Most art history students have had to tackle an assignment that requires researching a contemporary artist. Quickly, it becomes clear that the research of contemporary artists involves a different research process than more seasoned artists. The resources that students would normally access first, such as catalogue raisonnés or retrospective exhibition catalogues, most likely do not exist yet. So, what sources are available to researchers of contemporary art and how does a contemporary art museum library cater to those needs? These are questions we ask ourselves when building and managing our collection.
To find out more about these needs, we turned to art journalist Tyler Green who frequents the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden library in his research. Tyler Green is best known for his columns in the magazine Modern Painters and the blog Modern Art Notes (MAN) which discuss the current issues of the art world that may otherwise go unnoticed. Also very popular are his podcasts in which he interviews active players in the art field, particularly contemporary artists and the inspiration behind their shows (links to his podcasts can be found on the MAN blog). Interested in discovering what keeps him coming back to our library for his research, we asked for a quick interview to discuss his research habits which he kindly agreed to.
When asked why he chooses to conduct his research in a library, versus primarily online, Green responded: “particularly when I need to access stuff that has been published outside of the U.S. a library is kind of imperative.” He emphasized the importance he places on conducting in-depth research in order to “have intelligent questions to ask” during his interviews. In particular to the Hirshhorn library, Green described the international exhibition catalogues, that constitute a substantial part of our collection and come mainly through our exchange program, as the “most important thing” that he comes to utilize, saying that “often I have guests that are under ‘art-booked,’ for example, whose presence in books and periodicals is much more prominent in Europe than in the United States.” As an example, he referred to a recent guest on his show, Julie Mehretu, whom he researched at our library: “the U.S. publishing footprint on her is pretty small, the most significant publication on her is a European one- it’s the go to monograph on her work, and I don’t have it.”
Besides published books, one of the resources the Hirshhorn library houses are artist files. Artist files (often times generally referred to as vertical files) are usually collections of folders that contain ephemeral material on certain artists including newspaper articles, exhibition catalogues, and exhibition checklists. These materials are too small to be cataloged but are important resources. Green has taken advantage of our files and commented on their usefulness to him: “I never cease to be amazed- what artists there’s been a lot published on and what artists there have not been. So especially for artists who are kind of in the first stage or two of their career, a fuller range of stuff that is in vertical file type folders, or published in smaller format is really useful.” He stated how these files are also very helpful for artists who have not had any major publications on their work for many years, saying that “vertical files are useful for that interregnum.”
As someone who interviews contemporary artists and is able to ask for further insight into their modes of work, I asked him about whether he keeps in mind that he himself is producing some primary source material through his podcasts. He responded, “Yes, definitely. I mean, I keep a pretty thorough digital archive as well, on each artist both of images, which are less important, because images can be available from lots of people. But they are for some future researcher [and] will make the art work discussed on the show immediately accessible. Then we keep an unedited version of the interviews, digitally.” Green explained that he realized the importance of having unedited audio files: “I’m conscious that when artists come on our show, it’s audio, it’s the raw file, they don’t have a chance to go back to pad or tweak or take out something that might be a little too honest or might be a little too revelatory about a source or an idea. I’m aware that audio can serve as a record that’s more- that’s closer to the artist’s thought, maybe, than an edited text interview, I would say that’s probably the way I’m most aware that they may be used.” In this way, he consciously produces and organizes his own collection of sources for future scholars, art journalist, art critics, etc. in a way that can be fully and easily used.
Lastly, we asked for some of his personal opinions about what he particularly liked about the Hirshhorn library. He spoke highly of the accessibility to the collection’s catalog, commenting that, “the Smithsonian’s catalog is online, and that’s an enormous deal” and that “it’s not a resource that should be taken for granted” referring to the fact that not every institution has an online catalog. In reference to art museum libraries, we asked if he had any suggestions for things that should be changed or improved, to which he responded with a compliment: “I don’t think so. One of the nice things about the Hirshhorn library […] is that you can just wander into the stacks, which is great […] it’s a rare and cool thing.”