Elizabeth Myers

Women and Leadership Archives: Providing Care, Preservation and Access to Women Artists' Papers

If people think of archives at all, they usually conjure up images of long-dead authors of dusty tomes, brittle paper, and strange attic smells. In a medieval, historic sense of the profession, that is not far from the truth.However, modern archives and professional archivists often work tirelessly to reach out to donors, actively engage researchers, and otherwise promote the use of the not-so-dusty manuscripts in their care.In that sense, archivists might best be described as stewards of the past and shepherds of the historical future. Indeed, the phrase “historical future” is not the oxymoron it might appear to be. The documents that describe, illustrate, and accompany the modern lived experience are the very same that will make up the invaluable manuscripts of the future. In short, what is contemporary will become, with the inevitable passage of time, the historical record of us. What makes up that record varies greatly from one collection to the next; every collection is as unique as its creator and donor. Yet every collection shares the same beginning—the initial impulse on the part of an individual who considers, even if for a moment, that their own papers are worth something. That value is not tallied in terms of dollars but in the ability to share information about the past; to provide witness to events or actions; to not forget or misplace; to give insight and promise of integrity to the storytelling of history. This is the very impulse that recently brought together several women from the former Artemisia Gallery and the Women and Leadership Archives of Loyola University of Chicago.

Last March, the Women and Leadership Archives (WLA) hosted several members of the former Artemisia Gallery (1973–2005) of Chicago. The gathering was largely executed through the enthusiasm and dedication of former Artemisia president, Barbara Ciurej, and nearly 30 artists met for the second time at Piper Hall on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus. This was a follow-up event to one held at the same location in 2010. The first event was to introduce women artists to the archives and for the artists to catch up and reconnect to one another. The March event was to offer an opportunity to bring in materials to start building their own collections and tour the archives.

Twenty-four new collections pertaining to individual women artists in Chicago have since been created. These collections are as varied in size and content as the artists themselves, but some examples include: gallery and exhibit cards, slides, photos, artist’s statements, newspaper clippings, journals, flyers, catalogs, CDs/DVDs/MP3s of their work, sketchbooks, resumes, diaries, correspondence, grants, fellowships, exhibit proposals (and rejections), travel notes, academic records/lecture notes, and notebooks. Because the archives is not a gallery or museum, we are unable to accept large pieces of art, but several women have added small pieces or drafts of their work. These important first collections have allowed the artists and archivist to work together to build a serious foundation of women artists' papers at Loyola.

It is important to mention, however, that the Women and Leadership Archives is but one archive in Chicago interested in collecting the papers of individual women or women’s organizations. We have plenty of room to grow and expand our collections, however, in large part because we are the youngest. Our unique status allows us to work in tandem, not competition, with more well-known institutions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, in collecting women’s manuscript collections. I believe there is a real drive among archivists to work cooperatively in the important enterprise of collecting women’s records. The goal of archival work is always to provide care, preservation, and access to the records in our care, in perpetuity.

This task is especially important for materials that are at the greatest risk of being lost, such as those documenting subcultures or hard-to-document communities/individuals. Unfortunately, women’s records often fall into that category. Too often the records of the vast majority of women end up lost, thrown away, or otherwise disposed of. When the records are lost they are lost permanently and the important stories of lived experiences, accomplishments, trials, and victories are gone forever. In sharp contrast, the recent great success of reaching out to women artists is that the women of Artemisia believe that such a loss should not come to pass. Those who have already started collections have joined the archives in the endeavor to preserve an accurate and complex history of the women of that gallery—as artists, as individuals, as women. All women, all artists of all genres, should be equally encouraged to think about their own life and work and its preservation generations and generations into the future. 

I welcome questions about the WLA, donating, archives in general, and our recent artists’ additions. Please feel free to contact me or check out the WLA website.

Elizabeth (Beth) Myers, Ph.D., is the director of the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University Chicago, a position she’s held for more than four years. She has a total of 10 years of experience in archives and special collections with principle interests in education, outreach, and collection development. Though she teaches regularly at Loyola, she has also given more than a dozen lectures and workshops since 2006 concerning archives and women’s collections to archival, academic, and public audiences. Most recently, she submitted a chapter for the forthcoming edited work, Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century, titled “Juggling Act: Negotiating Third Party Collaboration in the Collection Development of Second Wave Feminist Materials.” Later this year, she will be presenting her work with the Artists of Artemisia Archives Project at the Society of American Archivist national conference.

Written in 2011.

Published by CAR_Laura on Mon, 10/31/2011 - 5:13pm
Updated on Wed, 02/10/2016 - 11:54am