Notes & Comments January 1999
Off the record
On the New York Times-manufactured scandal at the Archives of American Art
The manufacture of scandal used to be a tabloid specialty. But many people who pay attention to our paper of record will be surprised to learn that imputing scandal where none exists has also become a common feature of the way that The New York Times covers cultural matters. A case in point was A Fight in the Attic, a story about the Archives of American Art, an important repository of documents about the history of American art that began in the 1950s as a private enterprise but since 1970 has operated as a semi-autonomous branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Written by Judith H. Dobrzynski, the story appeared on the front page of the papers art section on December 8. The chief point at issue the raison dêtre for the piecewas the recent decision to close regional offices of the Archives in Boston and Detroit and to streamline operations at the New York office. The decision was made partly for financial reasonsthe Archives simply cannot afford to maintain the officespartly for reasons of efficiency.
There was nothing complicated, mysterious, or untoward about this decision. It was fully justified by the fiscal realities under which the Archives operates. But Ms. Dobrzynski dressed it up as a shocking melodrama, an uproar, in which Richard J. Wattenmaker, Director of the Archives since 1990, was cast as a heartless bureaucrat and bungling administrator. Six employees, including two regional directors, would lose their jobs, Ms. Dobrzynski ominously noted. The news ricocheted around the American art world, and so did the complaints. But they were not enough to stop Mr. Wattenmakers plans, which went into effect on Nov. 23.
Ms. Dobrzynski devotes the rest of her piece to painting a picture of the Archives as a floundering institution with Mr. Wattenmaker as its sour, clueless leader who has lashed back at critics in a way rarely heard in the art world or in the Government. One would never know from Ms. Dobrzynskis report that Mr. Wattenmaker is an internationally recognized scholar and curator, former chief curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario, former Director of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and the author of a number of important books, including studies of seventeenth-century Dutch art, Puvis de Chavannes, and Maurice Prendergast. One gets no hint from Ms. Dobrzynskis piece that Mr. Wattenmaker has actually greatly expanded the Archivess collecting and publication activities. Ms. Dobrzynski does not mention the many new projects Mr. Wattenmaker has initiatedthe recently completed Paris Survey Project, for example, which involved tracking down and cataloguing the many organizations in Paris containing documentary materials about American artists, an innovation that is sure to attract greater attention to American art among European researchers.
Ms. Dobrzynski gravely tells us that Mr. Wattenmaker acknowledged that only about one-third of the documents collected by the Archives had been microfilmed. In fact, no acknowledgment was necessary. He never intended that the Archives should microfilm its entire collection. The most significant materials are microfilmed, the rest are computer-catalogued, cross-referenced, and available for consultation. The thirteen-million items under its care include papers from artists, dealers, art magazines, art schools, craftsmen, and galleries, all of which are available to writers and scholars. This is a fact that gets lost in Ms. Dobrzynskis little drama about the battle that she imagines being waged regarding the Archivess mandate. The battle is pure fabrication. But that hardly seems to matter these days for the Times, which in its cultural coverage appears less and less a paper of record and more and more a cheerleader for pre-approved figures and causes andas Ezra Pound said in another contexta stirrer-up of strife for those of which it disapproves.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 5, on page 2
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