The Archives of American Art Launches Feature-Filled Online Research Guide to Chicago

George Josimovich, Illinois Central, 1927.COURTESY TERRA FOUNDATION

George Josimovich, Illinois Central, 1927.


For those interested in American art history, there is arguably no site on the internet quite as juicy as the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Want to look through a Charles Sheeler notebook and try out his recipe for shoofly pie? The AAA has got you covered. Looking for letters that Hanne Darboven wrote to Lucy Lippard? The AAA is ready for you. Researching the Leo Castelli Gallery? The AAA has its records—all 217.7 linear feet of them. And then there are the oral histories—about 2,300 of them, with a sterling array of artists, dealers, and other art types.

And now I have some thrilling news: the AAA just got a great deal juicier, with the addition of a new mini-site aimed at facilitating research into Chicago art history. The new online resource, available right here, was funded with a $413,000 grant from the Terra Foundation as part of its 2018 Art Design Chicago initiative—a kind of Windy City answer to California’s Pacific Standard Time that will feature special exhibitions, publications, and so forth—and includes a comprehensive guide to collections of materials related to the city’s art, 10 new oral histories (with dealer Rhona Hoffman, artist Suellen Rocca, and more), and a treasure trove of other materials.

The new site grew out of a 1991 publication called “Art-Related Archival Materials in the Chicago Area” that Betty Blum assembled, AAA director Kate Haw, said in an interview. That original guide listed 26 repositories and 158 collections that hold research materials related to Chicago art. The new one, compiled by Wendy Greenhouse, is a great deal more comprehensive, with 76 repositories and nearly 900 collections—a huge increase. “Our goal is always to make it easier for people to find their way in their research,” Haw said, adding that the folks using the AAA range from art historians to novelists looking to ensure historical accuracy to people doing genealogy research.

Over the past decade, Terra has funded the AAA to the tune of $12 million, Amy Zinck, the foundation’s executive vice president, said. She noted that people “are now able, from Bentonville to Bulgaria, wherever, to engage in American art” thanks to the AAA’s online presence. And that presence will only keep growing. Haw said that about 20 to 30 new oral histories are being conducted each year and mentioned that the archives recently doubled the rate that they are scanning holdings in their archives.

Museums and galleries in Chicago have started to announce their programming for Art Design Chicago, and it looks like it is shaping up to be an impressive event. Zinck said that Terra had long thought about funding such a project, and decided in 2014 to set the plan in motion, “knowing that there was a bigger story to be told.”

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