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Downtown Collection Development Policy

I. Purpose

            The Fales Library & Special Collections serves as the repository for special collections materials in the Elmer Bobst Library at New York University and is committed to preserving the artistic expression of relevant cultural movements in their original formats, including books, manuscripts, archives, and other media.  Fales complements the collection policies in the general stacks by supplying primary resources for scholarly research and by prospectively collecting works that will become important historical evidence, documenting the changes in expressive culture.

The Downtown Collection, which began in 1993, is such an attempt to document the downtown arts scene that evolved in SoHo and the Lower East Side during the 1970’s through the early 1990’s.  During this time, an explosion of artistic creativity exploded Downtown that radically challenged and changed tradition literature, music, theater, performance, film, activism, dance, photography, video, and other art practices.  Some characteristics that these artists share include work that was extremely collaborative, multidisciplinary, multimedia, and non-hierarchical. These artists questioned traditional artistic and cultural assumption at the most basic levels. The goal of the Downtown Collection is to comprehensively collect the full range of artistic practices and outputs, regardless of format.  This research collection, built on a documentary strategy, supports the research of students and scholars who are interested in the intersection of the contemporary arts, and with other forms of cultural and artistic expression.

II. Scope

A. The Downtown Collection

            1. General Guidelines

            The distinctively new attitude toward artistic production that emerged in Downtown New York in the early 1970’s was neither a consistent aesthetic nor a unified movement—this “downtown attitude” was nevertheless shared by a wide range of writers, artists, performers, musicians, filmmakers, and video artists, many of whom inhabited the relatively inexpensive lofts and tenements of SoHo and the Lower East Side.  Influenced by the Symbolists, Beats, New York School, Situationists, Dada, Pop Art, Hippies, Marxists, and anarchists, Downtown New York artists pushed the limits of traditional categories of art. Artists were also writers, writers developed performance pieces, performers incorporated videos into their work, and everyone was in a band. Downtown works undermine the traditions of art, music, performance, and writing at the most basic structural levels. Rather than overthrow traditional forms and establish a new movement, Downtown work sought to undermine from within the traditional structures of artistic media and the culture that had grown up around them. Consequently, a broader, less rigidly defined collection development strategy is called for in documenting such a fluid, multi-directional, and informally structured artistic practices.

            2. Retrospective Collecting

            Using a documentary strategy, we develop lists of artists, their colleagues, relationships to the overlapping scenes, to performance and exhibition venues, to publications, including serial, and other media that represent the scene. This list is constantly being expanded and developed as new areas of the scene appear and reshape the previous understandings of the Downtown Scene. Informal sociograms are especially helpful in this process.* Precursors and other influences are collected where appropriate. 

            3. Prospective Collecting

            Any artists from the scene who are still active are collected comprehensively for their published materials, including chapbooks, zines, magazines, novels, catalogue, gallery announcement, film, video, audio, and works in other formats.

            4. Primary and Secondary Literature

            Primary materials such as artist papers, original works and publications, institutional archives, film, photographs, video, and related ephemera are collected by the Fales Library.  Secondary materials in art, literature, dance, music, film, and video will be collected by the Bobst Library and held in the general stacks, and by the Avery Fisher Center for Music and Media.  Secondary materials will be collected by the Fales Library where appropriate.

            5. Language

            By the very nature of its core collections, the Fales Library collects literature almost exclusively in English.  The primary language of biographies, memoirs, and collected critical works is also English.  This in large part also applies to the Downtown Collection and current efforts at Fales to document the Downtown movement.  Due, however, to the ethnic diversity of the area—particularly that work relating to the Nuyorican Poets Café in the Lower East Side (Losaida), some Spanish language materials are also collected.

            6. Geographical Aspects

            Due to the rather tightly localized nature of the Downtown scene, the geographical area involved can be reasonably limited to the Lower East Side, SoHo, and surrounding areas.  It is in this area that the majority of Downtown artists lived, worked, and interacted with one another, and also where many important fixtures of the movement and cultural contemporaries such as Between C & D Press and Judson Memorial Church were located.  Publications and subsequent coverage of the scene, however, has come from inside and outside the United States, from such countries as England, Germany, Canada, Japan, and France. We must remember that “Downtown” is both a physical and metaphorical space. When appropriate because of content and form, we will acquire materials not geographically from Downtown New York.

            7. Chronological Aspects

            The Downtown Collection attempts to document artistic production of the Downtown arts scene from the early 1970s through the early 1990’s.  The inception date chosen by Fales for collecting is a symbolic one marking the point when the New York state government first regulated loft buildings in SoHo to protect artists from being forced out of these commercial work spaces by developers. Serious attention is given to precursors influential to the movement as well as to later work bearing a clear association with the Downtown scene.

A. Manuscripts and Archives

            1. Downtown Collection

            Personal papers and archives relating to the Downtown writing and artistic scenes are the primary emphasis of collecting.  Acquisitions are made via gift and purchase.  The goal is to document the artistic and literary cultures of the post-1974 “Downtown” arts scene.

IV. Types of materials

            The Fales Library collects books, journals, newspapers, video, film, photography, yearbooks, annuals, manuscripts, archives, relevant ephemera, and a variety of other original materials, regardless of format.  In the case of texts, emphasis is placed on acquiring items in their first appearance.  In general this means the first edition in the country of the artist, though precedence is given to the first appearance in print.  Collected editions of works are purchased for major artists.  Facsimiles are purchased, but sparingly.  Most facsimiles should be purchased by the general stacks.  (See the English Literature policy statement.)  Film and video work is also collected extensively, particularly film and video documentation, and for finished works efforts are made to secure the earliest, highest quality materials available, preferably the original source master tapes.  Original artwork is collected very selectively, and where appropriate.  Toward this end, the Fales Library will coordinate collection management for original visual materials as well as exhibitions of this work with the Grey Art Gallery at New York University.  The Grey Art Gallery will house those materials not readily stored in more traditional, special collections environments at their discretion.

V. Strengths and Weaknesses

            Strengths

            Because the initial core collection at the Fales Library was text and book oriented, early collecting of Downtown work centered on the literary aspects of the scene.  This has changed. As the documentary strategy developed, materials from musicians, visual artists, performers, collectives, dancers, photographers, and a wide array of artists have come into the Collection. Acquisition of the Judson Memorial Church Archive, the Mabou Mines Archive , Mark Hall Amitin Papers, and Richard Foreman’s Papers improved the collection’s holdings in experimental theater, performance, and post-modern dance.  Experimental film and media arts are also increasingly well represented through the acquisition of archives for video artists, such as the Jaime Davidovich Collection, and film festivals and experimental media venues, such as the MIX Festival Archive. Although there is some representation of artists’ collectives such as CoLab and REPOHistory in the collection, we continue to actively seek the archives of other related collectives, galleries and alternative art exhibition venues.

            Weaknesses

            Given that the collection is just over ten years old, it is difficult to determine the weaknesses. We continue to develop the desiderata list and address weaknesses we see by additions to the list.

VI. Preservation

            A goal of the Fales Library is to make media such as film, audio and video recordings available to researchers.  Many of the media holdings associated with the Downtown Collection, however, are in need of preservation efforts before they can be made accessible.  These efforts aim to ensure the long-term preservation of the library’s media collections and, with the ability to make viewing copies or digital surrogates of the material, increase user access.