Art, Behind the Scenes, Getty Research Institute, Scholarship

Unlocking Archives through Digital Tech

New tools will help scholars reveal the yet-untold stories contained in art dealers’ records at the Getty Research Institute

Decourcy McIntosh, Thomas Gaehtgens, and Gail Feigenbaum

In the Special Collections Reading Room, workshop participants look inside an art dealer’s photograph album. Foreground, left to right: independent scholar Decourcy McIntosh, Research Institute director Thomas Gaehtgens, and associate director Gail Feigenbaum.

Inspired by our recent acquisition of the Knoedler Gallery archives, the Getty Research Institute held a workshop in May to consider how we could best make art dealers’ archives accessible to scholars, and useful for their research.

Our holdings—which also include archives of the Duveen Brothers, Goupil & Cie, and other prominent art dealers who profoundly shaped the art market—make the Research Institute a premier center for studying the art market in the Gilded Age. Literally thousands of linear feet of business records provide the evidence that will allow scholars to rewrite American art and cultural history, including the formation of our art museums.

The amplitude of these archives is both a blessing and a challenge. They encompass far more material than one scholar working alone can digest.  We have begun to use technology to facilitate collaboration, but we must do more. That is why we invited our colleagues to think about how to move forward.

Kathleen Curran at the Getty Research Institute, Knoedler Workshop

Kathleen Curran, professor of fine arts at Trinity College, speaks to workshop participants

Workshop participants were leaders of international institutions with related archives, including the National Gallery in London, Colnaghi’s at Waddesdon Manor under the patronage of Baron Rothschild, the Netherlands Institute for Art History, the Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Villa I Tatti, the Frick, the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and The Huntington. Curators, scholars, and the president of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation also attended.

Discussions ranged widely, but two principal areas of interest emerged.

Bringing Art History into the Digital Age

Stock book from Boussod, Valadon, & Co.

Art dealers relied on stock books like this one to keep track of inventory, often using codes to hide the names of purchasers and prices. Digital tools will help process and interpret this vast pool of information. Here, a stock book from Boussod, Valadon, & Co., dated to 1891–95.

The first theme was how to achieve what one participant called “the gentle art of combining and sharing art historical data.” Art dealers were actors in an international context, working together across the Atlantic; buying and selling to and from many of the same people (often the same objects) from China or from the aristocratic houses of England, France, and Italy; vetted by the same experts; and restored by the same conservators.

The key to mapping these dynamic networks is the stock book, which registers each object in a gallery’s inventory with a stock or accession number. Thanks to a grant from the Kress Foundation, we are building a database of the Knoedler and Duveen stock books, modeled on the one we designed for the Goupil archive. We discussed how to coordinate efforts with our partners and invent ways to search across our interlinked repositories. At its core, this is a digital art history project, and managing our data and imaging in a way that makes these archives useful to researchers is a primary concern.

Writing the Art Market Back into Art History

Letter from dealer Roland Knoedler to collector Henry C. Frick

Letters between art dealers and important clients are key documents of art history. Here, a letter from dealer Roland Knoedler to collector Henry C. Frick.

The second major area of mutual interest we identified during the workshop was the importance of approaching the dealer archive as a tool of art historical understanding. Two economic historians shared crucial methodological insights into analyzing business records. Many of our big questions, however, led us back to the overarching observation that the art market has been written out of the history of art history. It was in the art market, especially in the U.S, that expertise developed for museums and the discipline of art history. On discovering a contract between firms which stipulates that one agrees to promote in America the  French style in which the other happens to specialize, we see that we have barely begun to fathom the dealer’s role in generating “taste”, and in steering the great age of American collecting. In the names of their clients—Frick, Kress, Mellon, Morgan, Walters, Widener—we recognize the cultural philanthropy that undergirds the formation of the American art museum.

We will be working on these two major needs—harnessing technology to analyze statistics and map patterns, and recuperating the art market as a crucial factor in art history—as we continue to make the Knoedler Archive, and indeed all of the Getty Research Institute’s collections, more accessible to the scholars who use them in their work.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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