Archives teach us about our histories by what is recorded, filed, and preserved as much as they do by what is omitted, lost, or disregarded. They reveal gaps, inequities, and institutional biases. They also have the potential to preserve, reclaim, and make accessible histories that have been marginalized by the dominant systems of power. As Chief Curator of the Hunter College Art Galleries (HCAG), I am interested in archiving as it relates to the galleries’ exhibition history and to curatorial methodologies.
The galleries at Hunter date back to at least 1984 with the opening of the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery at 68th Street. As part of the Department of Art and Art History, the galleries’ programming has always echoed the intellectual discourse generated by the faculty and students, with exhibitions often curated by faculty members. However, faculty at Hunter have been involved in organizing art events since long before the inception of the galleries. In 1965 Twyla Tharp’s first work Tank Dive was performed in a studio space at Hunter. Tharp’s then husband, Robert Huot was on the faculty at Hunter. Huot, and his colleagues, Robert Barry and Hollis Frampton, held film screenings on campus, and in 1968, Frampton presented a performative work titled A Lecture.1 It is likely that a deeper dive of the department’s files and unprocessed folders, would reveal that there were many other events like these happening at the time.
From the perspective of the archive, HCAG’s sustained focus on faculty driven exhibitions reveals the diversity of art historical research and artistic practice at Hunter, while illuminating ongoing preoccupations—especially with painting, conceptual art, political and feminist practices, and critical theory. A few exhibitions from the galleries’ first 25 years that illustrate these concerns are: Francesca Woodman: Photographic Work (1986), curated by Ann Gebhart, Rosalind Krauss, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Mary S. Duffy; Race and Representation (1987) curated by Maurice Berger, Johnetta Cole, Lowery Sims, and David Goldberg; Remerica! Amerika: Resurrecting ‘A People’s History’ to Reaffirm Our Presence and Our Will to Emerge 1492 – 1992 (1992) curated by Juan Sánchez; Mac Wells: Light into Being (1996) curated by Robert Swain, Gabriele Evertz, and Lucy Lippard; and Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power, Works on Paper by Susan Crile (2006).
In close to a forty-year time span, HCAG has mounted over 180 exhibitions. Since 2012 alone, we have organized 34 shows. This pace of exhibition-making causes the archive to grow quickly and necessitates mounting exhibitions that mine histories, ask questions, and stage scenarios that aim to counter the dominant cultural and artistic narratives of our time. Two recent exhibitions at Hunter that take up this missive are Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. (2018) and Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 (2018).2
Curated by C. Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz, Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. came to Hunter as a traveling exhibition. The showtraces the histories of experimental art practice, collaboration, and exchange by a group of Los Angeles-based queer Chicanx artists during the late 1960s through the early 1990s. The exhibition title refers to Edmundo “Mundo” Meza, a galvanizing figure within these networks who died of AIDS in 1985. Axis Mundo is the result of years of extensive research by Chavoya and Frantz that included numerous meetings with artists and their families and friends. The curators work generated new scholarship—the exhibition is the first historical examination of queer Chicanx artists—and resulted in a significant number of new acquisitions to ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world.
While Axis Mundo expanded the archive, Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 mined the archive. It examined the exhibition as a site of protest, revisiting the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s (BECC) response to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s refusal to appoint a Black curator, and its failure to consult with “Black art experts” for their 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America. The BECC’s campaign resulted in the withdrawal of 15 of the 75 artists committed to the Whitney’s show, and the mounting of a counter exhibition Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal, at Acts of Art Gallery, a Black artist-run space in Greenwich Village, founded by Nigel Jackson. The exhibition at Hunter included 10 of the original 47 artists: Benny Andrews, Betty Blayton-Taylor, Vivian Browne, James Denmark, Cliff Joseph, Richard Mayhew, Dindga McCannon, Ademola Olugebefola, Haywood “Bill” Rivers, and Frank Wimberley, and also presented an excerpt of Oakley N. Holmes, Jr.’s film Part Two: Black Artists in America, 1971.3 The Whitney’s archives were crucial in laying out the negotiations between the BECC and the museum. These documents were displayed in the exhibition in an extensive ephemera section that also included materials from Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory College and from the personal archives of artists and estates.
Housed in binders, filing cabinets, on antiquated technology, and more recently on Dropbox, the galleries’ archive abounds with material, but not organization. Our archive⎯developed through careful saving by faculty, staff, and students⎯contains a wealth of information. In its current state it is scattered, undigitized, and mostly unavailable to the public. It is used for institutional reflection and reexamination and, on occasion, for research by ingenious graduate students. Creating a centralized, digitized, and accessible archive is the long-term goal, one that requires funding and staffing, a challenge for any institution, but particularly for a public college. In the meantime we will keep saving, filing, and digging.
- For more information: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2264-a-lecture
- Axis Mundo is organized as a traveling exhibition by Independent Curators International (ICI) and was organized by ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries in collaboration with The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles ,as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA . Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 was curated by Howard Singerman and Sarah Watson with Agnes Gund Curatorial Fellows Clara Chapin, Marie Coneys, Miles Debas, Jazmine Hayes, and Tess Thackara.
- This film is the sole documentation of “The Black Artist,” a national panel on African American art that was held at the Art Students League of New York on March 2, 1971.
Sarah Watson is Director of Exhibitions & Chief Curator of the Hunter College Art Galleries. Her curatorial work focuses on creating experimental sites for education, collaboration, and action. Watson also oversees the gallery component of the Advanced Certificate in Curatorial Studies at Hunter College.