What kind of stories do a museum’s archives tell when read in tandem with masterpieces in their permanent collections? After allowing me to explore innovative exhibition strategies for archival material last summer, this year, MoMA’s intern travel grant gave me the opportunity to visit a Dutch museum that is contending with that exact question. Read more
Are you intrigued by artists’ multiples? Engaged by innovative typography? Do you want to learn more about the roots of Conceptual and performative art today, and how artists’ innovation influences curatorial practice?
If so, then I am pleased to inform you that after several years, and more than a few surprises, the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives are open for research. Scholars will use the archives to study the history of Fluxus and its related artists. But while you might never use the archives, my work as an archivist still has an impact on your experience of Fluxus art at the Museum. The decisions made by myself and the other members of the Fluxus team affect what goes into the galleries, and how those objects are presented to the public.
When Fluxus collectors Gilbert and Lila Silverman donated their vast collection to MoMA in 2008, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Before it expanded into performance, Fluxus was founded as an international publishing company by George Maciunas. Games, printed materials, and other multiples by various artists were united by Maciunas’s unique design sensibility and brilliant typography. This amazing collection—the world’s largest—had been carefully built for decades by Fluxus scholar Jon Hendricks, who aimed to present a complete history of Fluxus: not just artworks, but documentation and books as well. MoMA decided to split the Silverman Collection into three parts: works of art to the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, for their facility at handling editions; documentation to the Museum Archives; and publications to the Library.
For the past two years, I’ve been the archivist responsible for processing the collection’s many wonderful manuscripts, notes, letters, and countless other documents into an organized research collection. That day has finally arrived—but getting here has been a long, strange journey.
Fluxus thwarts all attempts at categorization. How can one distinguish “artwork” from “document,” when Fluxus artists actively strove to break down the border between art and life? How can we exhibit a work of performance art, when all that remains of it is a few photographs and written accounts? These are the sorts of documentary objects that researchers expect to find in archives, but as curators seek to display ephemeral and other dematerialized artworks, they are increasingly included in art exhibitions.
Such quandaries are essential to understanding Fluxus. But they are particularly troublesome for an institution like MoMA, which is accustomed to maintaining separate departments for different types of objects. It’s no secret that MoMA didn’t collect many Fluxus works in the 1960s and 1970s, at the time of their creation, which means that the Silverman Collection fills a very significant gap. But in processing the archives, I came to understand our forebears’ reluctance: Fluxus is too fluid, too rebellious, too anti-institutional to enter an institution without a fight. It’s too many things at once.
That’s why myself and the other members of the Fluxus team quickly realized that we’d have to take a cue from Fluxus itself, and learn to be a little more fluid ourselves. We understood that sometimes artifacts need to be considered artworks, and other times works of art function like documents. It means that serious Fluxus researchers may need appointments with all three departments. But it also means that researching Fluxus will be as much of an adventure as processing it was.
To learn more about Fluxus, the Silverman Collection, or its processing, check out the finding aid online.
The Silverman Fluxus Archives can be consulted by appointment at the MoMA Archives reading room at MoMA QNS; open Mondays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Appointments can be made through the Archives contact form.
One of the most fascinating aspects of working in the Museum Archives is uncovering how iconic artists engaged with MoMA beyond their artwork in the galleries. As one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters, Robert Motherwell has a rich exhibition history at the Museum that is traceable all the way back to 1944, when MoMA acquired its first work by Motherwell. Read more
More than four years ago, at the end of 2008, MoMA and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center officially completed their 10-year affiliation process. At that time, The Museum of Modern Art Archives received custody of the organizational records, curatorial documents, exhibition paraphernalia, and other materials of historical importance saved by the institution over four decades of groundbreaking programming. Read more
The Victor D’Amico Papers are now processed and open for researchers to use onsite, by appointment at the Museum Archives reading room in Long Island City, Queens. The collection’s finding aid (inventory) is searchable online from any web-enabled device, along with MoMA’s other archival collections. Read more
The transcripts of the Oral History Program have long been a central part of The Museum of Modern Art Archives, known to many in scholarly circles as an unrivaled primary source for the collective memory of MoMA’s history. Read more