The Studio Museum in Harlem has long been the keeper of many hidden gems, including an archive devoted to James Van Der Zee, who shook up photography with his studio portraits of Black New Yorkers. Having held the archive for decades, the Studio Museum will now partner with another institution further downtown, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to steward 20,000 prints and 30,000 negatives by the artist, as well as ephemera and photo equipment.
As part of the landmark partnership which will likely change the way Van Der Zee’s work is seen and studied, the Met is now a co-owner of the archive. Never before has the museum worked with another institution to preserve an archive, and only two other complete archives of photographers’ work—one for Walker Evans, the other for Diane Arbus—are owned by the Met.
In a statement, the artist’s widow Donna Van Der Zee said, “That The Met’s acquisition will allow the public to witness, learn from, and be moved by the beauty and diversity captured in Van’s photographs gives me tremendous joy. The collection has found an ideal permanent home.”
Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum’s director, praised the partnership as a vital attempt to bring the archive “under one roof, where the technical challenges of conservation and digitization will be expertly managed, and our ongoing work in advancing knowledge of Van Der Zee will be supported and amplified by a great partner.”
James Van Der Zee, who died in 1983, created what are now considered some of the most important documents of Harlem during the first half of the 20th century. But his work was not known widely until 1969, when the Met mounted “Harlem on My Mind,” an exhibition about the New York neighborhood that faced controversy because it was organized by a white man, largely without community involvement, and because it featured no paintings or sculptures by artists living there.
Van Der Zee’s archive has formed a crucial component of the Studio Museum’s programming for decades. For more than 20 years, the museum has had younger photographers respond to Van Der Zee’s work in an exhibition series entitled “Expanding the Walls.”
Not everything about the Van Der Zee archive has proven so easy, however. In 1981, Van Der Zee himself sued the Studio Museum, claiming that he was never totally compensated when the institution agreed to become the custodian of his archive in 1976. In 1984, the suit was settled, with Van Der Zee’s estate regaining half the 50,000-work collection signed over to the Studio Museum.
It wasn’t clear based on the Met’s announcement how soon an exhibition of Van Der Zee’s art would take place, though the museum said it would bring together experts of all kinds to make the archive “fully available to the public.” Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said the archive was filled with “intimate, life-affirming portraits and views.”