‘A Tremendous Snapshot of More Than Four Decades of Work’: Curator Glenn R. Phillips on the Getty’s Acquisition of Margo Leavin Gallery Archives


Margo Leavin Gallery.


Earlier this week, it was announced that Margo Leavin, the owner of the eponymous L.A. gallery (1970-2013), had sold her archives to Getty Research Institute (GRI). During its reign, Margo Leavin Gallery was known as a bastion of cutting-edge contemporary art (Pop, Minimalist, and later Conceptual), presenting 500 shows by mostly New York- and L.A.-based artists at the time, such as John Baldessari, Alexis Smith, and William Leavitt.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Leavin chose the GRI “because it showed a particular interest in collecting gallery archives and making them quickly and easily accessible to researchers…scholars and those preparing exhibitions and catalogues raisonnés.” Leavin also mentioned that several curators had already paid the archives a visit in the couple days that they had been available.

Notably, the article mentions that “the diminishing importance of the gallery show in the Internet era” was a key factor in  Leavin’s decision to close the gallery two years ago.
She is quoted as saying, “In the early days, I got beautiful letters from Dan Flavin, notes from Oldenburg, illustrated letters from Westermann that are just so fabulous. In the early days, artists wrote. Now, they pick up the phone or email, which is such a pity.”

The archive includes 43 years’ worth of records of business dealings and installations, brochures, reviews, images of artwork, annotated auction catalogues, and all types of correspondence between collectors, dealers, artists. As mentioned above, there are 80 illustrated letters from artists Hannah Wilke, H.C. Westermann, Billy Al Bengston, Claes Oldenburg, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, William T. Wiley and Andy Warhol.

Over email, I asked GRI’s modern and contemporary collections curator, Glenn R. Phillips, to tell me a bit more about the institute’s recent acquisition.

ARTnews: How many items are in the archive?

Phillips: I don’t have an exact count, but there’s more than 300 linear feet of material in 273 boxes.

Can the public just walk in and access these archives?

The archive is open to anyone doing research, but the archives are not in open stacks.  Researchers use the inventories to request the specific boxes they wish to consult, and the boxes are brought to them in a supervised reading room.  Researchers need to register as readers at the GRI, and make an appointment to use our Special Collections reading room.

I read that Margo’s decision to close her gallery was partially due to the lessening importance of physical gallery shows in the digital age, though she donated her archives to the Getty in the hope that the public would have easy access to them. Related to this, does the Getty have plans to digitize the archives soon?

The first step will be cataloging the archive so that researchers will have an inventory that identifies what materials are in each box and folder. We are easily able to digitize individual items or groups of items within the archive as researchers need them (for publication, etc.), but at the moment we do not have plans to comprehensively digitize the archive.

Is this a rare phenomenon, a gallery selling its complete archive to an institution?

It’s not exactly an everyday occurrence, but the GRI has collected the archives of several important galleries, including exceptionally important 19th and early-20th century galleries such as Duveen Bros., M. Knoedler & Co., and Goupil & Cie, and several other important galleries who specialized in work ranging from Old Masters to Impressionism to early avant-garde. Representing the post-1945 era, we have the archives of key European galleries such as Kasmin Limited, Alfred Schmela Galerie, and Galerie Paul Maenz Köln, all of whom were so important in the burgeoning globalization and spread of conceptual art in the 1960s and 70s. Closer to home, we have the records of important historic L.A. galleries both large and small, including the papers of Betty Asher, Patricia Faure Gallery, Claire Copley Gallery, Rolf Nelson Gallery, Mizuno Gallery, and several others.

Do you know if Margo Leavin was considering any other institutions before she chose the Getty?

I can only confirm conversations that I have had with Margo directly, so I can’t verify any other conversations that she may have had.  She was very knowledgeable about the other repositories that are out there.

Which items in the archive do you personally find most interesting?

In terms of individual items, my favorites would have to be the sketches, plans, and illustrated letters sent by artists, including several dozen very charming sketches by Claes Oldenburg, wonderful works by Hannah Wilke, and wonderful illustrated letters by folks like H.C. Westermann and William T. Wiley.  In terms of research value, what’s so terrific about this archive is the incredible provenance of information that it contains—it tells the history of so many important artworks and how they came to placed in collections all over the world.  The installation shots and other photography commissioned by the gallery over the years is just top notch, and such a valuable record of the exhibitions. Then there are hundreds, if not thousands, of snapshots that show the artists at work and many events at the gallery, as well as events all over the world that the gallery artists participated in, and which Margo and [Margo’s business partner Wendy Brandow] attended and supported when possible. It’s a tremendous snapshot of more than four decades of work.

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