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!”
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.
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.)
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.
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.