FRONT AND CENTER:
The Place of Archives at the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation
Following the close of Helen Frankenthaler’s estate after her death in late 2011, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation has taken shape in its current incarnation as a newly active organization with a mission, as broadly defined by the artist, to encourage scholarship and understanding of the visual arts. As we have grown and begun to establish ourselves, the artist’s archives have become a primary focus of the Foundation’s work—so much so that we envisioned ourselves as a study center almost from the outset.
Pertinent to both art history and social history, the materials in the Foundation’s archives comprise a significant repository of information that Frankenthaler kept largely private during her lifetime, including her personal library. Meticulously maintained by her staff over the years, their contents are now being appraised, arranged, rehoused, described, and readied for an enhanced degree of access by our newly hired archivist.
While still in the process of developing our infrastructure, we began to assist scholars, curators, writers, artists, and others with a demonstrated interest in Frankenthaler’s work with information and limited access to these archival materials, which had been in storage from the time of the artist’s estate’s closure until the Foundation’s recent move into its permanent home. We then began to imagine ways to make these materials more accessible, which shaped our decision to position the archives “front and center” in our physical space.
Our architects, the Brooklyn-based Greg Yang Design, created a plan for the Foundation’s new offices as a space that pivots around a centrally positioned storage vault and research room, adjacent to the administrative office wing and positioned with easy access for future catalogue raisonné work. In fact, each time one of us walks through the space, we pass by the archives, central as they are in the axis of circulation in our new home.
Yet the decision to position the archives as the nucleus of the Foundation was not immediately obvious. It came about after my own deep dive into a selection of its materials when preparing to write a text on Frankenthaler, along with expressions of interest from a number of outside writers and researchers. It soon became evident that having direct and ready in-house access to Frankenthaler’s archives would be critical not just for our own work, but in order to facilitate the projects of others who could benefit from our staff’s wide-ranging knowledge of the artist and her circle.
In Frankenthaler’s case, the research opportunities are numerous and varied. No recent monograph exists on the artist’s work, nor has a biography yet been written. New scholarship on her work and its context is beginning on a number of fronts, as are preparations for exhibitions planned as far out as 2019. The Foundation additionally plans a catalogue raisonné as a future project, which will depend heavily on access to information in its archival holdings. We are also exploring ideas for programs and discussions on such topics as Frankenthaler’s friendships and interactions with writers and poets, and displays of original materials from the archives. At least for the foreseeable future, our ability to carry out these projects will depend heavily on our having research materials close at hand, rather than in an already established research institute or archival repository.
A certain number of issues and challenges have, of course, presented themselves as we ready the archives for more in-depth research by a wider pool of potential users. These include questions of privacy and confidentiality, and how best to make the transition from an individual’s closely held personal papers to the more open usage required of a scholarly archive; how to augment our oral-history holdings; and how best to approach digitization for our own particular needs, as well as for the needs of others. Our archivist has recently identified and articulated these and other important questions, and is currently prioritizing and anticipating which materials and aspects of the archives will be most in demand for research purposes, while we get a comprehensive processing plan underway.
Further questions are informing our current thinking beyond those pertaining to the tangible products of research that will yield new publications, exhibitions, and other topics for scholarly consideration. These include: Who might our users be, and how can we expand our reach to a wider constituency beyond the ranks of dedicated Frankenthaler scholars and researchers? How might we best work collaboratively with other artist-endowed foundation archives and with the larger arena of major archival repositories at museums, universities, and related institutions? And how will we continue to keep the Frankenthaler Foundation archives front and center in our work going forward over the longer term?
ELIZABETH SMITH is Executive Director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.