Friday, March 5, 2010

An Open Letter: James Porter Archival Collection Auctioned ($50,400)

Dear Artists, Art Historians, Art Critics, Art Collectors…,

We all have an accumulation of papers, notes, cards, photographs, letters, emails, journals, diaries, memorabilia, receipts, drafts of publications, artist statements, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, contracts, applications, and etc...; all of which document our role and activities in the art world. The accumulation of these items define to varying degrees the role that we have played and the impact that we have had in strengthening African American art or even the broader American art scene. Our individual or collective  involvement could be directly related to creating fine art; defining, capturing, and interpreting art history; collecting fine art; building a collection of fine art books and other print media; and capturing oral histories. Our "stuff and things" are a part of the materials that document our involvement in the fine arts, and they can serve as a catalyst to document the culture, history, and role of a people.

Archival collections are the basic and essential means to examine the past. By looking at old documents through contemporary eyes allow us to reacquaint ourselves with past documentation and possibly discover that which has been historically unseen or even unappreciated. Through these documents there is always a relevancy from the past to the present that has the potential to raise questions on historical views, answer our questions of those past histories, and point us in the right direction. As an art librarian, I have noticed a historic gap in the documentation of the presence and role of the black artist in the field of the visual arts, particularly in comparison to other fields of study, such as music and the other performing arts. I refer to this gap and lack of documentation in the visual arts as the missing link in the history of African American history and culture.

All of us who are actively involved in the visual arts have the foundation of an archival collection and the contents of that collection, consisting of notes on pieces of paper, letters to friends, family, and acquaintances, receipts, doodles, drafts of articles, legal documents, contracts, and the like, could be very valuable pieces of documentation that might help connect dots relating to our involvement in the art world. For instance, letters, both personal and professional, can reflect years of friendship, years of mentoring, and years of making memories.

Because of my training and close work with archivists and archives, I was very interested in one of the lots auctioned in the Swann Galleries, African Americana 2010 Auction on February 25, 2010. I am referring to the James Porter Archival Collection, Lot 141 (Swann Galleries) Such a body of material, as the Porter Archival Collection, adds a substantial body of creditable documentation to the existing body of literature documenting the role of black art and the historical role of blacks in American art that is currently available in Special Collections (Libraries and Archives) around the country. The Porter Collection fills a much needed gap in the history of the visual arts. Its value far exceeds the $50,400 (inclusive of Buyer's Premium) realized cost from the auction. 

Few of us would question the necessity for collecting materials from the past and having them organized and accessible so that current and future researchers may use those materials to further studies in this field. But it is unsettling to think that collections such as this (Porter Archival Collection) could end up in private hands simply as a potential monetary investment. My hope is that these materials have found a home in which they will be preserved for posterity, making them accessible to the larger public, and in so doing furthering the documentation of not only African American art, but enhancing the broader field of American visual art. I remain hopeful that the collection has been acquired by an institution that values and supports the importance of documentation, and one that supports and encourages research and investigation that allows the accurate presentation of the role of black art/artists in the overall history of American art.

As an African American artist, historian, critic, collector, and etc. have you personally thought of how your collection of materials, the "stuff and things," will be archived? Lets pause to think how we might further the cause of African American art by finding an institutional home for future materials that may come up for auction or simply start the thinking process of where we will  place our materials.

Rayford W. Logan, former historian and professor at Howard University is attributed to saying, “black history was lost, strayed, or stolen.” So it is important for institutions to provide a home for those “lost” pieces as they are found; to provide balanced information for that history that has “strayed;” and to help researchers correct through revisionist history that which was “stolen.” The retrieval of this history and the accurate interpretation of it, including the visual arts will revolutionize education at all levels by adding new information, new questions, and new energy to a traditional perspective of our fine art history.

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