Transcript of AS-AP Panel at CAA Conference, February 2011

Posted June 13, 2011 by Anonymous

“Oral Histories and the Archive”

A panel discussion held at the College Art Association’s 99th Annual Conference on February 9th, 2011, at the Hilton New York, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY.



Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist, MoMA

Sandra Q. Firmin, Curator, University at Buffalo Art Galleries

Pamela Seymour Smith Sharp, Artist/ Oral Historian and the Executive Director of the Estate of Willoughby Sharp


Ann Butler:  Good afternoon. I’m Ann Butler, Director of the Library and Archives at the Center for Curatorial Studies, at Bard College, and Project Director of Art Spaces Archives Project.  Welcome to the panel “Oral Histories and the Archive”, a panel sponsored by Art Spaces Archives Project.

AS-AP is a non-profit initiative established in 2003 by a consortium of arts organizations, including Bomb Magazine, the College Art Association, Franklin Furnace Archive, New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), New York State Artist Workspace Consortium, and The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

With funding provided by NYSCA, The NEA, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, AS-AP has a mandate to help preserve, present, and protect the archival heritage of living and defunct not-for-profit art spaces in the United States.

In January 2007 AS-AP merged with the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. CCS Bard is an exhibition, education, and graduate research center dedicated to the study of art and curatorial practices from the 1960s to the present day.

AS-AP’s major activities include:  advocacy and referral services for arts organizations needing information about how to manage, preserve and provide access to their organizational archives; and major initiatives to document the history of living and defunct art spaces in the United States through an active oral history program and an ongoing survey to update AS-AP’s national index of alternative art spaces.  Our website serves as an online portal providing access to all of AS-AP’s programs, resources, and content.

For the past three years, with funding from the NEA and NYSCA, AS-AP has been commissioning and conducting oral and video history interviews with the founders, current and former directors of art spaces and collectives throughout the United States, in an effort to document this vital and unique cultural history.

Finally, one of AS-AP’s primary goals is to help people recognize that the cultural history found in the organizational archives of art spaces is part of our artistic and cultural heritage.  AS-AP’s mission is to prevent this material from dissipating into the ether or being put out for recycling.

Since the invention of portable audio recording technology in the early 1960’s interviews with visual artists have been recorded as part of curatorial and artistic practices, research and scholarship. 

What are some of the unique characteristics of recorded interviews? The tactile qualities of the human voice; spoken language as a vehicle of communication and expression; inflection; accents; stammers and hesitation; and emotional range conveyed through speech.

Mel Gooding in his introduction to the book Speaking of Art, states that “sound recordings contain the actuality of the spoken voice, the impress of an original reality: a sound recording gives the auditor a direct contact with the source.” (2010, p.5)

Speaking about the conversations she conducted as part of her research for her dissertation, art historian, Pauline Chevalier noted that, “Recorded interviews usually show the discursive process of thinking.”

William Furlong, founder of Audio Arts, a sound magazine of recorded interviews with artists, and now one of the largest sound archives devoted to art and artists said, that “without the portable tape recorder and the facility of cheap and easy reproduction and dissemination through the audio cassette, Audio Arts could not have existed, either as a magazine or as a work of art of quite a new kind.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist has been recording interviews with artists, architects, and other cultural producers for the past twenty years and now has an archive of over 2,000 hours of material.  Many of these interviews have been published as written transcripts by various art publishers. 

Working primarily in London in the1980s and early 1990s, Marysia Lewandowska recorded conversations with artists, writers, theorists, and activists as part of her artistic practice.  This body of material, the Women’s Audio Archive, she now considers both a documentary project and a work of art.

Initiated and coordinated by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, the Act Up Oral History Project is a collection of over 100 recorded interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  Full transcripts of each interview are available online along with streaming video clips. 

Cultural repositories and archives such as the MoMA Archives and the Archives of American Art have each had longstanding oral history programs.  Both of these repositories now contain sizeable collections of recorded oral history interviews with 20th century artists, gallery owners, curators, and art critics, providing a unique record of modern and contemporary art.

Oral histories are also being used to document institutional histories within arts organizations.  The Kitchen has initiated a program to conduct oral history interviews with individuals associated with The Kitchen over its 40 year history.  The organization has contracted the services of a firm that specializes in the production of oral history interviews to conduct the project.  Estates and Foundations established on behalf of artists are now also implementing oral history initiatives as another means of documenting and preserving the artistic and cultural legacy of the artist.  One of the primary goals of these projects is to capture information and recollections about the artist from colleagues, peers, and associates while they are still alive, as another means of contributing to the historical record about the artist.

Recorded interviews with artists have also been a longstanding form of documentation used by contemporary art conservators to record essential characteristics of specific artworks, including materials and processes, the artist’s intent, and future guidelines for installation.  In discussing how best to capture information from living artists that will assist conservators in future conservation efforts, contemporary art conservator, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro notes that “a less restrictive format of an interview allows for the conveyance of factual information in addition to providing a sense of the artist’s governing thoughts”, and that “a filmed interview goes one step further by offering tone to each statement,” an element that cannot be captured in a transcript.

Oral histories have also been a longstanding component of academic research and scholarship.  In a meeting recently with Pauline Chevalier to discuss her research for her dissertation about the history of alternative art spaces in Downtown New York from 1969-1980, she mentioned the role oral history interviews played in resolving contradictions between historical narratives found in archival documents and oral history interviews she conducted.

How was AS-AP’s oral history initiative implemented?  The interviews were conducted by CCS Bard graduate students, alumni, CCS Faculty and outside researchers.  Written guidelines were produced to guide students, primarily, through the preparation process, the legal and ethical requirements of conducting oral history interviews, interview techniques, and the technical requirements for the recordings.  Transcripts were produced for each interview using the services of an outside professional transcriber.  The interviewer and interviewee were then given the opportunity to correct and expand their comments in the transcript.  The edited transcripts are all available online through the AS-AP website.  Eventually audio and video clips from each of the interviews will also be made available on the site.

Some of the interviews we conducted last year include: 


This year we are continuing to focus on documenting the historical narratives of alternative art spaces with a focus on New York State.  As part of this project, we will be making several interviews Sandra Firmin conducted as part of her research for the exhibition Artpark, 1974-1984 available online.  We’re also partnering with Exit Art to make many of the interviews they conducted as part of their 2010 exhibition Alternative Histories available online through the AS-AP site.

What is the cultural and historical value of the recorded conversation, the recorded interview, or the more formal oral history interview as a verbal or written document? How does the transcript or written document differ from the recorded interview? What are the benefits or drawbacks of using video recording vs. audio recording technologies?  How do the methodologies adopted by specific initiatives and repositories reflect the overall intent and objectives of the program or institution?  How do first-person accounts relate to and expand larger institutional narratives?  How do individual perspectives and accounts contribute new information, and fill in gaps to the existing records and historical narratives?  To explore these questions and many others, we have a panel of distinguished professionals and practitioners here today who will discuss the significance of recorded interviews and oral history initiatives, programs, and methodologies from the perspectives of the art museum, the artist's estate, and the curator.   

The panelists are:  Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist at the Museum of Modern Art; Sandra Q. Firmin, Curator at the University at Buffalo Art Galleries; and Pamela Sharp, Artist, Oral Historian, and the Executive Director of the Estate of Willoughby Sharp. 

Our first panelist is Michelle ElligottIn addition to directing the MoMA Archives, Michelle Elligott also co-edited the Museum's first self-published history: Art in Our Time.  She also served as co-curator of the MoMA exhibitions, 1969 and Abstract Expressionist New York.  With her "Modern Artifacts" column, she is a regular contributor to the art magazine Esopus.  She has taught seminars in Latin America and has lectured widely.   In 2005 she was designated a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Athens, Greece.  Prior to joining MoMA, Michelle Elligott was Assistant Director at the C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland.  She holds degrees in Art History from Smith College and the City University of New York, and she also studied at the Université de Paris IV, Sorbonne and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece.

Please join me in welcoming Michelle Elligott.

Michelle Elligott:  As I am sure you all well know, oral history is important for its critical ability to fill gaps in the written record.  Founded in 1989, the MoMA Archives recognized this fact early on and just two years later launched its oral history program.  The resulting oral histories serve to enhance and complement the Archives’ holdings of documentary material with first-hand observation, recollections and reflections.  Taken together the two add invaluable depth to one another.  

Allow me to begin my discussion of our oral history program by stating up front that it is MoMA-centric.  That is, each of the interviews focuses on the individual's role in this institution and, in the case of artists, allows an extended discussion about their work in the Museum Collection.  The program does not attempt to be a broad based account of the entire lives of the interviewees.  Because it is an institutional program, there is an attempt to reconstruct the ways in which multiple players influenced a single course of events.  A great example of this was the mini-project to document the 1984 expansion campaign.  For example, by interviewing: Donald Elliott, Attorney for the Trust for Cultural Resources; Philip Johnson, architect, Trustee, and former Chair of the Museum’s Architecture and Design department; Dick Koch, Deputy Director and General Counsel; Cesar Pelli, architect of the expansion project; and Richard Weinstein, architect and advisor to the project; we obtained a focused, bird’s eye view of the entire process from start to finish.  There are also several dozen record cartons of dense, often technical and legal, documents that were created and retained throughout the course of the building project.  But while it may be possible to glean similar information from these records, it would take hundreds of hours of study and analysis, whereas the oral history of the expansion, if you will, is an executive summary plus a pinch of spice.  Meaning, it is more useful for understanding and interpreting the social and cultural history of the project, and specifically, its context as a major construction project in mid-1980s New York City.  On the contrary, when we need to ascertain exact details of build outs or timeline, I can promise you the oral histories are of significantly less use and instead we turn to the building/architectural renderings and other official documents.

As a sidebar, I will say that while the purpose of our project is to collect information specifically about MoMA, occasionally other topics will naturally flow into the conversation.  And that is perhaps one of the true delights of oral history.  One of my favorite serendipitous discoveries was that our former General Counsel, Miriam Cedarbaum, had the historic experience of being just one of eight women in a freshman class of 280 students at Columbia Law School in 1950, the first year that Harvard Law accepted women.  It was fascinating to learn of her experiences, and how she declined Harvard Law, because though they decided to admit women they would not house them, and it helps you to understand who she is today.  You may be familiar with her name, as she is now a judge and presided over Martha Stewart’s case and recently oversaw the case against the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

So let me back up a bit and explain how the oral history program at MoMA began.  In 1990 the Museum Archives received a grant of $52,000  from the NEH to initiate its Oral History project and to produce 40 oral histories of individuals long and closely associated with the Museum.   This represented approximately one-third of the cost of the four-year project.  Donations from foundations and individuals, and Museum in-kind contributions were utilized to match the NEH grant. Additional funding was provided by a bequest to the Museum in 1992 from the Estate of Morris Leverton.  

After the grant-funded period ended, we continued the project by raising funds on a case by case basis thanks to generous contributions from the Museum’s Contemporary Arts Council, from individual donors Joanne Stern, Gilbert Silverman, and Leslie Garfield, and from the Museum’s Trustee Committee on Archives, Library and Research Support.  To date, we have completed over 90 oral histories.

The Museum Archivist directs the program.  At the outset, a professional oral historian was hired as part of the original grant to conduct the forty interviews.  Since the completion of that project, a variety of professionals have been used to conduct the interviews, whether art historians, writers or other Museum staff.  Participants were solicited based on their associations with the Museum; the ideal candidate was someone whose relationship with the Museum ran deep and had endured for an extended period of time, and who was no longer employed by, or had a vested interest in, the Museum.  Ex-Museum curatorial and administrative staff, Trustees, donors, artists, collectors, dealers, and other important personalities in the art world were among those approached to participate.  The oral historian is required to conduct preliminary research in the Museum Archives, and, along with the Archivist, prepare questions specifically designed to focus on the relationship of the individual with the Museum and its role in 20th and 21st century culture.  Other topics broached include the staff structure and administration, Museum programs and policies, exhibitions, acquisitions, expansions, private and corporate patronage, cultural and political forces, etc…  The interviewer identifies the relevance of such topics to each individual and tailors the questions accordingly. 

An impressive array of people agreed to participate: Philip Johnson, David Rockefeller, Bill Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, Jasper Johns, Lucy Lippard, Leo Castelli, and Paula Cooper, among others.  We also undertook a mini-series of oral histories funded by the Museum’s Contemporary Arts Council.  With this project, we specifically focused on subjects who today are well-known artists, but who also earlier in their career worked on staff at MoMA, including: Allan McCollum, Jeff Koons, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman.  More recently, in conjunction with our multi-year initiative to process and establish the institutional archives of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, we also undertook a small project to interview PS1 trustee John Comfort, former deputy director Tom Finkelpearl, and artist James Turrell -- who speaking of his work Meeting, the sky room he created at PS 1, offered this revealing observation:

“I have to say that there are people who thought I was such a fool to put so much money in to finish the Meeting at PS1, but as far as an investment, it’s probably the best investment I’ve ever made in myself as an artist, in that it has done more for me in terms of people being interested in doing that kind of work elsewhere, than any other piece that I’ve ever created.” 

Among the many other fascinating stories included in our oral histories are:

  • Eddie Warburg describing the early years of the Museum;
  • Philip Johnson discussing the genesis of the 1934 Machine Art exhibition;
  • Sol LeWitt recounting how, as a MoMA employee, he witnessed the evacuation of master works from the galleries during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and
  • Robert Rauschenberg discussing how his pivotal work Bed of 1955 came about.  “It was,” he said, “very simply put together, because I actually had nothing to paint on. Except it was summertime, it was hot, so I didn't need the quilt. So the quilt was, I thought, abstracted. But it wasn't abstracted enough, so that no matter what I did to it, it kept saying, "I'm a bed." So, finally I gave in and I gave it a pillow."

In an attempt to encourage the subject to speak as freely as possible, measures are taken to ensure his/her right to privacy.  With the assistance of our General Counsel, we have authored an agreement and release form, along with companion restrictions on the access document.  Once signed by the interviewee, these documents convey ownership and copyright of the oral history interview to the Museum while allowing the individual to restrict certain pages or the entire document for a specified length of time.  Further, we currently do not allow for duplication of interviews, though that will likely change in the future as we hope to progressively mount all our interviews on our web site.  In addition, researchers who wish to publish excerpts from the oral histories must submit a formal application to publish materials from the MoMA Archives. 

The notion of oral history is easily graspable, and therefore many [and here I mean upper level administrators and budget allocators] assume it is a quick, simple and cheap endeavor.  This is simply not the case. To manage a successful project requires a heavy amount of administrative oversight, as well as costly and time-consuming tasks such as liaising with the subject, transcribing and editing of manuscripts, digital audio/video editing and excerpting, and long-term maintenance and preservation of the a/v recordings.

The MoMA oral history project hadn’t been active for several years for these very financial and personnel considerations, though there were a few notable exceptions, such as the interview in 2006 with Rauschenberg and the one currently underway with curator éminence grise Kynaston McShine. 

But that is about to change.  I am pleased for the first time to publically announce that we are embarking on a new project, which has been generously underwritten by an anonymous donor.  With this new project, over the course of one year, we will undertake oral histories with five to ten artists who are well represented in the collection and who have a substantial and important relationship with the institution.  We do not seek to replicate efforts that already exist elsewhere, like the Archives of American Art’s broad ranging program to interview artists.  Rather, our program will specifically focus on the artist’s relationship with the institution, the works by the artist that we own, and the history of significant works or exhibitions or events at the Museum, which inspired the artist in any way.  For the first time, we intend to use video to capture the interviews, provided the artist will consent to it.  If not, we will just make an audio recording of the session, though we will also at the same time have a photographer take photos of the artist, and when appropriate, the artist with the works.  For, I should explain, we intend to interview the artist at the Museum before his or her works, whether that is in the galleries, in the curatorial study center viewing rooms, or in the actual storage vaults.

Previously we have always transcribed our interviews, and only made the transcript available.  However we realize that with video footage, few researchers will want to read a transcript rather than consult moving image footage of the artist interacting with the works of art.  That said, we still intend on transcribing the interviews for search and discoverability issues.

With advances in technology, we are looking at ways to leverage the use of this raw material.  The interviews can now serve a dual purpose, providing both the opportunity for an in-depth look at a subject’s thoughts and ideas, as well as providing brief and enticing audio or video clips that can be integrated into educational programs.  The final product will be available for research use in the Archives, but it is also intended that excerpts of the footage will be incorporated into the Museum’s many products, such as audio guides, iPhone/iPad applications, to animate the web site, etc.  Of course, when appropriate, we hope these materials may also be useful for old-fashioned publications.

And speaking of research – are oral histories actually used?  And if so, who uses them and for what purposes?  From the inception of our program, we have seen the usage of the oral histories by 830 users comprised of:  graduate students, professors, Museum staff and trustees, lawyers, writers, curators, artists, architectural historians, dealers, journalists, and film makers; for the following purposes: dissertations, articles, books, acquisition/provenance research, lectures, exhibition catalogues, websites and films.  And demand for such materials appears to be on the rise.  In trying to understand why, I believe there are two reasons.  First, I think the notion of oral tradition is more widely known and accepted today, not to mention accessible, due to projects such as Story Corps and the many web based initiatives.  Second, I think it is in part due to the nature of the difference between documents and oral history.  In many cases I find the information in oral history qualitative – it tends to flesh things out, paint broad brushstrokes – whereas the written record tends to offer more facts or provides a string of evidence of actions.  The oral history often does a better job of describing the arc of events and the rationale behind the decisions, whereas the document tends to favor outlining the consequences and outcomes and intends to be more precise in its detailing of information.  It is for this reason that in an ideal setting the two fields would both be judiciously utilized, even if, inevitably from time to time, they result in discrepancy.  From our experience, we can attest that our researchers tend to use both the written records and the oral history, understanding how each complements the other and contributes to a richer understanding of the topic, not to mention allows them to research and flesh out discrepancies.  So like all good things in life, balance is the key.

I only hope that we will continue to receive funding to continue the important work of commissioning and creating oral histories, as it is only in this manner that we can -- for historians today and tomorrow -- capture and fill the gaps in the written record.  Thank you.

Ann Butler: Thanks Michelle.  Our second panelist is Sandra Q. Firmin.  Sandra has been curator of the UB Art Gallery, Center for the Arts since 2003. She holds an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2002) and was awarded a Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative Fellowship at Arcadia University Art Gallery (2003).  She co-curated Kim Jones: A Retrospective with Julie Joyce.  The exhibition was accompanied by the catalog Mudman: The Odyssey of Kim Jones, co-edited with Julie Joyce and published by MIT Press (2006).  Firmin recently organized Artpark: 1974–1984, which chronicles the seminal years of this innovative residency program located in Lewiston, New York, just north of Niagara Falls, in which artists spent summers creating temporary artworks outdoors. In addition to the exhibition catalog, Artpark: 1974-1984, which was co-published by Princeton Architectural Press (2010), Sandra Firmin has published contributions to exhibition catalogues for Max Protetch (New York, 2008) and the Wharf, Centre d'art contemporain de Basse-Normandie (2007).  Please join me in welcoming Sandra Firmin.

Sandra Firmin: Artpark: 1974–1984 is an exhibition and publication that I organized last year for the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, which chronicled the seminal years of an innovative residency program located in Lewiston, New York, just north of Niagara Falls, in which artists spent summers creating temporary artworks outdoors. Owned and operated by New York State, Artpark opened in 1974 as an unprecedented experiment in artist-public interaction, site-specificity, and public funding for the arts.

My talk considers how I employed oral histories together with other historical documents in my research of Artpark’s multifaceted and groundbreaking programming. My objective was to place individual experiences into the context of the 1970s and early 80s, a transitional period that saw the utopian impulses of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society morph into to the privatization of contemporary lifestyles, and industry rapidly giving way to service-based and leisure economies. Moreover, as the Golden Age of Education, the social artist as facilitator, educator, and producer of ideas was replacing the image of the lone artist in his studio.

For the next six years I learned how Artpark related to these developments, in part, by watching over twenty hours of videotaped artist interviews that Artpark produced in 1975, 76, and 78. I also conducted over 30 recorded interviews with artists, former staff and administrators, politicians, and architects in Western New York and throughout the country. I wanted to know how Artpark happened, how it changed throughout the years, and what was the experience like from varying perspectives. Given the magnitude of my project to not only document the complexities that accompany any institutional founding, especially ones involving the bureaucracies of government, but to also represent in the catalog and publication the over 200 plus works produced at Artpark, I maintained several email correspondences. This allowed me to dramatically broaden the pool of perspectives. The back-and-forth dialog that these exchanges represent is perhaps more closely aligned with speaking than writing and in my view can be seen in terms of oral history.       

Artpark comprised 172 acres situated alongside the Niagara Gorge on the United States–Canadian border. During the summer months, Artpark buzzed with indoor and outdoor, daytime and nighttime activity, featuring opera, symphony, modern music, jazz, and folk concerts; theatrical and dance performances; cooking demonstrations; outdoor performances by storytellers and mimes; craftspeople and poets conducting workshops on a communal elevated boardwalk known as the ArtEl; and contemporary artists creating work in situ.

When I contacted Artpark to determine what material they still had from those days, I struck GOLD. In the early years Artpark was well aware of the magnitude of the transitory work created there and had the foresight to hire staff photographers to document activities in the widely accessible formats of photography and video. Over ten thousand rarely or never before seen 35mm slides and black-and-white negatives were languishing in less-than ideal conditions. Imagine on a hilltop in Western New York there is a shed containing arguably the most visual documentation pertaining to this watershed era in contemporary art. By not only commissioning some of the most investigational art of its day, but by exhaustively documenting the process, Artpark represents a veritable survey of avant-garde practices that includes seminal Earthworks, performance, new media, sound works, post-minimal sculpture, and Ecoart. But what was Artpark? How did it happen? What set it apart from other art organizations? Did its mission speak to the good natured, laissez-faire spirit of the 1970s? What was going on in contemporary art at that time? Corralling this mindboggling abundance of material, to which I now had access, into a coherent narrative required delving into other archives widely dispersed throughout the country and into the personal papers and memories of artists and former administrators.

As I learned more, I was astonished first by the sheer number of established and lesser-known artists who passed through Lewiston early on in their careers and then, more significantly, by the unfettered, laboratory-like conditions that Artpark instituted, including a mandate that all work had to be removed by summer’s end or destroyed in order to present a clean slate for the next season’s artists.

Early on in my research, I formed two hypotheses. First, that something occurred in 1978 that radically altered the direction of Artpark’s Visual Arts Program and, secondly, that by 1985, the program had fizzled. In the 1979 catalog, the Visual Arts Consultant outlined the dramatic policy shifts with the introduction of the Major Artist category, “the idea of a large number of artists (twenty-five) in residence interacting with each other and the public was abandoned in favor of a small number who would function as individual guest artists creating works of vaster scale and greater visibility.” Furthermore, artists no longer had free-reign to choose their sites and were not even required to be in residence. Artpark had abandoned its laudable objective to bridge the gap between contemporary artists and a large and diverse audience.   

Given the fickleness of memory, especially three decades on from a drug-hazed era, when accounts communicated by an artist are verified by other archival sources, a more nuanced and colorful story is revealed, shedding light on overarching historical narratives. Artpark’s first five years were defined by a permissive freewheeling casualness in which there was an extraordinary amount of trust between artists and administrators. Artists submitted their proposal and budgets and staff did their utmost to help the artist realize the project by providing equipment and able bodies such as interns and machine operators—one of the unique benefits of Artpark being a state-run park in a region of industry. But something happened in 1978 to break down that trust.

One of the artists in residents that year, Story Mann, spoke at great length in a series of email exchanges, about how larger cultural shifts contributed to a changing vibe at Artpark. To quote: “Punk culture had gained a foothold at the time…I found out at Artpark that several of the other artists and more than a few of the young rangers were also very into punk music and so many evenings we would gather at different places in the park and listen to the newest music. Ironically, the musical Oklahoma was playing in the theatre that summer and every evening about dark we could here the chorus ‘Oklahoma’ ripping through the park. I can still remember this very vividly. It seemed very alien to most of the artists and rangers because we so removed from that type of cultural event. Also, even though all the artists were well supported by the park there was always a feeling that we were just a sort of side show to the theatre and the thousands of, what we considered very square tourists that came every night to see Oklahoma.” Although there had always been a tension between the money-making theatre and the contemporary art program, the run-ins that year between formally-attired exiting theatre crowds and pot-smoking artists and their rowdy entourages led to a clamp down in which park officials put out mandates about what the artists could do, and where they could go in the park.

The breaking point, however, was the closing of Story Mann’s Pop’s Pavilion of Death, a geodesic dome entered through a rope ladder dangling down the gorge. Mann, ignoring the park’s insistence to close the project for safety reasons when one of the rungs broke, was arrested. The next year, after a major staff shakeup in which the Executive Director and the Visual Arts Coordinator left, a new director revamped the program under the guise of experimenting with different approaches. This episode is in stark contrast to the park’s reaction to a 1975 incident when Doug Michels and Chip Lord of the Ant Farm collective were pulled over by a state trooper for taking their Oldsmobile Visti Cruiser time capsule on a joyride without a license plate on the eve its burial. The trooper insisted on towing the car, but the Visual Arts Coordinator interceded and the car was released to Artpark. Not only was this account verified both by Chip Lord and the Visual Arts Coordinator at that time, but it also was amazingly documented on video. While the Visual Arts Coordinator was perfectly willing to relate the joyride episode with the happy ending, park officials were not as forthcoming regarding the more incendiary bureaucratic sagas like the 1978 incident.

This episode, however, was not just an unfortunate schism between Artpark and artists, but represented developments nationally. Surveys commissioned by Artpark in 1976 and 1979 on audience demographics revealed most people were in favor of taxpayer money going toward a state park that funded experimental contemporary art. The tide began to shift in 1978 with California’s proposition 13 when “tax-cutting and service-slashing popular initiatives swept the country.”  The shift in Artpark’s policies marked not only the end of the decade, but the end of an era as well. The country became increasingly preoccupied with safety concerns and regulatory acts, enacting seat belt laws, putting T-shirts back on and wearing sunscreen, endorsing no smoking laws, and, with the arrival of AIDS, promoting safe sex. By the 1980s, Artpark increasingly concerned itself with safety issues of individual projects. A work like Alice Aycock’s sculpture in which people could scale 28-foot walls and jump between them, or George Trakas’ railing-less gang plank would not have been allowed after 1978. Besides, the excitement around experiments in communal living like Artpark was fizzling, replaced with the privatization of everyday life. The art world was in flux too. The artistic fervor of working outdoors was on the wane as artists returned to studio-based practices with the rise of the 1980s art market. In 1975, Dennis Oppenheim worked in situ to imprint his larger-than-life thumbprint onto the ground. When he returned in 1984, he brought with him Newton Discovering Gravity, a sculpture constructed entirely in his Brooklyn studio before being transported to Artpark for a pyrotechnic display that could have happened anywhere.       

We are incredibly fortunate that Artpark, at least in 1975 and 1976, produced over 100 open reel videos that are now housed in the Hallwalls Collection at the University at Buffalo archives. How they got there and why only those years remains a mystery. Heavily reliant on photography and video, contemporary art scholarship on conceptual and process-based art from the 1960s and 70s tends to remain silent on labor issues and reception. Another pitfall that much of the photography published on this era can fall into is reducing finished artworks to pictorial representation. In Artpark’s case this would be showing artworks devoid of people set against the majestic vistas of the Niagara Gorge and River. Yet, because of the sheer abundance of photography that Artpark made and its emphasis on process over product, the audiovisual documentation, in tandem with oral histories, presents a detailed record of how the public interacted with the work and the questions they asked, construction methods, and artists’ thought processes. They also impart fabulous sartorial information.

Scholars must also take into account the point of view of the person behind the camera. Was it a causal friend attending a performance, for instance, or a professional documentarian? In 1978, Artpark commissioned Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield of Video Data Bank to interview seventeen of the visual artists in residence that year. These black-and-white videos show the artists talking about their projects with minimal back-and-forth dialog. One wonders about the off-camera preparations. What questions did Blumenthal and Horsfield ask beforehand? How much footage was shot for each approximately five-minute video and how many retakes were there? What discussions did the videographers have with the artists regarding how they would like themselves and their projects-in-process to be represented? Clearly, Horsfield and Blumenthal, as artists and media makers, had an astute and highly stylized sensibility that attempted to reveal distinct personalities and capture the inner motivations of each artist. We see Bob Wade sitting on a threadbare couch incongruously placed on a Martian-like landscape, waxing poetic about giant iguanas, Story Mann tugging at his pit bulls’ tail, and Suzanne Harris hard at work pouring molten metals. Blumenthal and Horsfield’s videos rarely veer far from the talking head, but when they do they communicate important information about construction processes, the phenomenological experience of the work, and the site where it is situated. Harris, for example, evidently relished the manual labor involved in her sundial and talks at length about securing the assistance of foundries around Niagara Falls and their reaction to her project.

This touches upon an aspect of Artpark’s programming that sets it apart from mainstream museums—it gave women equal access to heavy machinery like cranes and front loaders, the typical province of male artists. Alice Adams tells Blumenthal and Horsfield that she had never before worked with a backhoe. When I interviewed her, Adams elaborated on this point by relating a story of how the backhoe operator would playfully show off by moving an architectural string back and forth with its mammoth claws. He might not have understood her sculpture, but he had fun making it and it also gave him an opportunity to show off his skills and have them appreciated.

The color videos produced by Artpark in 1975 and 1976 provide an interesting counterpoint to the 1978 tapes. The people involved in these tapes were typically twenty-somethings recruited from the Western New York region who did not possess the same breadth of art historical knowledge and production expertise as Blumenthal and Horsfield. Moreover, their format, approach, and educational motivations are radically different as many of these videos were destined for the visitor’s center. And since they are minimally or completely unedited, these videos offer a rare, unfiltered view of the park, its denizens, and diverse activities. We are exposed to amusing outbursts of profanity, witness the prodigious amount of Budweiser and jug wine consumed, watch an outdoor rendition of “Waiting for Godot” in the hot sun while a father and son play catch in the background, or view kids scrambling up and down the Art El, barely noticing the camera crew filming Alan Saret trying to tame long sheets of wire mesh. Although the interviewers possess an easy rapport with the artists, they do not shy away from challenging the artists to explain why what they do should be considered art, or asking rudimentary questions like “what sort of training does one need to become an artist” in attempt to make the artists’ practice more comprehensible to lay audiences. They also interview the public, asking them, for instance, what they think about artists burying a car, where they are from, and what they’ve seen in the park.         

Portable video, and especially in color, was relatively new at that time and in addition to artist interviews and documentation of projects, we can witness the videographers trying to learn how to use this equipment. At the beginning of a tape labeled Ree Morton, there is a segment featuring Kevin, who was used repeatedly as a test subject to adjust focusing and color. The cameraperson’s comments that Kevin has green under his eyes and the green shirt he is wearing appears blue provide invaluable historical information about the genesis and evolution of video technology. There are also funnier moments like when a kid climbs Lloyd Hamrol’s pyramids of burlap sacks and pushes one off the top. We can laugh now about this candid-camera moment capturing the videographer’s incredulous reaction to the kid’s disregard for the work, but it shows the reality of a public art park where touching was encouraged and works not constantly guarded.

Another benefit of video is that the magnetic tape was relatively inexpensive compared to film and it could be taped over repeatedly. Artpark produced hundreds of hours of footage and the prevalence of other video, film, and still cameras on site bears witness to the beginning of a media age in which video was readily accessible to a wide variety of people, a democratization of the documentarian impulse that continues into the present day with our use of smart phones. Often shot at a distance, the Artpark videos depict people either unaware or inured to the constantly rolling cameras. They capture unrehearsed, candid interactions between the artists and the public, between the public and the artist’s work, and in the process, the distinctiveness of the Artpark venture.  

Today the role of museums and galleries is being redefined. Traditionally art museums were seen as homes for art objects, but now curators are challenged with a significant amount of avant-garde and contemporary work that is ephemeral, durational, and directly addresses specific audiences at a particular moment in time. The work exists in note form, as concepts, as photo or video documentation, or in memory. While I spent six years flipping through thousands of slides in a shed in Western New York and watching hours of digitized video footage, researchers are now plumbing the depths of YouTube and other social media sites, where the line between artists and creative producers armed with digital tools is blurring. Art institutions that grapple with these forms need to adapt by becoming custodians of archives and the cultural preservation of narratives. This often necessitates a collaborative effort between smaller nonprofits and online communities, where much of this work is first shown, and large institutions such as museums, libraries, archives, and other repositories of cultural materials.

Ann Butler:  Thank you Sandra.  Our third and final panelist is Pamela Seymour Smith Sharp.  Pamela is an artist, oral historian, and Executive Director of the Estate of Willoughby Sharp. Since 1983 she has been a print production manager of museum-quality art and photography books. While on staff at MoMA, she worked with John Szarkowski and Richard Benson on Photography Until Now. In 2003, while she was Director of Catalogue Production at Phillips de Pury and Company, Pamela was introduced to Willoughby Sharp. In 2005, Pamela and Willoughby travelled to Europe to give presentations of his work.  In residence in Berlin in 2006, with a grant from DAAD, Pamela shot a 24-hour video history of Willoughby Sharp.   In 2007, she collaborated with Willoughby on his exhibition, REAPPEARANCE at the Mitchell Algus Gallery.  That same year, with DeWitt Godfrey, she co-curated a small retrospective of Willoughby’s work at the Clifford Gallery, Colgate University.  Willoughby Sharp passed away in December 2008 after a long battle with throat cancer. Pamela organized his Memorial at The Guggenheim Museum in November 2009.  In 2010, she co-produced with Duff Schweninger a 38-minute documentary on The Live Injection Point at the Franklin Street Art Center as part of the exhibition, Alternative Histories at Exit Art. Pamela is currently working on a comprehensive chronology of Willoughby Sharp's career beginning in 1957.  Please join me in welcoming Pamela Sharp.

Pamela Sharp:  Hello my name is Pamela Seymour Smith Sharp. I’d like to thank Ann Butler for inviting me to participate in AS-AP’s “Oral Histories and the Archive” panel at CAA, in such distinguished company. 

I met Willoughby Sharp in November 2003. Three months later he was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer. While he was recuperating after treatment in 2004 and 2005, I worked with Willoughby to create slide presentations from his archive on various aspects of his activities in the art world since 1957. In the fall of 2005, we traveled to Europe to give the slide presentations in Berlin, Karlsruhe, Dusseldorf, Prague and Belgrade. While in Berlin, we were invited by Dr. Freidrich Meschede of the DAAD to return in 2006 as artists-in-residence. We lived in Berlin for four months. My project there was to shoot a video oral history with Willoughby.  Willoughby had conducted recorded artist-interviews since the early 1960s. His recorded dialogues with artists were based in a mutuality meant to get to the heart of what a particular artist “was about” as he put it.

By the time I suggested that we make a video oral history, Willoughby’s relationship to the video camera was well established and all-encompassing. He was perhaps the first to video-interview or “videoview” artists in the presence of a portable video recording and playback system. He’d done numerous video performances in the mid-1970s making use of closed-circuit video systems. Having a video camera focused on him was nothing new. What was new, and what my role became very quickly, was to get him to value and to focus on delivering a personal narrative about his life and work. I was interested in the narrative thread of his entire life. I wanted the narrative to loosely follow a chronology but I also wanted to allow plenty of space and opportunity for Willoughby’s story to unfold in its own way.  Why would this be valuable, he wanted to know? He said that the contents of his archive could be pieced together in the future to construct his story. That’s why he’d created his archive.  I told Willoughby that at the very least, his personal narrative on video might supplement his archive as primary source material for cultural and art historians. I had to convince him that a personal narrative of what he did, why he did it, how he felt when he did it and with whom, had value and that in telling his story himself he would gain perspective on his life’s work.

But, the real catalyst for the video oral history was my compulsion to find out for myself what Willoughby was about.  And I knew that a video recording would communicate the force of his presence, which had “encoded in it” (as Willoughby says in the oral history), the residue of actual face time with figures such as Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and Joseph Beuys, mixed with mediated face time with Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis and “big-bosomed Dagmar;” a presence with which he was able to achieve so much.  I was particularly interested in what Willoughby did prior to Avalanche. He was most well-known for Avalanche, but what went into the making of Willoughby Sharp prior to the Avalanche years? What did he do during the late 50s and early 60s in Europe? How did his curatorial aesthetic evolve? How and when did he become obsessed with communicating art information by any and all technological means? Was it enough, in the end, to have been an artist, art writer, independent curator, publisher, lecturer, visiting artist, and never an art critic?

How and why did Willoughby decide to work entirely unaffiliated?  How and why did he become a one-man pre-internet artist-networking platform connecting East and West United States and Europe, South America and Canada end-running the intercontinental competition among artists, gallerists and curators?  How did he select the artists he got behind? What qualities did they have?

Were the Avalanche years the most indicative of what Willoughby was about or were they one of a number of significant way stations yet to be acknowledged and seen within the longer trajectory of his work? How did Willoughby value his various activities? How did he see himself as an artist? I wanted Willoughby to find out through personal narrative what the driving forces had been in his life.

Talking about Joseph Beuys in the oral history, Willoughby said that he and Beuys “shared a sense of the performative aspect of everyday life.” Soon afterward, Willoughby declared that the oral history was a performance.

Once Willoughby was willing, we created a chronological list of periods of his activity to provide some structure for the oral history. We titled the project “The VideoBook: Willoughby Sharp’s Oral Art History.” We used the camera we had, a Sony DCR TRV950, 3-chip video camera that recorded to mini DV tape. The 24 1-hour mini-DV tapes that comprise the oral history were shot in standard format video and 16:9 wide screen aspect ratio, using only the in-camera mic.

Ronald Grele of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office describes the recent evolution of oral history technique in a video on You Tube. In the past, he said, the concern was for memory as accuracy. The interviewer was mostly contemplative to receive data from the interviewee. The “subject” of the interview was then withdrawn. Interpretation of the data rested with the interviewer/historian. Rapport was manipulated to acquire information. The relationship between interviewer and interviewee was unequal and distant.  Today, he said, oral history is a joint creation with shared authority. It makes use of memory as construction (a concept borrowed from social history) not memory as accuracy. Now the interest is in memory as construction; memory as a narrative with narrative structure; how to understand the historical imagination at play (as performance?); and recognition that an oral history narrative is in itself an historical interpretation.  This best describes how Willoughby and I approached his oral history in 2006. It also echoes how Willoughby himself conducted artist interviews.

At the very beginning of the following excerpt from Tape #14, when Willoughby says “The premise of the show…” he’s referring to the Earth Art show at Cornell. The Earth Art show was the second exhibition after Air Art in a cycle of exhibitions Willoughby planned to curate devoted to the four elements. The Air Art exhibition was traveling when he began to curate Earth Art in 1968.  There’s one edit in this excerpt. It was made so that as much as possible of Willoughby talking about the Earth Art show and Avalanche could be included. I edited out my question to Willoughby and his answer as to whether or not Harald Szeemann attended the Earth Art show at Cornell. Behind Willoughby is Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin where we had a studio together.

I’d like to dedicate this screening to the memory of Dennis Oppenheim and to my dear friend Amy Plumb.

Video clip to come…

Ann Butler:  We have some time for discussion.  If the audience has questions for the panelists, or if the panelists have questions for each other, there is a microphone here. Please use it so that we can tape your question.

Audience member 1:  I have a question for Pamela Sharp.  If oral history is performance, its status as independent documentation must be very contingent and transitory. Don’t you believe?

Pamela Sharp: Well, I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit and I understand that question, especially in this context here.  The way I understand the question is that if oral history is conceived of as a performative act, does that diminish its factual accuracy; is that more or less what you are asking?

Audience Member 1: Its independent factual accuracy.

Pamela Sharp: “Independent factual accuracy,” okay I’m going to ask you, is there such a thing as, “independent factual accuracy”?

Audience member 1: Right…How do you know?

Pamela Sharp: Well, in other words, how would you determine independent factual accuracy in, say an oral history interview, even if it wasn’t considered a performative act?

Audience member 1: Well, since you ask me, by counter-posing with several other oral histories that might take opposing viewpoints.

Pamela Sharp: Okay.  Can you be more specific about the way that those other oral histories might have been done to generate independent factual accuracy?

Audience member 1: Well, I’d say that altogether, that they would… could be more [inaudible] …

Pamela Sharp: Okay.

Ann Butler: You had a question?

Audience member 2: Yes, it’s a sort of follow up question.  I did study oral history with Mason/ Starr at Columbia in its early days in ’78, did oral history before that.  I was the first visual artist to do video histories with artists in the program but one thing I think that Pamela Sharp’s presentation has captured here, and we were exploring actually, [inaudible] was exploring…how to make visual art work with an oral tape and also on camera. And what I think she is capturing that’s adding to this piece I think very strongly, is the emotional, when he repeats over and over, having been familiar with Avalanche and these papers and about this period in ’78 and how he is really adamant that this catalogue captured…that could not [be captured] on a tape recorder…she’s getting something that’s emotional, this other element, that’s coming through on this video tape…[inaudible] so I think this transcript and the visual is adding this other quality that I think is going to be more and more important.

Ann Butler: Absolutely, one of the things that we encountered with conducting oral histories for AS-AP is that we would give the subjects a choice of whether they preferred audio or video recording and whichever mode they chose they were very specific about why they chose that one. I agree with you that for those that choose video, there is another element that is captured through the visual image that you don’t get through audio.

Audience Member 2: I wanted to ask Pamela, did you find, as you went over such a lengthy oral history period, how did that add to the tapes for you?

Pamela Sharp: Well, in the first few tapes it was clear that Willoughby still needed convincing that this was important and then as the 24 1-hour tapes progressed, I think it took about 3 weeks to get them done. I pretty much made him do one a day and after maybe the 5th or 6th tape he was ready to do this himself.  He began to realize that this was a continuation of previous work that he had done.  He called it his performance work so, in an oral history context I guess what that would be is a historical imagination at play.  That’s what we were seeing and we frankly are leaving it up to other people to fact check it, so that what Willoughby says in his oral history can be looked and checked against his archive, it can be checked against his chronology that can be checked against other people’s oral histories, so, that’s the way it is.  I think that the importance of himself as a person and the way that things were done, in the not too distant past with force of personality was captured, and so I was happy about that part of it.

Audience Member 3: Can I shout? I am Gwendolyn Owens and I’m the consulting curator at the Gordon Matta Clark archive at the Canadian Center for Architecture and I want to return to this question about accuracy and to give the example of the Willoughby interview was so great.   From my perspective because he’s so on and not only are you getting the ideas but he’s got his chronology right. A lot of people aren’t that good. So, one of the things that I often encounter are students who have read one or two sources, or even older more responsible art historians who should know better, and go on to write or say something based on one or two sources, particularly oral sources that are not checked for accuracy that then starts this sort of snowball effect of the completely wrong story, so by the time I meet the person they’ve gone off on some narrative that we have to sort of bring them back about here’s the real date, here’s who was there. And I just thought maybe the panelists could comment on this kind of issue when you are trying to establish some kind of narrative chronology.

Sandra Firmin: Well, because I conducted a lot of interviews and one of the things I was trying to get at is when the interviews agree with each other and when they contradict each other because, as I said, this was in the 1970s and many of the artists expressed to me how many substances they were taking at that time so their memory was not perfect. But then there are other historical documents that you check against and so I think a responsible historian will not accept statements at face value but go to other historical documents. So, for the incident I mentioned, I had newspapers, news clippings that proved that it happened and he actually had his bail bond too (laughs), so I think its really important that you verify the oral history with other information.

Ann Butler: Any of the other panelists, do you have a response?

Michelle Elligott: I can simply add that, at the MoMA archives we are often in a similar position where people are coming to us with these sources, and its just inaccurate information, in addition to obviously looking at multiple types of information, whether it’s oral documents, other types of documents and comparing them together. I think with oral histories there is also a level of trust.   You need to think about who you are dealing with and do you really trust that anecdote to be correct and to really understand the personality of the source and is it a person who actually even in day-to-day life tries to create one’s own myth, and I think one has to assess that when thinking about how to utilize that sort of documentation.

Audience Member 4: I just wanted to ask Michelle…

Ann Butler: Just very quickly.

Audience Member 4: You might, if you haven’t, interview Dorothea Rockburn because I understand it’s her quilt on the bed.


Michelle Elligott: Great, thank you.

Audience Member 5: Oh, I had a question. If you know there is clearly misinformation in an interview, then how do you handle that?

Michelle Elligot: In our program we go through the process of editing the transcripts because we are dealing historically with our transcripts and when there are inaccuracies that we easily recognize we just add a note in brackets saying, “note, this is the correct information,” but that said we actually can’t go through and fact check everything, so its just a matter of if we find a glaring error we will add a note.

Ann Butler: We have time for one more question.

Audience Member 6: Just a question mostly for Michelle. Is movement towards video with oral histories, first of all, with Willoughby Sharp has become a classic talking head, but mostly oral histories are a conversation between interviewer and interviewee. As you move toward video interviews do you proceed capturing both parties that are partaking in this and the third party is the videographer, also the idea of setting, being MoMA specific, are you going to have this at the museum or are you going to go to the galleries, in front of the art works?

Michelle Elligot: Yes, that’s true, we very much believe in this two way dialog so it will, you know, we haven’t done one yet but the shot will be set up in a way that you will be capturing both people involved. It may even be two cameras so you have one capturing a wide angle, just one on the subject. Our specific intention is to either conduct these in the galleries, in the curatorial study centers, particularly for works on paper where you can lay out a range of works on the table and even in storage, you know, pulling those screens out and looking at the paintings. So we very much want it to be on site. If there is a sculpture in the garden, we will go out to the garden.

Ann Butler: Thank you very much for coming.