Curator Corner: Francine Snyder
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Below the rotunda of the landmark Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum lies the Sackler Center, a dynamic 8,200-square-foot education facility open to the public. Incorporating studio art, computer, and multimedia labs, the facility also has an exhibition space that features education-related shows that showcase the history of the museum and its collections. On the occasion of A Long-Awaited Tribute: Frank Lloyd Wright's House and Pavilion, which runs through summer 2013, Francine Snyder, Director of Library and Archives at the Guggenheim, offers an inside look at how she curated the exhibition, and her history with the museum.
How long have you been at the Guggenheim? What are your day-to-day activities as Director of Library and Archives?
I started at the Guggenheim in June 2005, so I've been here just over seven-and-a-half years. This may sound like I have a firm foothold in the institution; however, the Guggenheim Foundation began in 1937. When I think about the history in our collections and the records I deal with on a daily basis, I feel like a relative newcomer. Before the Guggenheim, I worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in their slide library, as well as at Gap Inc. in their corporate archives.
The responsibilities of the job are wide-ranging, and the day-to-day activities can vary greatly. My main objectives are in the acquisition, preservation, management, cataloging, reference, research, and promotion of resources related to the Guggenheim's history and research endeavors. In a typical week, I might lead a private tour of A Long-Awaited Tribute, review the archives intern's processing project, meet about a library storage project, or research the Event and Exhibition records in our off-site archives facility. This past week, I also collaborated with staff to select architectural drawings from the '50s for digitization, and worked with our Development Department to complete the final report for a grant project. I capped it all off with a glass of wine at the ARLIS-NY (Art Libraries Society of America) holiday party at the New York School of Interior Design.
None of the goals of the department could be accomplished without the support of its staff. Currently the department consists of an art librarian, assistant archivist, and part-time library assistant. They keep the library and archives running smoothly by being readily available to assist staff doing research, and by ensuring that new acquisitions to the library are cataloged and indexed.
What is the scope of the library and archives? How are the materials used, both internally for institution history and to educate the public?
Currently, the library holds over 45,000 volumes related to modern and contemporary art, architecture, and photography. This includes over 30 active periodical subscriptions, subscriptions to academic databases, and a growing collection of artists' monographs and exhibition catalogues. The museum archives documents our institutional history through its past and present relationships with artists, events, exhibitions—the types of records within the archives differ greatly. The majority are text-based materials, including correspondence, reports, newspaper and magazine clippings, scrapbooks, memoranda, and departmental records. There are select photographs within the collection documenting research, artists, and early exhibition history. In addition, the archives also has a small collection of wonderful films, such as early footage of founding director Hilla Rebay with Solomon R. Guggenheim, as well as of the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and early exhibition openings. These collections exist to support the research of the staff and document the Guggenheim history in books such as The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Making of the Modern Museum and its accompanying interactive time line and architectural tour.
How has digitization changed the way our materials are archived and presented to the public?
Digitization has worked wonders for extending the reach of our collections. Previously, in order to view library publications or archives collections, you had to travel to the location of the items. Given the global scope of our staff and researchers, we've been experimenting with different ways to use digitization to promote the collections.
One way that we've reached out to the general public is through our Findings blog. The blog started several years ago in conjunction with a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant project that provided us the luxury of working daily to arrange and describe four archives collections from the first 50 years of the Guggenheim's history. During this process, we kept stumbling across unique, interesting items that hadn’t been seen in many years. For example, within the Hilla Rebay records is Dwinell Grant's film score for Uncompleted Composition in 4 Minor written in the early 1940s. This multipage score colorfully maps out the animation sequence and the rhythm of color and light for a proposed nonobjective film. Another fun finding was a group of photographs of modern art-themed Bonwit-Teller window displays in 1947. In an effort to draw visitors to the nearby Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the precursor to the Guggenheim), Rebay loaned paintings from the collection to Bonwit-Teller for their displays, effectively portraying nonobjective art as the most modern and fashionable art of its time. Artist correspondence also has a particularly high “wow, look at this” factor, and the correspondence of James Lee Byars is no exception. Crumpled tissue, glitter, decorative script, and metallic paper were so commonplace during his 20-year correspondence with Thomas M. Messer that at one point Messer's assistant asked Byars to telephone instead of writing. As fun as it was to show these items to each other, we quickly realized it would be even more fun to post them online.
Most recently, the Guggenheim Library worked collaboratively with the Whitney Museum of American Art's library to digitize highlights from our founding libraries. The project, Art Resources from the Mid-20th Century, focuses on the art publications used by Hilla Rebay and Juliana Force during their respective tenures as directors of the Guggenheim and Whitney museums. On this website, over 600 publications were digitized and are freely available via the Internet Archive.
How did A Long-Awaited Tribute: Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian House and Pavilion come about? Why was now the right time for such an exhibition?
Interestingly enough, A Long-Awaited Tribute can be linked to a digitization project. In late 2005, we received a grant from National Film Preservation Foundation to digitize five films related to the construction of the Guggenheim Museum. When the films were returned, it was discovered that one of them was actually of the 1953 construction of a Wright-designed exhibition pavilion and model Usonian house, which previously occupied the site where the Guggenheim now stands. This 20-minute film is one of my favorite parts of the exhibition, and shows the apprentices from Taliesin working on the structures, how the buildings were situated, and Wright himself walking throughout the site. As soon as I saw this film, I became fascinated with the event. Several years and many hours of research later, the project came together with the help of the Education Department with support from Richard Armstrong and Nancy Spector. I also have to commend our Graphic Design department, who were instrumental in designing an engaging display and beautiful reproductions.
What is included in the exhibition? How can these archive materials illuminate Frank Lloyd Wright's design philosophy and the city's reaction to his ideas?
The current exhibition, which highlights the pavilion and model Usonian house which were built for the 1953 Sixty Years of Living Architecture exhibition, includes reproductions of films, architectural drawings, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, and correspondence. Learning about this event was a discovery and the exhibition uses the items from the archives to allow the viewer to discover the story as well. It starts with a letter from Frank Lloyd Wright to James Johnson Sweeney, the Guggenheim's second director, pitching the idea of building a pavilion and Usonian house. Included are Wright sketches on Plaza stationary showing his preliminary ideas. This is followed by construction documentation, photographs and ephemera from the 1953 opening, and details on each of the buildings.
The 1953 exhibition, Sixty Years of Living Architecture, was a runaway success. It was the first comprehensive retrospective of Frank Lloyd Wright's work and crowds lined up to attend. The press wrote continually about Wright's designs, particularly the model Usonian house. To paraphrase Wright, the exhibition featured his work but was much more than that. It illustrated to America how modern architecture had evolved.
Are there any “hidden gems” in the Library and Archives that you treasure or find particularly fascinating?
Absolutely. A really fun one is an early subway poster. I'm sure you've seen the current subway posters announcing our exhibitions—that's nothing new; but we also had them in the '40s. The one we have features “Joe Go...Seeing New York”—who seems to have been a common figure on New York transit at the time—on his way to the Museum of Non-Objective Painting.
Some of my favorite items from our early history are two portraits—one of Hilla Rebay, the other of Solomon R. Guggenheim—that were taken and printed by László Moholy-Nagy. They were friends and the casualness of the portraits makes it obvious that they were taken during an outing. It's a great illustration of the intersection of art and friendship. In the same vein, a letter between Alexander Calder and Thomas M. Messer shows how closely they worked together during the planning and execution of Calder's 1964–65 retrospective. Messer was integrally involved in the process, even visiting Calder's studio in France. When, at one point in the process, Messer failed to respond to one of Calder's inquiries in a timely fashion, Calder closed his letter with a “Where the hell are you?” in his typical bold black brushstrokes.
Finally, simply because the color is so stunning, I love a slide we recently discovered that shows an installation view from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting Exhibition of Permanent Collection in 1951. Prior to this, we only had black-and-white views. Having been stored in the dark for decades, the slide is so lush that it looks like you could walk right into the gallery.
Are there other archive exhibitions or projects to look forward to in the future?
The Library and Archives Department has several projects on its horizon. In January, we will start an initiative to analyze and address records that are born digital, such as e-mails, word documents, or spreadsheets. These are the archival documents of the future and we want to assure that the “hidden gems” of today will exist 50 years from now. It's a bit daunting—yet critical.
Many of our projects require funding, so things are not always set in stone, but I have a “wish list.” The archives has amazing documentation on the Guggenheim planning, construction, additions, and renovations. Select highlights are available for research; however, we have over 3,000 drawings, hundreds of photographs, and construction records that await digitization. Likewise, information and materials related to our past public programs could be greatly expanded. We have an incredible amount of audio and video, most of which was recorded and stored using the standards of the time, meaning we have media still on VHS, Zip disks, even cassettes. It would be incredible to comprehensively digitize them and have them available to view online.
We've also been floating ideas for another archives-based exhibition in the Sackler Center next fall. With the vastness of our collection, there’s always an opportunity to explore and learn more about a particular subject or historical period of the foundation, leaving me the freedom to experiment with different ways of presenting my findings to the public.
Francine Snyder will lead an Archivist's Eye tour of A Long-Awaited Tribute on Friday, February 22, at 2 pm.