Collage of brightly colored figures at a bustling market, some hold babies.

Market Scene, Jacob Lawrence. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Prints and drawings are an unsung area of curatorial innovation and a place for museums to bring new forms of storytelling to their permanent collections. Nineteen new grants totaling over $1.55 million will support exhibitions, publications and digital projects that center the graphic arts as part of the Getty Foundation’s ongoing Paper Project initiative.

Launched in 2018, The Paper Project funds professional development and experimental projects for curators around the world who study prints and drawings to make graphic arts collections more accessible and relevant to 21st-century audiences.

“Permanent collections that include prints and drawings are the lifeblood of museums, archives and libraries,” says Heather MacDonald, senior program officer at the Getty Foundation. “As the cultural sector moves into post-pandemic rebuilding, institutions have a tremendous opportunity to refocus on their own holdings while they also invest in the professional growth of their staff. These grants provide the resources needed to take a deep dive into seldom-seen collections and develop creative and relatable ways to display works on paper in galleries, in print and also online.”

The curatorial projects represent collections of prints and drawings created across more than a millennium and dozens of countries. They also demonstrate the wide range of works on paper that exist, including personal travel journals, political posters, illuminated manuscripts, architectural plans and maps, woodcuts, acid-based etchings and more. Participating curators have chosen a variety of in-gallery and digital solutions to present these objects in fresh and compelling ways.

Many grant projects will focus on understudied techniques, collections and artists. At the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, curator Kimberli Gant is investigating the history and legacy of printmaking on the African continent in relation to an understudied body of work from one of America’s foremost modern printmakers, Jacob Lawrence. Gant’s scholarship is culminating in an exhibition about Lawrence’s works on paper inspired by travels to Nigeria and his interactions with the Mbari Club, a network of artists, writers and musicians that emerged from the socio-political upheaval across West Africa.

“This will be the first in-depth investigation of Lawrence’s little-known time in Nigeria and the works he created there. It provides an opportunity for viewers to consider Lawrence as not an exclusively American artist, but one interested in humanity, in portraying the everyday lives of the people he encountered throughout the world or through the stories he was told,” says Gant. “In addition, the exhibition presents the larger interwoven artistic shifts happening in Nigeria during the first decade of independence, and the importance of international exchange between African American and African artists, an area that also needs further research.”

A book with yellow pages is opened to two pages filled with rows of silhouettes of profiles.

Portraits of unidentified New Orleans subjects, from “Ledger book of William Bache” by William Bache, c. 1803–1812. Black paper coated silhouettes mounted on paper. Digitized by Mark Gulezian/NPG. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA; partial gift of Sarah Bache Bloise

A number of grants support digital-only projects that are using technology to turn challenges in research or display into opportunities. The arsenic-laced, extremely fragile pages of an album containing 1,800 rare silhouette portraits by early 19th century artist William Bache have vexed curators at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for years. Featuring sitters that range from political and social elite such as Thomas Jefferson and Martha Washington to marginalized, unidentified individuals rarely encountered in Federal-era portraiture, Bache’s album is a significant piece of early American history.

As the Smithsonian has struggled to find ways to make the album available for study or display without risking the safety of researchers or art handlers, National Portrait Gallery curator Robyn Asleson will use a Paper Project grant to securely digitize the full album and develop a microsite that features historic documents that bring the stories of the people depicted to life.

“The Bache album attests to the function of hand-cut silhouettes as a uniquely democratic art form prior to the invention of photography. These silhouettes capture a fascinating cross section of society, documenting hundreds of individuals for whom no other likeness exists,” says Asleson. “In addition to fully documenting Bache’s album through high-resolution digital images, the microsite will provide biographical information on identifiable sitters, primary documents (such as the artist’s newspaper advertisements), conservation reports and other contextual materials that will advance understanding of the social fabric of the period and also assist in identifying, dating and authenticating silhouettes attributed to Bache.”

Drawing of cartoonish people standing around a table with small figurines. People include a knight in armor, a man in a dress and heels, and a small child holding a bottle of champagne.

“Masquerade of the Slovenian Painters and Sculptors”, 1913, Hinko Smrekar. Ink, watercolor, paper, 450 x 660 cm. Signed and dated right on the side: HSMREKAR I RECTE VAN SMERY I GER IL. 1913 National Gallery of Slovenia, NG G 855. Courtesy and photo National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana

Because prints and drawings lend themselves to the rapid transmission of ideas, they have often been used by progressive artists to provoke conversation and promote social change. The National Gallery of Slovenia will present the work of Hinko Smrekar, an illustrator and satirist known for his biting political commentary, who was executed by the Italian fascist government without trial in 1942. Getty’s support of a publication and microsite of his work in English overseen by curator Alenka Simončič will greatly expand access to Smrekar’s contributions and position him among other political artists of the early 20th century.

“Smrekar’s versatility and rich artistic expression set him apart from any particular art movement. Although he mostly lived in Ljubljana and commented on local, Austrian-Hungarian and later Yugoslavian culture, he closely followed world affairs and often titled his works in foreign languages to make them understandable to many,” says Simončič. “Through this project we can admire Smrekar’s courage, honesty and precision as he warned against the permanent faults of human nature, from pride and ignorance to greed and hypocrisy.”

Read about all the grantees and their projects here.