About Field Histories

About Field Histories

The purpose of FIELD HISTORIES is to tell the stories behind the successful placement of art space archives in appropriate institutional contexts, in order to encourage Common Field members to be aware of their archives’ value; and to promote creative thinking in preservation of their own materials.

Field Histories Context
a Statement by Common Field Board Member, Martha Wilson
September 2018

The critical value of archives to historians’ original research is well established. The value of some prominent experimental individual artists and groups is becoming clear: The archives of Allan Kaprow and Carolee Schneemann have been acquired by The Getty, as have the archives of Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT). Yet as artists began to blur the boundaries between disciplines after 1960, creating the “intermedia” forms of happenings, performance art, video and installation art, preservation of archival materials has become more challenging; and as the arts spaces themselves represented a rebellion against institutionalization, preservation of their own archives has often been a low priority. As Julie Ault observes in Alternative New York, 1965-1985,

"Existing documentation of…highly influential alternative art culture of the 1970s and 1980s is ephemeral, and its circulation is restricted…Because many alternative initiatives are ad hoc, time-based or anti-institutional, documentation is frequently fugitive. Accessibility is another variable…What becomes history is to some degree determined by what is archived."

While many arts spaces understand the value of their institutional archives to art and cultural history, there is insufficient infrastructure in the field to support their maintenance. In New York, Printed Matter, Inc. donated part of its institutional archives to the Archives of American Art because it moved to a new, and smaller location. CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York has undergone staff reduction due to local funding cuts, down to four from nine staff persons to envision, fundraise, publicize, mount, document and report on its programs; thus, archival documentation and preservation is not an institutional priority.

The archives of some defunct organizations have found appropriate homes; Fashion Moda’s were sold to the Downtown Collection of New York University, and those of Gran Fury and Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) reside at the New York Public Library. Some organizations have recognized the value contained in their archives and have undertaken projects to make materials accessible; for example, Skowhegan School recognized that it had a collection of audiotapes of prominent artists and produced audio collections of selected tapes, donating a set to the Library of Congress to ensure this history is preserved. But the vast majority of arts spaces do not have sufficient general operating support for routine maintenance, nor the staff expertise needed to apply for funding to undertake preservation, cataloguing and accessibility projects. We fear that the archives of some organizations have wound up in dumpsters and are lost forever to art history.