Questioning the value of change from inside the Archives of American Art
My work provides me a privileged vantage point on the American art world. I spend most of my time considering the historical value of American artists’ material legacies. That is, the matter an artist generates throughout their careers that is not the artwork: correspondence, photographs, diaries, sketchbooks … all kinds of unclassifiable ephemera. As national collector at the Archives of American Art, I spend hours with the nation’s notable and veteran art workers—not only the artists, but curators, historians, critics, and family members as well—reviewing boxes of paper and terrabytes of data. Our goal is to determine what in this material best accounts for their contributions to the United States of America’s notions of itself as understood through its visual art. In consultation with excellent teammates whose expertise ranges from conservatorial to organizational, I then weigh this against the resources it will require to preserve this material in perpetuity.
In response to the prompt for this writing: yes, I have been at the forefront of critical changes, and I can identify the factors empowering me to do so. Before assuming the role of national collector, I was hired by the Archives to undertake a Latino collecting initiative. This was a two-year project focused on strengthening and broadening the already existing collections that tell the stories of Latinxs’ contributions to the nation’s visual arts. I am proud of the 30+ acquisitions made through the initiative, the dozens of initiated negotiations, and the programming undertaken to connect the important work of the Archives with the numerous Latinx art worlds that inhabit this country. These collections embody conceptual shifts along with demographic ones: concepts and practices such as Rasquachismo, and the work of Hispano santeros/as and domestic altar-makers, now find affirmation in the national record, as do the first ever Dominican American artists’ collections, for instance. I am certain this work will have a lasting impact on the field. I am sure of this not only because of the scholarship these new collections have already generated, but also because I did this work in partnership with the institution most looked to for the kind of primary source documents on which art history relies. The Smithsonian perennially inspires trust in the American people and the throngs of international visitors who come to us to encounter the objects and stories that give flesh to the American spirit.
Those changes, centered on an inclusive understanding of what constitutes “American art,” will certainly continue to motivate my work. As I settle into my new role, however, I realize that my power to create change in the arts is rooted in a desire to encourage students and my peers to take a beat, and ask ourselves if and when we are seeking change for change’s sake. Is forward always the best direction? In my hours of conversation and archival dives, it is apparent to me every day that many of today’s issues are not unique. Our elders have been here before. Their stories and their papers hold lessons in speaking to power, in wielding power well, in communicating dialogically, in self care, in collegiality, in art making (often down to some highly specific technical detail), in democracy, in political courageousness … Maybe it’s good to take a break from forward movement sometimes and realize what is available from before the mantles became ours. Forgetting—distinct from the violence of erasure—is a quiet tyranny we impose on ourselves. Now that I have brought about change in the ways that term is typically framed these days—more brown stories, more diverse epistemologies, more non-Euro-American aesthetics in the national art historical record—I am looking to enact a different transformation. I look now to change the premium placed on progress. I look now to make room for active witnessing and critical reflection on the past as a method for better worldmaking. I intend the next change I am a part of to involve an unprecedented value placed on time spent inhabiting and activating the Archives.
Tomás Ybarra-Frausto and Josh T. Franco, October 24, 2017. Photo from Archives of American Art annual benefit, where Ybarra-Frausto was honored with the Lawrence A. Fleischman Award for Scholarly Excellence in the Field of American Art History. See the Tomás Ybarra-Frausto Research Material on Chicano Art, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.