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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Both Sides of the Fence, Librarian and Curator:
Forming a Latin American Library Collection

Clayton Kirking
Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


This paper presents an overview of the process of establishing a Latin American Art Research Collection in a medium sized art museum library in the United States. The Department of Latin American Art at the Phoenix Art Museum was officially established on January 1, 1992. Although the Museum has throughout its history collected Mexican art, the definition of the department has been expanded to include all of Latin America. The library has, as well, collected materials relevant to the object collection of the Museum, primarily Mexican titles. The task before the library staff is the development of a collection which will support the activities of the Department of the Latin American Art.

Thius paper is written from the unique point of view of the author who is both the Librarian for the Museum and the Curator of the Latin American Department. In the present environment of the art world. Latin American Art remains one of the most stable and aggressive markets. Whithin the current climate of multi-culturalism, the position taken by the Phoenix Art Museum can only be seen as asse rtively progressive. The paper attempts to explain the steps that are necessary to achieve a working collection of books and 35 mm slides after the establishment of a new curatorial department.


I have prepared this paper in order to relate my experiences working as both librarian and curator for the same institution. Since accepting both of these roles, I have gained valuable insights that I have tried to incorporate into both jobs. I have attempted to share this knowledge with my colleagues within the museum in the hope that it will allow the two departments (library and curatorial) to cooperate and work together more effectively. I am pleased to make this presentation and it is my wish that this talk could initiate further cooperation between libraries and museums in the United States and the boundless bibliographic resources of Latin America.

The Phoenix Art Museum was formally founded in 1959. A museum and library collection had existed since the 1930s, however in the late 50s a building dedicated to the purposes of the Museum was constructed. That building housed the collections of the Museum, its staff, support facilities and the library. Today the Museum is in the process of building a new facility that will more than double th e available gallery, public and administrative spaces. The library will be increased by approximately five times its current size. This in itself has presented a major challenge to the library staff. I have been the Librarian and now Director of the Libraries since 1981. In January of 1992 the Museum established a Department of Latin American Art. Because of my long term interest in the arts of Mexico and South America, the director of the museum asked me to accept the responsibility of curator for this new collecting area. It is my position as both librarian and curator which will focused upon in this paper.

The Phoenix Art Museum can be defined as a medium sized institution with a collection spanning the eighteenth century to the present times and including works from Europe, Asia and Latin America (primarily Mexico). Since 1959 the library has been developing collections of materials to support the collections of art housed in the Museum. We have successfully formed a non circulating reference co llection of about 40,000 volumes. Subject areas within this body of titles include European art from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Western American painting; Chinese painting, ceramics, sculpture and calligraphy; contemporary art from Europe and the United States. As well, the collection effectively functions as a general reference collection. The library is used by the st aff of the Museum, its membership and the general public. It is open approximately 20 hours per week for use by the public, e.g. volunteers, students, collectors, appraisers and curiosity seekers. The staff of the library consists of my position (as Director of the reference collection, the slide (visual resource collection) and a specialized collection of works relating to the history of fashion), a part time assistant librarian (70%) and a work force of about 45 volunteers who contribute time equivalent of approximately 1.5 full time employees annually. The small staff is faced with hea vy work loads. Collection development, reference services, bibliographic searching and strategic planning are all handled by this small work force. Additionally, the burden of training and supervising a large number of volunteers at times nearly outweighs the great amount of work they contribute.The Library, however, could not function at the high levels we maintain without this source of labor . Now I and my assistant are confronting the problems involved in relocating the entire collection twice, closing the library for many services and maintaining all of the daily functions during the construction period and planning a new facility. It is a daunting occupation.

The Latin American art collection has developed over a period of 40 years. Because of the geographic proximity of Arizona to Mexico the strength of the collection is in works of Mexican Art. Within that collection the most important objects are works on paper: drawings, prints, gouaches and watercolors. The collection has been built through both donations and purchases with the major portion having been acquired as gifts. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a number of museum members and citizens formed a group called The Friends of Mexican Art. This organization has contributed a large number of pieces to the museum and at the same time encouraged collecting in the community which has resulted in additional gifts and loans. In total the collection numbers about 300 works of art.

The Phoenix Art Museum has a long history of presentation and organization of Latin American, primarily Mexican, exhibitions. It was the site of the first large, significant exhibitions of both Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Zuñiga and was the organizer of Diego Rivera: Los años cubistas in 1984. In 1991, after years of encouragement from me, board members and museum members, the De partment of Latin American Art was created. As stated earlier I was invited to serve as the founding curator.

The decision to found this department was the result of pressure from several sources. Aside from that just mentioned (myself and other concerned supporters of the Museum) recent history has provided valuable lessons and catalysts. Since 1990 a series of very important and widely publicized Latin American exhibitions has been seen in the North America, South America and Europe. These exhibitio ns, like Thirty Centuries of Splendor from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the more recent Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century organized by the Museum of Modern Art have drawn an extraordinary amount of attention. Ante América, organized in part by the well known Cuban art historian Gerardo Mosquera, opened in Bogotá in 1992 and is still traveling in the U.S. T hese exhibitions and many others like them bear witness to the fact that the subject of Latin American Art has again captured the attention of the U.S. cultural community, much as it did during the decades of the 20s, 30s and 40s. The Latin American Art market, as exemplified by the bi annual sales at both Christies and Sothebys of New York, has remained strong even through a periods when other markets, such as contemporary American painting, were unsteady or loosing ground.

All of this activity has been taking place in an atmosphere amplified by the aggressive discussion of and subsequent passage in the U.S. Congress of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico. Now Colombia and Chile stand poised to follow with similar treaties. In states like Arizona, which share borders with Mexico, all of these topics are magnified and amplified. It was in this atmo sphere that the administration and Board of Trustees found it prudent to establish this new department. This effectively places the Phoenix Art Museum very much in the vanguard of collecting art institutions with defined departments dedicated to the arts of Latin America. Only four of five other museums have formalized Latin American divisions. In general Latin American collections in the Unit ed States emphasize the pre colombian and/or colonial periods, the Phoenix Art Museum will concentrate its collecting in the 20th and 21st centuries. It will join only the Huntington Gallery at the University of Texas at Austin, which houses the largest and most important collection of modern Latin American art in the United States, in this effort. As a professional librarian I have been working in the field of art and art history since 1975. After completing my Master of Library Science degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington I worked for more than six years as a Fine Arts Reference Specialist in the public library system in Tacoma, Washington. At that same time I was director and curator of collections for a fully functional art gallery in the main branch of the public library. During this period I developed a strong interest in contemporary painting in Mexico. I found the content of modern Mexican work to be much more relevant to society and the world as I knew it. My opinion has remained unchanged, only my resolve has grown stronger.

In 1981 I accepted the position of librarian at the Phoenix Art Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. The museum administration and Board of Trustees are extraordinarily supportive of the Libraries within the Museum and have encouraged me to develop my interest of and studies in Latin American art. Before my appointment as curator, I did act as curator for Mexican exhibitions at the Museum as well as org anizing exhibits as an independent curator. It was with this background that I found myself working on "both sides of the fence".

Although the library has collected materials relating to contemporary Mexican painting for many years, I suddenly found myself confronted with the formation of an entirely new collection: a general reference collection which would support the activities of a curatorial department in the field of contemporary Latin American art. An assessment of the existing collection confirmed the existence of a good collection of Mexican materials. Because the strong component of the collection will remain in that area, the addition of historical resources was necessary. These have been primarily basic resources in Pre Columbian, colonial and 19th century periods. It was apparent that much work remained in the development of a workable Latin American collection.

The first, and most essential, obstacle to be overcome was finding money to provide an acquisitions budget. In the Fall of 1992 I and several other staff members wrote a grant to The Flinn Foundation of Arizona the purpose of which was "...to assist in the establishment of the Department of Latin American Art". The grant proposal included $15,000. for book purchases and $4,000. for slides and o ther visual resources. In early 1993 we learned that the grant had been fully funded. Even though this grant provided more than $191,000. to the department, the book budget was certainly not large enough. As yet another testimony to the commitment made by the Museum and its members to this project, a private donor approached me offering to purchase additional library materials. Too, I have ag gressively encouraged the rest of the curatorial staff to include library and visual resource materials in each exhibition budget. This is a very logical, often over looked manner in which to increase the holdings of the library in specific areas of interest to individual curators. With these financial sources it was possible to begin to develop the collection in ernest. I must add the qualifi cation that this funding procedure appears to have been somewhat uncomplicated. This is partially due, I believe, to the fact that the subject matter is very attractive to potential donors. Particularly in the current climate of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA negotiations, another, less intriguing, less "politically correct" subject may not have met with such profound and enth usiastic patronage. On the other hand, the excitement generated by the works of art themselves, is the primary impetus for this energetic response.

The task now shifted to identifying sources for the necessary and most desirable titles. I assembled a list of vendors that deal specifically in art books of Mexico, Central and South America. Some of these dealers have been established for many years, others are newer or have a much more broad scope. In any case, there are accessible dealers like Puvill Libros of Barcelona and Mexico City, Ho ward Karno Books and Libros Latinos in California and Iberbook of Madrid who publish regular catalogs, do searching and establish approval plans. The prices of Latin American art books purchased from secondary sources, i.e. dealers, are very high. Still, however, it is often very difficult to acquire publications directly from publishers. This is particularly true in the case of exhibition cat alogues, most of which are published in very limited editions and which generally do not get into the ISBN, ISSN and or LC Card systems. These and many others are, for all practical searching purposes, invisible publications.

Being on the "curatorial side of the fence" is a great advantage in this regard as one is usually in much closer contact with museums, galleries, scholars and publishers. Being in this manner aware of what has been or is to be published can remove a great deal of the mystique and provide a greater opportunity to purchase a title before it goes out of print. I my mind this in itself is a substan tial argument for the development of very strong subject specialties among librarians. For confirmation of and inspiration from this we need only turn to the works and standards set by people like Bernard Karpel, Wolfgang Freitag and Evelyn McMann of Vancouver, British Colombia.

The problem of identifying dealers is a problem in any area of collection development. I have found, however, that in South America it is intensified. First, the vast distances present a natural obstacle. Next, different accounting practices and currencies discourage some dealers from participating in international trade. But most important is the apparent lack of "net working" between the co untries of South American themselves. For example, bookstores in Santiago de Chile are unlikely to carry or have knowledge of recent publications from Buenos Aires, in Montevideo you are not apt to find good publications from Venezuela or Central America, etc. I believe there is a tendency in the United States to think of South America as being much more compact, with a much greater flow if inf ormation between countries than actually exists. This is a valuable information which can save a lot of time in searching for and ordering materials: go directly to the country of origin whenever possible. In this regard, the formation of the Museum's collection of Latin American materials has depended very much upon the use of travel as an acquisition tool. Travel has allowed me to actually purchase large numbers of books and to identify dealers that are willing to sell to and bill the Museum as an institution. Travel is a great luxury, but very effective device.

At this time I have added to the collection approximately 550 new Latin American titles and more than 4400 35mm slides. The work continues. It has been exciting and gratifying to watch this collection grow develop and grow. Now I would like to enumerate some of the challenges that I believe face art librarians in the United States and Latin America based upon my experiences of the past two years. First, there is a genuine need for better communication between colleagues and libraries. Librarians from countries like Brazil, Argentina and from all parts of Latin America need to assume that they have access to inform ation that U.S. librarians need and want. To this end I would suggest the development of aggressive exchange programs. The exchange of publications between institutions is a fundamental distribution method. Similarly, U.S. librarians should assertively seek and request information from museums, universities, foundations and galleries in Latin America. Good international directories of librari es must be compiled, similar to the current cooperative project of IFLA and ARLIS. Closer professional contact will naturally engender networks and cooperative efforts which can only enhance the profession of librarianship. Members of professional organizations, whether local, regional, national or international must continue to expand beyond their own memberships, perhaps to follow the example set by the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (SALALM) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and to involve members of other professions and fields. Organizations like the Fundación Espigas in Buenos Aires which has founded the Centro de Documentación para la Historia del Arte en la Argentina must not remain unknown to scholars and students in the United St ates and Europe. I believe now more than ever that it is the information specialist's role to open and maintain lines of communication. The occasion of this IFLA meeting in Cuba, a country which has produced some of the Americas most important artists, is a benchmark in this process. The foresight of the its leaders is commendable. The applications of new technologies in this regard are obvio us, but standing at the fax machine, or sitting at the key board ought to be, increasingly, an assertive librarian with intellectual vision far beyond the nuts and bolts of technology.