A black and white photo of a room adorned with paintings by Dali, Picasso, and others and a number of sculptures.
Sunroom at the Arensbergs’ 7065 Hillside Ave. (Hollywood, California) residence, c. 1944, photo by Floyd Faxon (American, 1897–1978). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Arensberg Archives

A Portal into Marcel Duchamp

Margaret Huang, Martha Hamilton Morris Archivist

A museum archivist spends years documenting Duchamp’s personal papers and gets to know the man himself.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is home to the largest and most important collection of artworks by Marcel Duchamp, in addition to a significant portion of his personal papers. But this was almost not the case!

Walter and Louise Arensberg had a passion for collecting modern art, which started when the couple visited the New York and Boston venues of the International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show) in 1913. There they purchased lithographs by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, as well as a small painting by Jacques Villon (the eldest brother of Duchamp). The art historian and critic Walter Pach was one of the Armory Show’s organizers. He advised the couple on their art collecting and introduced them to Duchamp in 1915. The Arensbergs eventually became Duchamp’s primary patrons.

By the 1940s the Arensbergs were living in Los Angeles and beginning to look for a permanent home for their collection. In 1944 they signed a deed of gift with the University of California, Los Angeles, which included the stipulation that the university build an appropriate museum to house the collection. By the fall of 1947 it was obvious that this condition would not be met, and the contract was nullified.

The Arensbergs then began negotiations with numerous other institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Denver Art Museum, Harvard University, the National Gallery of Art, Stanford University, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the University of Minnesota, and the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. After protracted discussions with and visits from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s director Fiske Kimball and his wife, Marie, as well as reports from Duchamp about his visits to the museum, the Arensbergs presented their collection of over one thousand objects to the museum on December 27, 1950. The PMA instantly became home to the largest collection of Duchamp artworks.

Walter Arensberg had initially hesitated to donate the couple’s collection to the museum. One reason for this hesitation was Albert Barnes, a renowned collector and patron who was known for picking fights with members of the Philadelphia art community. Arensberg wrote to Fiske Kimball on July 8, 1948, saying, “I am obliged to confess to a slight reluctance to entering the region that is so infected by the pollution of Dr. Barnes.” Kimball, also not a fan of Barnes, responded on July 16, “Have no fear of Barnes. No one here takes him seriously; none of the newspapers will print his stuff except, finally, a little local paper in Narberth, which maybe he had to buy!”

Correspondence reads as follows:  
Mr. Fiske Kimball, Director
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 
Fairmount, Philadelphia 30 Pennsylvania

Dear Mr. Kimball:
I am sorry to have to keep postponing my visit to the Philadelphia Museum. The reason is simply the state, if such a thing can exist, of chronic crisis in my work. I never seem to be able to break off.
However, I'm obliged to confess to a slight reluctance to entering the region that is so infected by the pollution of Dr. Barnes, and that will, somehow, as long as he continues, require to be quarantined. I should think that he would recognize that he is very bad advertising for his famous product, for he is himself a kind of running sore that even Argyrol cannot cure.
You may be interested to know that we are considering a loan of our collection to the Chicago Art Institute for a month or two some time next year. This has nothing to do whatever with the question of the ultimate destination of the collection. 
With best regards to Mrs. Kimball and yourself from both of us, 
Sincerely yours, 
Walter C. Arensberg
7065 Hillside Avenue
Hollywood 28, Calif
July 8, 1948.
Correspondence from Walter Arensberg to Fiske Kimball, July 8, 1948. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Arensberg Archives
Correspondence reads as follows:
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Telephone POplar 5-0500
Parkway at 26th Street
Philadelphia 30

July 16, 1948
Walter C. Arensberg, Esq.
7065 Hillside Avenue
Hollywood 28, California

Dear Mr. Arensberg:
Thank you for your extremely kind letter of the 8th. We are disappointed not to see you here yet, and still hope you may have some occasion to come on, when you must notify me, and command me, as I have told you. 
Have no fear of Barnes. Noone here takes him seriously; none of the newspapers will print his stuff except, finally, a little local paper in Narberth which maybe he had to buy! He circulates terribly garbled "stenographic reports" of a colloquy of which my only real complaint is that he puts into his own mouth one or two good things I said!
It is indeed interesting that you are considering the loan of your collection for a show at the Art Institute. We have often thought with longing of asking you and Mrs. Arensberg whether you would consider making an exhibition of it here. It seemed like a great deal to ask you. I am afraid we were a little appalled ourselves by the possible cost, in view of the long haul from the Coast. Maybe if it is to get halfway we could swing it--though I fear the Matisse show has left our exhibition funds very low. 
Sturgis Ingersoll--fired by all I told him--is still hopin to get out to the Coast this year and have the joy of seeing you and the collection. I still have the space to put it, held sacred. 
Yours faithfully, Fiske Kimball
Correspondence from Fiske Kimball to Walter Arensberg, July 16, 1948. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Arensberg Archives

Along with their art collection, the Arensbergs also donated their archives to the museum. After Duchamp passed away, his wife Alexina continued to make donations of his artworks to the museum, and in 1998 the museum archives became the home of a significant portion of his personal papers. These materials, along with many other notable Duchamp-related archival collections, have now been digitized for the Duchamp Research Portal (DRP), which launched earlier this year, on January 24.

Image of the homepage of the Duchamp Research Portal. Reads as follows: Duchamp Research Portal
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Centre Pompidou
Association Marcel Duchamp
[Navigation bar] Home Documents Museum Collections About
[Image of Search Bar]
Explore the life and work of one of the 20th century's most influential artists
[Images of archival documents]
Homepage of the Duchamp Research Portal, January 2022

For the last four years, I’ve been working as the project manager for the DRP. This unique platform, which has been in the works since 2013, brings together digitized archival holdings from three partner institutions (the PMA, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Association Marcel Duchamp in Paris) to make a significant portion of Duchamp’s primary source materials accessible and discoverable through a single interface.

Generally, archivists describe materials in aggregate, the information usually no more detailed than a folder level description, but this project presented a rare opportunity to really get to know these collections. A lot of descriptive metadata was needed for the images in the DRP to be searchable and usable. Creating this metadata was one of my main activities as project manager. This task gave me the chance to handle, examine, and (in some cases) read every single item going into the DRP, which is how I stumbled across Kimball’s and Arensberg’s amusing thoughts on Barnes.

All in all, I wrote descriptions for 24,105 archival objects composed of 44,997 total image files. To keep myself on track, I set daily quotas. I have one word for those curious about how I did this work: spreadsheets! Most of the descriptive work was done in Excel because it allows for filtering data, applying formulas, and even simple copying and pasting, features that are useful in building efficiencies. If you’re interested in seeing the more technical aspects of the DRP and its data models, you can review the documentation here.

Handling items like Duchamp’s passport, his vaccination record, or his rent receipt brought the artist to life for me. In addition to being one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, he was a real person who could get sick and owed rent. (By the way, he paid thirty-five dollars a month for his Manhattan studio in 1943.)

Image of Marcel Duchamp's Republique Française passport. Reads as follows: 
Signalement Description
Taille Height: 1mm74
Couleur des yeux Color of eyes: grise
Couleur des cheveux Colour of hair chatains
Signes particuliers Special marks: 
Accompange de [blank] enfants
Accompanied by [blank] children
Nom Surname
Prenoms Christian Names
Date de naissance Date of Birth
[not filled out]
Photographie du titulaire et, le cas echeant, photographies des enfants qui 'laccompangnent. Photograph of the bearer (and of children if any). 
Photograph of Marcel Duchamp clean shaven wearing coat and patterned tie. 
Blue stamp on lower right of photo reads Consulat General de France, New York
Signature du titulaire
Signature of bearer
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp’s Republique Française passport, issued October 22, 1954. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Alexina and Marcel Duchamp Papers
Vaccination record from Marcel Duchamp’s Republique Française passport, issued October 22, 1954. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Alexina and Marcel Duchamp Papers
Rent receipt for Marcel Duchamp’s studio at 210 W. 14th St., New York City, October 1, 1943. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Alexina and Marcel Duchamp Papers

As I read through the abundant correspondence regarding the donation of the Arensbergs’ art collection, I felt like I was watching my fate unfold. I started to think about how maybe I wouldn’t be at the PMA, doing this job, working on this project, if the Arensbergs hadn’t ultimately made the decision to donate their collection here. I don’t often feel like I see myself, a woman of color, in institutional archives, and this can be especially true with those belonging to a museum that has not historically been very inclusive. This was the first time I felt deeply and personally connected to the story being told through the museum’s archives.

The DRP project represents not only an aggregation of primary source materials but also an aggregation of people, technologies, and workflows over the course of many years. These types of projects don’t just happen but require concerted and focused efforts, close cooperation and coordination, and resources, both in terms of funding and human time and energy. I am grateful to everyone who has made this project possible, past and present, including the Arensbergs and Marcel Duchamp.

Louise Arensberg, Walter Arensberg, and Marcel Duchamp at 7065 Hillside Ave. (Hollywood, California) residence, August 1936, photo by Beatrice Wood (American, 1893–1998). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives, Arensberg Archives

Margaret Huang is the Martha Hamilton Morris Archivist in the museum’s Library and Archives and has been the project manager for the Duchamp Research Portal since 2017. She holds a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh. She is passionate about making the museum’s archival resources and information discoverable, usable, and accessible in an equitable way. Outside of the museum, she enjoys biking, cross-stitching, and planning extremely detailed itineraries for trips that may or may not actually happen.