Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Acquires the Papers of Noted Critic Robert Hughes

By the Archives
March 16, 2022
Black and white photograph of Robert Hughes. He stands in the upper left-hand corner of the photo against a hazy backdrop of a city with a white fence behind him. To men stand in the foreground with a large video camera.

Robert Hughes shooting The Shock of the New, ca. 1980. Robert Hughes papers, 1958–2012, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, is pleased to announce that it has acquired the papers of noted critic, writer, and broadcaster Robert Hughes. Measuring approximately 28 linear feet, the collection documents Hughes’s life and multifaceted career through extensive personal and professional correspondence; notebooks; drafts of articles, lectures, documentaries, and book projects; audio and video recordings; photographs; press clippings; and other personal records.

“It is a privilege and an honor to preserve the legacy of Robert Hughes and his decades of critical writings. We are grateful to Robert Hughes’s widow Doris Downes for this important donation and for her efforts to organize and transfer these significant materials, especially under the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Liza Kirwin, interim director, Archives of American Art.

Robert Hughes (1938–2012) was born and educated in Australia, where he began his career as an artist, poet, and writer. In 1964, he decamped to Europe, began writing for prominent British newspapers, and published two books, The Art of Australia (1966) and Heaven and Hell in Western Art (1968). In 1970, Hughes moved to New York to become chief art critic for TIME magazine, an influential position he held for more than three decades. In addition to his criticism, Hughes was widely known for the many television documentaries he wrote and produced on art, architecture, and cultural history.

Hughes’s first documentary, “The Shock of the New,” was an eight-part series that sought to demystify the development of modern art by placing it in the context of the cultural and social history of its time. The series was seen by more than 25 million viewers when it aired on the BBC and PBS in 1980–81, and a best-selling book that accompanied the series quickly became a popular reference work. Hughes’s 1997 book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America was both a critical and popular success and was subsequently turned into a six-part documentary series.

For a prominent professional critic, Hughes had an unusual relationship with the world of contemporary art. In a 1997 New Yorker profile, Robert S. Boynton described Hughes as “the most famous art critic in the world,” while at the same time acknowledging that “Hughes’s relationship to the art world is a lot like TIME’s relationship to Manhattan: physically smack in the center but culturally at the margins.” Although he maintained close friendships with numerous artists and lived for decades in a Soho loft, Hughes eschewed the art world’s social rituals, choosing to play the role of the outsider in the world he wrote about—in elegant if not necessarily laudatory prose—on a weekly basis.

Jacob Proctor, the Archives of American Art’s Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector, describes the significance of the acquisition: “With its extensive holdings of the papers of art critics from the mid to late twentieth century, the Archives of American Art provides the richest context in which to study Hughes’s complicated legacy. In addition to studying the evolution of Hughes’s own work, researchers will be able to trace the many points of intersection, both public and private, between Hughes and his contemporaries.”

Hughes’s widow Doris Downes noted: “Robert loved America and was captivated by the evolution of American art. Revisiting his life and work with Jacob brought new insights into some of the mysteries that predated our marriage. The faces in old photographs and cryptic messages in his correspondence began to coalesce into a kind of insider’s history of American art during his lifetime. I firmly believe that the Archives of American Art is the right home for this collection.”

Joining more than 30 million items spanning more than 200 years of American art history, the collection will be preserved alongside those of critics such as Dore Ashton, Gregory Battcock, David Bourdon, John Canaday, Suzi Gablik, Emily Genauer, E. C. Goossen, Clement Greenberg, John Jonas Gruen, Thomas Hess, Max Kozloff, Philip Leider, Lucy Lippard, Elizabeth McCausland, Robert Pincus-Witten, Harold Rosenberg, Aline Saarinen, and Irving Sandler, among others.

Don’t miss the Archives of American Art’s Unboxed Lunch series. The next installment will feature the Robert Hughes papers on Friday, March 18th at 12pm ET/9am PT on Zoom! Register here: 

About the Archives of American Art

Founded in 1954, the Archives of American Art fosters advanced research through the accumulation and dissemination of primary sources, unequaled in historical depth and breadth, that document more than 200 years of the nation’s artists and art communities. The Archives provides access to these materials through its two research centers, exhibitions, and publications, including the Archives of American Art Journal, the longest-running scholarly journal in the field of American art. An international leader in the digitization of archival collections, the Archives also makes more than three million images freely available online. The oral history collection includes more than 2,500 audio interviews, the largest accumulation of in-depth, first-person accounts of the American art world. Visit the Archives’ website at

Media Contact: Sarah Bohannan | Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution |