Framing History: Sacha Kolin in The Rose Art Museum's Permanent Collection (Part 2 of 3)

From the mid-1960s, campus museums acquired hundreds of Kolins, including 32 artworks at Brandeis University's The Rose Art Museum. The University's announcement on January 26, 2009, later modified, to deaccession its art collection generated fervent commentary. In this three-part series Framing History, Lisa places the academic museum in historical context, explaining the economic policies and social factors that fueled the explosive growth of campus museums in this era, and highlighting the archival records generated by the museum community. This is part 2 of 3. (Click here to read the original announcement, and then here to read Part 1).
Example from The Rose: Extending the Family
Meaningful alliances, beyond familial relationships, and memoirs by community members offer unique insights to the researcher. Just like the ambiguous "aunt" may connote affection but not consanguinity, a role such as "donor" or  "collector," had different connotations in different eras.

In the 1960s, artistic freedom flourished and took many experimental forms. A donor then was often more of a patron than a collector, perhaps known personally by the artist and more interested in supporting her career than investing in and acquiring a tangible work. A talented and visionary artist, Sacha was also a savvy marketer and forceful showman. My sources for names were primarily Sacha's address book, which is on deposit at the Archives of American Art; in exhibition ephemera at archives, libraries, and in private collections; and from those I contacted who referred me to others. 

Fig. 2 Address book entry for the late David Thaler, a friend of the artist and the author's cousin; collection Sacha Kolin Papers, Archives of American Art. Reprinted, by permission from Archives of American Art.

Sacha's extended circle, including the community of donors, was an invaluable link to her past, as were scholarly references, periodicals, and memoirs of and interview transcripts with postwar art patrons, gallery dealers, and artists. Memoirs of note are John Gruen's The Party's Over Now: Reminiscences of the Fifties—New York's artists, writers, musicians, and their friends; Jimmy Ernst's A Not-So-Still Life; and John Bernard Myers's Tracking the Marvelous: A life in the New York art world. The researcher will find relevant published histories listed in WorldCat, available here. For unpublished collections, refer to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections by clicking here.

Another factor in Sacha's successful representation in university collections was economics. Government policy encouraged the three-way agreement among artists, donors, and museums. The Tax Reform Act of 1969, which became effective January 1, 1970, stipulated that an artist could deduct only the cost of materials, not the market value, of her work donated to charitable institutions. A donor could give the same work to an art museum, and deduct the market value—without having paid income tax on the gain. The differential tax treatment is the classification of the capital gain as either long-term for the donor or short-term for the artist.

Based on the artwork's market or appraised value, the donor paid Sacha for the artwork. After the requisite holding period—a year by law and two by custom, the museum received the art. The donor could take a tax deduction. Of course, not every donor claimed the gift on his tax return, and some of Sacha's donors did not take their legal deduction.

Three individuals (none was family) donated the 32 Kolins that now reside at The Rose Museum. My research of each donor led to other sponsors, including their descendants and colleagues, who provided crucial recollections of Sacha's past and artistic milieu. The donors are her sculpture fabricator, a wood craftsman from Puerto Rico; an Upper East Side neighbor who tragically was killed in the Pan Am flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988; and a businessman who ran his family's silk-weaving enterprise in Paterson, New Jersey. The businessman had donated the Kolins to the Riverside Museum of New York, where Sacha had exhibited several times and had spoken on the 1957 panel "The Artist and the Housing Problem." When the Riverside Museum closed in June 1971, its 750-piece art collection was transferred to The Rose and became known as the Riverside Collection.

Sacha's donors' generosity was replicated at museums across the nation, where I found additional artworks and biographical details about the artist. For many years, following each lead, I built a community of Sacha's affiliates, with whom I interviewed and corresponded, and from whom I took testimony. Almost all are non-relatives and yet, those who crossed Sacha's path had much to share. Expanding the family circle to include non-relatives will enrich the researcher's understanding of her ancestors' lives.

Example from The Rose: Mining Institutions for Primary Sources
My first library look-up, in the Art Institute of Chicago's Ryerson Library, yielded a 1973 exhibition catalog from the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York (near Syracuse University). The catalog's back pages list "Museum and University Collections," and I wrote to each institution. Ten of the twenty venues were university collections, including The Rose. And so began a supplemental search for primary sources alongside the more traditional genealogical due diligence. I used career records, collections of specialized archives and libraries, and institutional and association records.

Career Records: 
The Everson catalog included a biography, a selected exhibition history, and an art inventory from the exhibition, albeit outdated. The museum director at the time, wrote a four-paragraph introduction describing Sacha's personal challenges ("...disheartening social conditions..."), artistic expression ("...highly charged abstract shapes and colors...."), and goal (" transform joy and magnanimity of spirit into art..."). The catalog images are interspersed with Sacha's revealing poetry ("I feel sometimes when I paint...I am saying a prayer....").

From the Everson catalog's exhibition history, I then researched each show and venue. Periodical indexes, such as the Art Index (from 1932), Index to Art Periodicals (a/k/a Ryerson Index, 1962), and Frick Art Reference Library (from 1983), provide citations to reviews. Databases include the Art Index Retrospective and JSTOR (Journal Storage), an electronic version for journal articles in the humanities.

Specialized Archives and Libraries: 
The Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art (AAA) is the largest specialized repository for the documentation, including oral histories, of our country's artistic legacy. In addition to Sacha's early professional scrapbooks and rare video recordings at the AAA, she is represented within her peers' archival papers, in the vertical files of other libraries, and in art references and periodical indexes at general libraries

The Getty Research Institute (GRI) posts online finding aids, which describe the scope and content of a collection, and an index to collectors' files. In February 2009, the GRI launched a new online cataloguing initiative to further enhance access to its collections, including photographs of "Cities and Sites" and of "Expositions and World's Fairs." Click here for further details.

Institutional Records: 
The university museum holds numerous records of interest to the family historian researching an artist. The museum registrar maintains the collections records, including the holdings by a particular artist, descriptions of the art and its exhibition and loan histories, the donor's contact information and agreement, and possibly appraisals and artist correspondence. 

The university archives' special collections may hold exhibition ephemera such as installation photographs, a vertical file about the artist, and annual reports citing acquisitions and donations (sometimes illustrated). The campus library may have exhibition reviews published in the school or community newspaper. I have twice located, in local newspapers, rare installation photographs of Kolin's paintings on exhibition. In one instance, the work had not been attributed to the artist. 

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is at the forefront of using technology to promote transparency and to share information. The Museum has launched a database of its recent and planned deaccessions located here. Data fields provide information about the artist, the work (often illustrated), the donor, the deaccession (or proposed sale), and its valuation. The site is also interactive, inviting public comment on each artwork or decorative object. There is a link to its deaccession policy. The Museum intends to add a field showing the uses of the funds received from deaccessioning, creating an ironic link between bought and sold works of art and its creators.

Association Records:

Contact member organizations that conduct research on, develop standards and policies for, and publish about your industry of interest. Concerning university art collections, refer to the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD); the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries (ACUMG); the American Association of Museums (AAM); the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM); and the College Art Association (CAA).

These overlooked repositories and sources hold clues to the artist's personal history. For instance, an account of the Kolins' Odessa years is published in the journal Electrophoresis, as part of a tribute to Sacha's cousin biophysicist Alexander Kolin, PhD (1910-1997).  Further, the papers of Sacha's late father, an aeronautical engineer, are co-mingled with her own at the AAA. 

Fig. 3 White Batwings, 1979, 8 feet high, two under fabrication in Navedo Woodcraft, 1980; photo: Sacha Kolin; collection Miami University Art Museum, Oxford, OH. Photo courtesy of Joyce Rezendes. White Batwings is one element that with Going Up, 12 feet high, comprises Cathedral.

To be continued. Part 3 will be posted on Tuesday, March 31st at 12:00 AM

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