Columns + Series, Interviews, On Archives

Chicago Artists Archive, Part 1

I have been a loyal patron of the Chicago Public Libraries for the three years that I have been living here, though I have never turned in a book on time (sorry, anyone who was looking to check out any John Hodgeman books).  Little did I know that in the Harold Washington branch there was a huge collection of information, images, statements, post cards and questionnaires from local Chicago artists.  The Chicago Artist Archive has been compiling records of artists living or working in the Chicago area since the 1940s.  These records include images, artist statements, newspaper announcements of shows, published interviews, CVs, video recordings, and show postcards, all of which is provided by the artist.  There are over 9,600 artists in this archive, some of them notable, such as Jim Nutt and Christina Ramberg, while others did not reach any level of fame or notoriety.

In preparation for my first visit to this huge collection, I visited their blog, which has a full listing of all the artists in the archive.  At random, I picked a few names that I had never heard of.  What I got was a mixed bag.  Diana Aoki’s file contained her images for a proposed installation in 1993 that dealt with the murder rate in Chicago.  Dick Fowler included some images of large-scale works he had produced as well as an interview he did about his mosaic tile paintings.  Karen Dumenil had only her CV and a crummy black and white copy of the portraits she produces.  Mary Koga included a show pamphlet that included her artist statement and a few pieces from said show.

However, the most extensive file was Phil Berkman’s.  One could trace his additions to the file by the dates of the various copies of his CV.  He had pictures of his various installations, articles from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, several artist statements, and a few show cards for good measure.  From his file I learned that he was one of the founding members of N.A.M.E. Gallery, which was Chicago’s center for avant-garde in the 1970s, and that he was a guard at the Museum of Contemporary Art for a number of years.

A few weeks ago I sat down with Leslie Patterson, Librarian 1 at the Chicago Public Library to find out how this collection came to be, where she hopes it will go, and just about everything in between.

Jes Standefer: How did the archive come to be?

Leslie Patterson: Back in the 50s they had art shows in the library, and every time someone had a show they would fill out an artist information sheet.  They started filing those away and started artists’ files on different people and collecting it over the years.  It’s kind of a traditional librarian thing to do, keeping clipping files. A lot of old libraries had that.

Two examples of the questionaire artists filled out

J.S.: How is the archive maintained/grown upon?

L.P.: We do outreach in the artistic community.  For instance, one time we went to the Senior Artist Network and gave a presentation about the archive.  We’d go to different cultural events like Creative Chicago Expo and we have a table and hand out flyers about the archive and give them to artists to try to get people to send their material in.  And we also do outreach to galleries and museums in Chicago, asking them to send us their materials so we can process them and add them.

J.S.: So the files themselves are created and kept up with by the artists and groups, or does the library create them, or is it a dual responsibility?

L.P.: There are a few people who are really dedicated about sending their stuff in but for the most part, a lot of the artists don’t know they even have a file.  We just collect information, postcards, and clippings, whatever information we can get on them, and we file it away.  With the better-known artists there is more information on them out there.  The librarians have worked really hard over the years to collect information and stuff.  We also stay on the mailing lists of all the major galleries in Chicago, so every time we get a post card it goes right in the files.

J.S.: How did you come into this position?

L.P.: Well, I just started here as a beginning Librarian 1 a few years ago and I think they just said… well, what happened was there was a woman here who worked on it for years and years and was a fantastic librarian and archivist.  She retired a few years before I was hired and it just took them a while to fill the position, so no one worked on it for a few years because everyone was busy with other things.  When I started they said they had this project if I wanted it.

J.S.: Are there are artists that you would like to see added into the archive?

L.P.: Definitely we need—and it’s great that SIFC is working with us now because I would say that the vast majority of the artists in there are older and we’re really lacking in the new generation.  The twenty-somethings. So definitely the younger artists.  We need young people.

J.S.: There isn’t one artist that you see around town and say “I need a file on you”?

L.P.: Every time I see that, I just make a file on them.  So, if I go to an opening I collect material and when I meet artists I tell them to send me things.  It’s kind of like we are the FBI and we have files on people.

J.S.: And they don’t know it.

L.P.: Exactly, I’m like, “I have a file on you and you don’t even know it.”  Yeah, it’s creepy.  But that’s what librarians do.  I sometimes do Women’s History Month here at the library, and sometimes for the programs, if we do it about art, we’ll have some older lady in the audience and she’ll say, “I’m so and so…” and I’ll be like “Whoa, I know her file.”  But you feel like it’s a celebrity, kind of.  People really do disappear and you don’t realize that when you’re living. You feel that you are making such a trace and making such a mark but once you pass on… and a lot of times we get questions every day here at the library about artists and you can’t find anything.  Zero. They’re just erased.  There wasn’t anything written about them you can locate and it’s kind of sad, but that’s the nice part about [the archive]. There is a record of this person and their life and their work.

J.S.: Even it is just one article or one image.

L.P.: Yeah, there is a trace.

J.S.: Is there any other group in Chicago that maybe isn’t really represented in the archive?

L.P.: Yeah, Tempest [SIFC] mentioned that a lot of people are doing video, and how do we get those people in the file?  This is a paper file, I mean, how do we get people on paper?

J.S.: I think one of the great things about the archive that it is paper.  You have to come to library, request the file, work with all these sheets of paper and shuffle through, which is really charming and amazing and it’s a great experience. But do you think the archive has the future or the potential to become digital?

L.P.: Definitely, that is a good goal to have.  You would want to have both.  I took an archiving class in library school and there was a guest lecturer who basically concluded that the future of archives was really paper because if you look at all the technologies, what are you going to be able to read in a hundred years, not a CD not a floppy disc.  Hopefully in paper, especially in the archival paper that we use, will last for hundreds of years.  So hopefully we will be able to have both digital and paper.

Several boxes of one artist's CDs of work.

J.S.: The nice thing that I found about the archive was that it was post cards and images, postcards that were either sent to a member at the library or given to you from the artist and images that were obviously from the artists because they were professional photographs.  And that was kind of nice to not just see print outs of the work that was obviously found on Google Image Search.

L.P.: And there’s artifactual interest, I think, in a lot of the things.  You know, they’re not just a reproduction; it’s the actual postcard with the stamp.  People aren’t really doing that anymore… sending off postcards for exhibits.  It’s Facebook invitations, and what do we do with that?

J.S.: Are there any other goals that you guys have for the archive?

L.P.: One of the incredible parts of it is this database, which [is] over 9600 people in the database now.  The database has not just what you see on the blog, which is whether they have a file, video or slides for the person, it also has citations, which is an incredible resource because otherwise there may not be a way to know about so and so in a book.  So we have this database that will tell you, here’s files, here’s videos, here’s slides and look in these five books and there is information about this person where there may not be any other information out there printed on them.

One of our really big goals is to put the database online so that everyone can use it.  The online presence has helped a lot just starting the blog that has all 9,600 names.  That blog is not an official library website but we just did it so the names would be out there, so when people are Googling they will find us.  It’s been amazing the traffic we’ve gotten from that. People email us from all over the country and even other countries because they are researching Chicago artists and Googled the name and came up with [the] blog.  Everything that makes it more accessible and more known is good.  I know there a real use and people can use the information.

J.S.: Most definitely. Is there one file, and I know there are 9000, but is there one file that you say, “You have to look at this file, you have to check it out”?

L.P.: Well, there are a couple that are interesting for different reasons.  There is sort of a grizzly one on an artist who set himself on fire and died. His name was Kenneth Walker, I think it’s Walker.  He had sort of a love affair with a pretty famous Chicago artist and was accused of stealing some of her work and then he set himself on fire on the shore of Lake Michigan.  So that’s an amazing story and we have a big file on him.

A library-related one is Temporary Services; that is an artist group that did a project with the library where they surreptitiously placed books on the shelves of the library, so we have a file on them and we actually have a bunch of the books that people found on the shelves.  And by “books,” I mean a very loose interpretation of the word “book.”  One of them is a blow-up doll folded into the form of a book.  One is a block of plaster and one is a block of salt.  But they put the call numbers on the side and put them on the shelves.

The books from Temporary Services found by library staff.

J.S.: And when you check out the file do you get to look at these objects as well?

L.P.: You can.  We bring them out.  One of the artists who were involved with that revealed himself to us a few years ago and he actually brings his students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago over to see the books.

J.S.: Who’s the artist?

L.P.: Marc Ficsher.  It’s a neat file. And then there are older artists who it is just fascinating to read about, people who lived in 1880.  They’re the ones that we get a lot of e-mail questions about.  Sometimes it’s just someone who it is their grandmother, and they don’t know anything about her art and they want to learn more about it.  Other times it’s someone who found this painting they inherited and they want to know about the artist.

Binders of slides kept in the archive

J.S.: Is there anything else you would like to add?

L.P.: Oh, I should mention Anne.  We have exhibits here in the library and last year we had an artist, Anne Hayden Stevens. She was originally from Seattle and had recently moved to Chicago and applied for an art exhibit and got an exhibit here.  Well, she being new to Chicago, really wanted to learn about her artistic roots here, what was the history of art here in Chicago.  So, she decided to read the archive.

J.S.: All of it?

L.P.: Yeah the whole archive.  Needless to say she is still here but she did a really fantastic, beautiful exhibit about the archive called “Open and Free: the Library as Studio.”  And now she is actually curating a mini-exhibit of Chicago Artists Archive materials that’s going up in April.  So every two weeks she is going to feature materials from the archive.  It will be here at the Harold Washington in one of the display cases by the elevator [8th floor].  Every two weeks is a different theme.  One is artists’ societies, art schools.  And Ann is still working her way through the archive.

J.S.: How far along is she?

L.P.: I have to ask her.  Last time I saw I think she was on drawer seven or eight [out of 16], maybe half way.

J.S.: Any final thoughts?

L.P.: There’s so much there.  It’s so hard to even scratch the surface when talking about it because it is so many people’s lives.

This is just the first installment of several articles to come in the next few weeks.  I will be digging in deeper through the Artist Archive, beginning with the group of artists that founded N.A.M.E. Gallery.  I look forward to sharing with you what I find in this hardly known treasure chest of artistic information.