Disposal of the New Langton Arts Archive by Renny Pritikin

In February of 2008 New Langton Arts’ curator Maria del Carmen Carrion invited the Mexican artists Gabriel Cazares and Rolando Flores, who work together under the name Tercerunquinto, to be artists in residence. Tercerunquinto operated under the rubric of institutional critique. What they literally did was to box up Langton’s entire archive, place the boxes on sawhorses in the gallery and title their installation, “New Langton Arts Archive for Sale: A Sacrificial Act.” Langton was already in its final days, though nobody knew that at the time. The artists were wise enough to intuit that what was needed was a gesture of summing up, of a frank public evaluation of the meaning of success, legacy and service. It was ostensibly a simple proposal: sell the only tangible asset of the organization, its archival history, or memory, to help underwrite a year or so of continued existence. A spirited debate ensued both at a public panel discussion at Langton, and on line. The spectrum of opinion ranged from, at one end, that Langton’s reason for existing, as they passed their 30th anniversary, no longer was compelling, and they should shut down, sell the archive, settle the debts, and let history take its course. At the other end were such figures as Megan and Rick Prelinger, legendary San Francisco archival activists of the Prelinger Library, who argued that archives are most valuable for stimulating future action, not for preserving the past, which is consistent with the Prelinger ideology. That would be, to make the archives publicly available for artists to use as inspiration for future work, to be generative not academically nostalgic. In the end, both camps saw their arguments partially fulfilled after the doors closed in the summer of 2009.

At that time the organization had collapsed; the last Executive Director, Sandra Percival, had resigned and only a handful of Board members remained. It fell upon the two most committed members, Paul Dresher, the musician and composer, who had been on the Board as its music curator for over twenty-five years, and the attorney Lisette Sell. Paul took responsibility for the physical assets and Lisette did so for the legal arrangements. There were outstanding debts of between 90 and 130 thousand dollars, mostly back rent, unpaid salary, and bank charges on a line of credit. Paul brought his crew (being a touring musician) and over a three-day period they emptied the gallery of its theater equipment (risers, lights, sound equipment, chairs) and the archive, which he stored in his ensemble’s storage space. He gave away some of the equipment to other non-profits, and was able to realize some nine thousand dollars in sales. This money went to pay for the costs of closing down. Paul de Marinis, also a former Langton Board member and musician, and now a professor at Stanford, told Dresher that he thought Stanford might be interested in the archive. Dresher had previously approached the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, who were interested, but had no budget. Stanford, it turned out, had a commitment to archiving local arts organizations, and had acquired the archive of La Mamelle, a Langton sister organization that had closed much earlier after the death of its founder, Carl Loeffler.

Stanford asked Dresher and Sell to organize the archive for a visit. This was a mammoth undertaking, which they should be acknowledged for. Stanford asked for the material to be organized by date, genre and category: audiotape, publications, files, music, poetry, visual art, etc. Dresher could not classify everything, even trying to use the services of the Internet Archive but their software wasn’t able to dig deep enough into the Langton web site to be of help. In the end Stanford officials made two separate visits to decide if they wanted the archive and how much they would pay for it. The Stanford figures who they worked with included Jerry McBride, the music librarian; Peter Blank, the arts and culture librarian, and Anna Fishaut of the art and architecture library. They requested that the large collection of Langton’s publications be organized into as many complete sets as could be reasonably assembled. To do this, Dresher and Sell organized the remaining board members and a few friends, set up numerous tables in the Dresher Ensemble storage space and spent most of a day organizing all the publications, in the end assembling approximately 50 sets of material, with one copy of each item as was possible. After all this, there remained several dozen unopened boxes of publications. After this final hoop they had to dive through, Stanford offered $45,000. Everyone was very excited to get that much, which enabled Langton to distribute the funds among the entities owed money, and who were glad to get around forty cents on the dollar.

After the agreement was executed by both Langton and Stanford, Stanford sent a truck and crew and they collected the entire archive including - in addition to these collated sets of publications - all business and employment records, board minutes, extensive curatorial records including communications with artists, artist contracts and agreements, photographic documentation of exhibitions and performances, and the comprehensive audio and video archive of the musical, performance and poetry/literary programs of the organization. This live performance documentation was of particular interest to Stanford.

Stanford kept two of the fifty sets for their archive, and gave away most of the others to partner University libraries and other arts research centers around the country. Thus the twin goals of a secure home for the materials and its wider distribution were achieved.

I taught a graduate class at California College of the Arts around 2012 that utilized the video archives of several local alternative spaces: Cinematheque, Southern Exposure, and others. The students put on an evening’s screening of the highlights, as well as documented every tape made available. Similarly, the graduate curatorial program at CCA organizes an annual exhibition by its graduating class. In 2010, they chose to document La Mamelle based on highlights from the Stanford archive. It was an excellent recapitulation of La Mamelle’s early commitment to video and video distribution, as well as performance art. It is hoped that some time down the road, a similar effort might be made by scholars of the much larger archive left behind by New Langton Arts.

Renny Pritikin (Langton co-director from 1979 to 1992) This report would not have been possible without the assistance of Paul Dresher.

Contents of the New Langton Arts Archive
July 18, 2012

general view of 7 of the 8 main pallets

Pallet 1:
1 box artist files
1 portfolio with calendars of events
4 boxes lateral files: includes contracts with artists, curatorial files, duplicate publicity materials, press clippings, development files, board meeting minutes—ca. 1978-80, early 1980s, 2000s, 2005/06-08
1 box with binders of press contacts and staff procedures
1 box with press photos and contact sheets, documentation slides, slides submitted by artists
1 small box of layouts for publications
1 box of VHS: applications for NLA grants
1 box VHS, Betamax, and DATs
1 box each of literary and music cassettes, mostly 90 min. TDK
1978-1990 literary tapes, ca. 250
1978-1992 music tapes, ca. 150
1 mixed box 27 DATs, lots of CDs, 3 VHS tapes, 1 Zip drive of PR images, 2 slide trays
1 box 137 performance/artist conversation DATs
1 box artist conversations through 1996
90 cassettes for music
8 8-mm videocassettes

portfolio of event calendars, Pallet 1

literary and musical performance DATs, Pallet 1

literary performance audiocassettes, Pallet 1

Pallet 2:
Auction publicity materials
Curatorial files (similar to boxes from lateral files on Pallet 1)
1 box labeled “Archive Slides:” non-NLA images
1 box photographic documentation, 1970s
1 box photographic documentation, 1980s
2 boxes photographic documentation, 1990s
1 box photographic documentation, early 2000s

photographic documentation, 2000-04, Pallet 2

sample photographic documentation, Pallet 2

sample curatorial file with correspondence from artist Vito Acconci, Pallet 2

Pallet 3:
Duplicate publications: mailers, postcards in printers’ packaging (also represented in exhibition and publicity files), small number of duplicate catalogs

mailers, postcards, and catalogs, Pallet 3

Pallet 4:
Lateral files in oversized boxes: contracts and development, late 1980s, 1990s, 2000s
Exhibition prospectuses
Curatorial files, late 1980s

sample artist/curatorial file, Pallet 4

Pallet 5:
12 large boxes holding lateral file material:
Board meeting minutes, 1990s and 2000s with extensive contents
Correspondence, 2003
Press clippings, 2000s
Exhibition announcements, late 1980s, 1990s
Grant info
Tax files
Duplicate exhibition catalogs: Tony Labatt

Pallet 5

Pallet 6:
36 bankers boxes, including:
Exhibition contracts, 1998/99, 1999/00
Program files, 1990s, 2000s
Communication files, 2000-01 2002-03, 2003-04
1996-97 Board files
1994-96 Development files, correspondence, applications, by NLA to California Arts Council, NEA, etc.
Box of 1998 NLA benefit auction files
Potrero Nuevo Fund applications, 2003.
Extensive files on Jim Pomeroy, correspondence, slides, checklists, for 1999 Pomeroy retrospective.

Pallet 6

Pallet 7:
23 banker's boxes of catalogs: several complete, several in various stages of incompleteness
1 portfolio of posters with dups.
1 rolled list of donors, dated July 18, 1992
1 tube containing “Bruce Tomb John Randolph 1991 Installation”
1 set of posters in cardboard (“Face Up posters 2008”)
1 tube containing “Plans for Tehama St. project” (blueprints)

sample catalogs, Pallet 7

Pallet 8:
Duplicate catalogs and mailers (main catalog collection represented on Pallet 7)

Pallet 8

Pallets 9/10:
CPUs and monitors
Assorted electronic and office equipment (empty lateral files not included)

Pallets 9 and 10

Renny Pritikin was born in New York City, and received a BA from New School College, NYC, and an MA from San Francisco State in Interdisciplinary Arts. He was co-director of New Langton Arts in San Francisco from 1979 to 1986 and executive director from 1986 until 1992. He was chief curator at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 1992 to 2004. He was director of the Nelson Gallery and Fine Arts Collection at UC Davis from 2004 until 2012. He was chief curator of the The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 until 2019. Career highlights include a lecture series in Japanese museums as a guest of the State Department in 1995. That same year he was a Koret Israel Prize winner and traveled extensively in Israel. In 2002 he was the curator for the United States exhibition at the Cuenca, Ecuador Biennal. In 2003 he received a Fulbright Fellowship to lecture in museums throughout New Zealand. He was a senior adjunct professor in the curatorial practices graduate program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco from its inception in 2003 until 2015. Pritikin is the author of four published books of poetry, most recently A Quiet in Front of the Best Western, (2015).