World Building and the Collections in the Art Museum-Library

Ada Kolganova and Anastasia Guy note in their paper “Heritage received and multiplied: Russian art libraries as collectors and translators” that museum libraries inhabit an interesting space in librarianship. [1. Kolganova, Ada and Guy, Anastasia. “Heritage received and multiplied: Russian art libraries as collectors and translators.” IFLA General Conference and Assembly in Milan, Italy 2009. 23-27 August 2009, Milan. Accessed from:] They function as a kind of secondary research department in tandem with their larger museum. They are often part archive, part library, part museum, part classroom.

I did observation at the MoMA and Poets House libraries, both of which I consider to be art museum libraries. I am considering the Poets House library a museum library in the most general way: it functions as archive (storing important founders documents, including personal libraries, and personal correspondences), library (hosting the largest collection of poetry books, chapbooks, collections, and art books on the east coast), museum (by holding exhibitions from artists such as George Schneeman and acting as a performance space for poets), and research center (by providing resources for art and art criticism.). At the very least, the Poets House library is a specialized library dedicated to putting forth a specific view about poetry and its place in the art world.

It’s important to note that museum libraries are not their own entities, but rather appendages of larger institutions interested in carving out their own niche in the art world. These agendas are similar to the ways Derrida talks about the dualities of archive fever. He says:

…Right on what permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than what exposes to destruction, in truth what menaces with destruction introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument…The archive always works, and a priori, against itself (14). [2. Derrida, Jacques. “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.” Diacritics 25.2 (1995):9-63. Web.]

As much as the archive remembers, it also forgets, destroys, and thus, creates new memories and truths. Derrida says this is the character of the archive. Museum libraries function in a similar manner. Their curated collections construct the art world as they wish to define it. These mythologies are something I think Walter Benjamin would understand as political.

What interests me about these two examples is the way they curate their libraries. MoMA and Poets House are both respected institutions in the art world, though I will readily admit that MoMA is probably better known and better funded. That seems to be the case anyway, given how frankly my Poets House guide (and Pratt alum!) Gina Scalise spoke about soliciting donations and new work. Their focus is on amassing a large collection from a number of sources. “The other week I had to catalog a ziplock bag with a cut out slice of pizza and a seed in it,” she told me. [3. Scalise, Gina. Personal interview. 23 October 2014.] I asked to see the conceptual piece, but she said they were still debating where to store it. Scalise says they often receive conceptual material that’s up for debate and they’ve even made a small space for “more fiction-leaning material” in their collection. Poets House gathers its material from prominent presses like Ugly Duckling Presse to smaller one-person operations. Because they accept a large range of material, their organizing system is constantly in flux and, perhaps, not as intuitive as it ought to be. But Poets House aim, at the end of the day, is to amass as much poetry as possible.

MoMA’s library has a more standard fair than Poets House and is split between its Manhattan location and its Queens PS1 location. It includes art history and criticism books, but the Manhattan location also housed books published after the 1940s, catalogs (which it shares with the MoMA Archive) and MoMA publications and special collections. The emphasis of my time at MoMA seemed to be the MoMA publications: art books collaborations between the museum and an artist of the museum’s choice. Several examples were laid out for us upon arrival. Especially impressive was the ten-something foot-long scroll from Yun-Fei Ji, which depicts the chaos instigated by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China. Librarian David Senior said they had to search for a particular printing house in China to realize Ji’s. [4. Senior, David. Personal interview. 14 October 2014.] Their most recent project, soon to be released, is an artist’s book called Tom Tit Tot, which will feature poetry from Susan Howe and artwork from her daughter, R. H. Quaytman.

Along with Senior, several other librarians expressed excitement about MoMA’s publications. The museum was able to fund artist’s works while the library could serve as a place to democratize the sharing of these works. Each work is printed in a limited edition and while the library has a copy or two, most are meant for distribution, with part of the sale funding MoMA’s library and archives. The library and archive are considered separate entities from the museum and thus work within their budget. The artist books produced come in part from donations by The Library Council. The Council is a group of a hundred donors who pay an annual fee of $2,500 dollars and in return receive a copy of the artist book upon completion. “It’s a great way to inspire community and it’s a win-win for everyone,” Senior enthused. [5. Senior, David]

I’m interested in the way Poets House and MoMA cultivate ideas of what the art world is. I thought the comparison between Poets House and MoMA was especially salient given that they both primarily deal with artist books, or genre-bending books having to do with art and art expression. I found that Poets House seemed less formal and more community-based than MoMA’s libary. Or rather, Poets House seeks a wider community base than MoMA. Patrons are encouraged to “let it hang out” as Scalise would say, with assorted couches, desks, and several reading rooms to choose from. Some patrons chose to read on a spiral staircase without interruption. In the summer, the space opens up into a garden, where patrons are encouraged to take their reading material. Poets House seems to build more of a user-based world, designed with a purposeful chaos to allow for exploration.

MoMA seemed more exclusive in many senses. For one, everything was very sanitary. There was one reading room with rows of desks and chairs lined one after the other, so that librarians could keep an eye on patrons. I was not allowed to take photos unless I signed several forms. Material is highly regulated because the material is often rare, though reproducible.

And of course, there is the difference in collections. Poets House depends on the populous but small, independent presses, while MoMA’s collection usually utilizes one or two specialized printers for their commissioned books. There is an insulation to MoMA’s curatorial process not present at Poets House. MoMA’s collection curates an art world that is exclusive, sophisticated, and highly regulated. Poets House curates one that is inclusive, candid, engaging, and less regulated.

The importance of an institution’s attempts to define the art world can better be understood in terms of Benjamin’s insistence that art be political in one way or another. MoMA’s focus on the exclusive with its Library Council can be seen as a reproduction of the cult value of art where, “what mattered was their existence, not their being on view.”[6.Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Schocken/Random House, 1936. Web.] The entire idea of the limited edition underscores the primacy of authenticity and exclusivity; the elitism of bourgeois evaluation of art.

This is not an issue Poets House deals with due to the breadth of its collection. The very nature of their art books is that they are widely available and reproducible. The small publishers they use circulate their books at multiple locations. I would argue that, while MoMA has the ability to reproduce these books, because they tend to circulate material among a select few, they keep artists from engaging a wide audience in the progressive politics of their art. On the other hand, Poets House does not have the means to reproduce its material, but allows the patron more access to the material. Perhaps the ability to take photos of books without the need of forms is a way of returning the power to reproduce back to the patron. This freedom seems to be more in-line with Benjamin’s optimism about the impact of technology on politicizing of art. He says:

One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. [7. Benjamin, Walter]

Here Benjamin is talking about the way reproduction has the power to be political and to make art political by engaging the masses. Even though we’ve already established that the books at Poets House are easily reproduced by their publishers, I think allowing for patron photography is yet another way to harness the power of reproduction Benjamin talks about. It reinforces the idea of a more community-based, inclusive art world, something that seems more progressive in light of Benjamin’s analysis of art reproduction.

At the MoMA library, Senior seemed proud of the Dadaist-influenced, politically-minded art they have been able to fund. He pointed to Yung-Fei Ji’s piece as a radically subversive work criticizing imperialism and the Chinese government, made even more impressive by the use of a traditional Chinese printing house that had been acquired by the government. But if that message is only circulated amongst a few, how can we call the act of possession radical? Ji’s work seems easily tokenized in this manner, its use a strange echo of the Futurists’ aestheticization of violence Benjamin seems so wary of.



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