From Reel to Digital at the New York Studio School
For fifty years the New York Studio School has recorded artists, critics, musicians, poets, and more—among them, John Ashbery, Louise Bourgeois, John Cage, Anthony Caro, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Philip Guston, and Meyer Schapiro. The Lecture Series Archive as a whole stands as a record not only of individual lectures but also of the Studio School’s place within the art world. Collected words and pictures of lecturers are, in some sense, a proxy for the sensibility of the Studio School, and few, if any, art-focused lecture series have been recorded for so long, so continuously, and with such a wealth of material.
The Lecture Series Archive is comprised of three categories: freewheeling conversations of the 1960s and 1970s; recordings of classes and student critiques from the 1960s to the 1990s; and the Evening Lecture Series, largely coterminous with the tenure of Dean Graham Nickson (1988 to the present). The latter is divided between artists speaking on their work, critics, historians, and curators speaking on notable topics of art’s past and present, and panels of artists and art critics conversing together on subjects such as the state of sculpture or the work of Robert Smithson.
Today, the Studio School Library must preserve and make available to the public an archive largely recorded on now-inaccessible and slowly decaying formats (audio reel) or formats rapidly becoming inaccessible (VHS). By the numbers, there are an impressive 2,137 lectures recorded successively on audio reel, audio cassette, VHS tape, miniDV, and directly into born-digital formats. But since the NYSS subsists on the usual slender budget of a small not-for-profit organization, we have planned a digitization program that is cheap, sustainable, and crafted to satisfy the requirements of major granting agencies. Further complicating the process is that we must concurrently acquire distribution permission consent forms from lecturers and their estates—no one in 1966 was being asked if their lectures could some day be posted on the internet! All this is with an eye towards creating a fully accessible Online Digital Archive that, with a click of a button, will make the Studio School’s lectures available to the world.
This is a rather complex project where historical value and technical means are weighed against considerations of legal permissions, granting agencies and their requirements and, of course, the Studio School’s Library budget. It’s also a new sort of project: nonprofit institutions are just beginning to digitize their older audiovisual material, and the Studio School is pioneering—not the technical aspects, but the administrative aspects of organizing this kind of digitization project. But we are doing it, we expect to be able to complete it, and other small nonprofits can do the same.
In 1994, Graham Nickson spoke at the Studio School about his painting, in words now available in the Archive for the public to hear. He described his working process as a painter: “Over a period of years […] making very tiny studies, large studies, paintings, then ultimately ending up with something much more ambitious.” This description applies to the formation of the Lecture Series Archive itself, and to the process of making that Archive available to the public—many small efforts building towards a larger, meaningful whole.
DAVID RANDALL is the Librarian of the New York Studio School. His secret identity is as the author of the young-adult fantasy series, In the Shadow of the Bear.