts and in the "in/out slips" files. Legal records house general legal documents and those concerning specific lawsuits. Of particular note is the file detailing the lawsuit between Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis over the fifth floor of 24 West 57th Street.
The remainder of the collection consists of Betty Parsons's personal papers which document her career prior to opening her own gallery, her work as an artist, and her personal art collection.
Some information about Parsons's work prior to opening her own gallery is found in the early curatorial files she retained from her curatorial and administrative work at the Wakefield Gallery and the Mortimer Brandt Gallery. Clippings, correspondence, announcements, exhibition lists and exhibition files are found. For both positions, she kept only the exhibition files for a small group of exhibitions organized around a specific theme, the most notable being the exhibition of Pre-Columbian Sculpture at the Wakefield Gallery.
Biographical materials include copies of her biography, family genealogies, photographs of Parsons, interviews with Colette Roberts and WYNC radio, memberships, photographs, and ephemera, including a collection of programs and invitations from events that she attended. Throughout her life Parsons gave generously of her time to various cultural and charitable institutions and was awarded for her contributions. There are also a number of files that document her speaking engagements, her participation as a juror in numerous juried exhibitions, charitable work, and awards that she received.
Parsons's personal correspondence files reflect how deeply Parsons's life was intertwined with the gallery. There are letters from museum directors, dealers, artists seeking representation, and personal letters from artists with whom she had close personal relationships, most notably Larry Bigelow, Alexander Calder, William Condon, and Ad Reinhardt. There are also letters from the English artist Adge Baker, with whom Parsons was romantically involved. Correspondence also includes several files of postcards and Christmas cards.
Pocket diaries and engagement calendars, spanning from 1933-1981, record social engagements, meetings, vacations, and telephone numbers. Also found are circa two linear feet of notebooks and sketchbooks, many of which are annotated with addresses, poetry, journal entries, and other observations of people, places, and travels. Writings by others include writings about Betty Parsons or the Betty Parsons Gallery, such as Lawrence Alloway's unpublished typescript titled "An American Gallery" and other topics.
Printed material consists of exhibition announcements and catalogs, art magazines, and newspaper and magazine clippings about Betty Parsons, her family and acquaintances, artists, and other art related topics, coupled with a miscellaneous selection of clippings, and a video recording, on topics that presumably captured Parsons's attention.
Personal art work records document Betty Parsons's career as an artist through inventories, group and solo exhibitions files, price lists, appraisals, sales and consignment invoices. Photographs are primarily reproductions of her works of art, although there are scattered photographs of exhibition installations.
Betty Parsons's private art collection files document her extensive personal collection of art that included works by Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Romare Bearden, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, in addition to Amlash sculpture from ancient Persia and primitive sculpture from New Hebrides. These files include inventories, lists, exhibition records, sales and purchase invoices, and photographs. There are also files for donations and loans from Parsons's personal collection to museums and fund raising auctions for several non-profit institutions.
Finally, the personal financial records provide information about the Parsons's family finances and her personal financial success as an art dealer. In addition to her own investments, Parsons inherited shares in family investments through the estates of her parents, J. Fred Pierson, Jr. and Suzanne Miles Pierson, and younger sister, Emily Rayner. Real estate files include correspondence, utility bills, receipts, area maps, and land plots for houses in Sheepscot, Maine and St. Maartens, Netherlands Antilles. Tax returns, ledger worksheets, receipts, banking statements, deposit slips, and cancelled checks are among the other financial records.
The gallery donated some records in 1974, many of which had been loaned earlier for microfilming. The bulk of the collection was donated in 1984 and 1986 by William Rayner and Christopher Schwabacher, executors of the Estate of Betty Parsons. Additional material was donated by William Rayner in 1998 and Christopher Schwabacher in 2017. Additional material was donated in 2018 by the Lee Hall estate via Carolyn Crozier and Deborah Jacobson, co-executors. Hall was Parsons's biographer and had the material in her possession at the time of Parsons's death. An additional photograph of Parons and Marie Carr Taylor by Henri Cartier-Bresson was donated in 2021 by Mary Carpenter, who inherited the photograph from her mother, Nan Thorton Jones, who received it as a gift from Taylor.
Separated Material
Some of the material originally loaned for microfilming in 1968 and 1969 was not included in later donations and can be viewed on microfilm reels N68/62-N68/74 and N69/105-N69/106. Loaned materials are not described in the container listing in this finding aid.
Related Material
Also found in the Archives of American Art are oral history interviews with Betty Parsons, June 4-9, 1969, by Paul Cummings, and June 11, 1981 by Gerald Silk.
Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art and The Walton Family Foundation.
Processing Information
In 2007-2008 all donations to date were merged and the collection was fully processed, arranged, and described by Jennifer Meehan and Kathleen Brown; the bulk of the records were then digitized in 2009-2010 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Additional papers donated in 2017, papers transferred from the Lee Hall papers in 2019, and a photograph donated in 2021 were arranged and described by Stephanie Ashley in 2018-2019 and 2021, and digitized in 2020-2021 with funding provided by The Terra Foundation for American Art and the Walton Family Foundation.