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Shelving It: Life After Retirement in Santa Fe
By Joan Benedetti


 

 

Mountain West Ledger Editor Helm asked me to write an article about “what I’ve been doing since retiring.” But in order to make sense of it I have to do a little backtracking. Because I have continued to go to ARLIS conferences and the occasional chapter meeting, it may surprise some of you (it surprises me when I think of it) that I actually retired from the salaried life seven and a half years ago. After an active professional career, mostly (though not entirely) in art museum libraries in Los Angeles, I retired from the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) at the end of 2002. My husband, Robert (“Beny”), and I lived in Southern California for 36 years; for the past 12 years, in Santa Monica.

Last year we decided to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place we had visited often and that was nearby to Corrales, where our daughter, Kirsten, had moved some eight years before. For 21 years (1976 – 1997) I was the Museum Librarian at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) in Los Angeles. I discovered CAFAM and ARLIS at about the same time and the two organizations fit symbiotically into my life. Even though the CAFAM library was a fledgling one, I was welcomed into ARLIS/Southern California and treated with as much enthusiasm as if the library I was developing was fully mature. It helped that CAFAM already had a terrific reputation for exhibitions of folk art and contemporary craft as well as a popular restaurant, The Egg and The Eye. I started as a volunteer, but soon had obtained a small grant to pay myself to write a feasibility study for what we were calling a “resource center” that garnered the first of several much larger grants. So it went for more than two decades, eventually building a specialized research library of over 7,000 volumes with back issues of over 100 periodical titles and more than 40 vertical file drawers of artist and topical files on craft and folk art that supported the CAFAM staff and was also available to the public.

Starting in 1989, as part of a capital campaign to build a new museum, I also began to develop an adjunct program that we called a Center for the Study of Art and Culture, intended as a “think tank” and fellowship program. A national advisory board was formed and two important workshops on the subject of “Diversity and Inclusion” were run in 1993, attracting teams from every major museum in L.A. Unfortunately, grant money for the library ran out in 1994, and even though a radically renovated museum was opened in 1995, the recession of the early nineties had taken its toll on the museum’s finances and by the start of 1997, museum staff were beginning to be laid off. The promised fellowship program became impossible. I survived the first cuts, though I lost my part-time assistants.

At the ARLIS conference that year I confessed to Debbie Smedstad, then the librarian at the LACMA Research Library, that I was tired of trying to administer a collection that was so dependent on grants. As the year wore on, it became clear that the library could not remain in a contiguous building that had been leased. I formed a staff/board committee to find a new home for the library. I got on the phone to my ARLIS friends and the committee wrote a Request for Proposal. We received seven proposals, which was a heartwarming development during a period that was otherwise full of heartbreak. An agreement was reached with LACMA, which was virtually across the street on Wilshire Boulevard. By the end of the year, the CAFAM board had decided to close the museum. I began packing up the library for its delivery to LACMA. The remaining staff were also getting ready to move out. I was asked what I thought should be done about “all the staff files.” It was thought that they should probably just be tossed. No one thought that CAFAM was going to open again. Although I had been keeping what I called a “CAFAM Historical Archive” in the library, consisting mostly of CAFAM publications and other printed materials, including clippings, as well as board and staff meeting minutes, I had never considered that the library was responsible for staff files. But now that the museum was closing, what should happen to them?

How many were there anyway? As it turned out, the “staff files” included correspondence, clippings, publications, posters, photographs, slides, audio- and videotapes, and even a few films from what was at that time 32 years’ worth of the history of what had been one of the first galleries (1965 – 1975) and then one of the first museums (1975 – 1997) to show folk art, contemporary craft, and product design all together in an art museum setting. These were files kept by all who had ever worked at the museum: administrators, curators, registrars, educators, volunteer coordinators, and all their assistants, as well as, of course, the librarian’s files. All exhibitions were documented as well as the beloved annual event, the Festival of Masks, produced by CAFAM since 1976. When all the file cabinets, closets, and cupboards in all the museum offices had been cleared out, the CAFAM Archives filled 270 cartons. Included as part of the Request for Proposal, the archives were ultimately taken by UCLA’s Arts Special Collections. As you may know, CAFAM re-opened in April 1999, just fourteen months after it had closed. It was rescued by the City of Los Angeles and has been thriving in partnership with the City in its original location (though without its restaurant, its library, its archives, or its permanent collection).

After packing up the archives for UCLA and the library for LACMA, I went to work for five years, part-time, as a cataloger at LACMA and spent half a day per week at UCLA getting the archives organized. When I retired from LACMA, I began going to UCLA two full days a week, beginning to re-folder the collection into acid-free folders and to create finding aids using Word. By the end of 2008, about half the collection had been processed in this way. At that point, as part of a restructuring, UCLA Special Collections took over the visual arts special collections that had been administered by the Arts Library. The CAFAM collection then came to the attention of Kelley Bachli, Coordinator of the Center for Primary Research and Training (CFPRT), a unit within Special Collections that hires graduate students to process collections that would otherwise languish. Within a few weeks, a student from UCLA’s library school had been hired to work with me. I started working three days a week. By the end of 2009, more than 80% of the collection had been processed and the finding aids originally created in Word had been migrated to Access. In the meantime, I had continued to be active with ARLIS/NA, and especially with the Museum Libraries Division. After working in a relatively small art museum for 21 years and a much larger museum for five years, it was interesting to compare the two, and when Eumie Imm-Stroukoff asked me to be on an ARLIS conference panel dealing with small art museum libraries, I took the opportunity to consider my experiences. In preparing for the panel I also did a survey of small art museum libraries using a mailing list for the Small Art Museum Libraries SIG that Eumie had been coordinating for several years. That survey and the panel presentation led to a couple of articles, both published in 2003, in The Journal of Library Administration and Art Documentation.

When the ARLIS Museum Libraries Division decided they would like to publish something like a handbook of art museum librarianship, I wrote a proposal for an edited volume that would consist of contributions from Museum Libraries Division members. What resulted, after three years of working with 45 authors of 61 essays, 15 contributors of “thumbnail sketches” of their respective libraries, and the author of the foreword, Michael Brand, Director of the Getty Museum, was a volume published by Scarecrow Press, Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship, co-published by ARLIS/NA and Scarecrow in 2007. I guess I must have felt a little let-down at the end of that publishing project, because sometime during 2007 I decided that “someone” had to start doing an oral history of the Craft and Folk Art Museum while the principals were still available. That “someone” turned out to be me, after taking a oral history class with the head of the UCLA Center for Oral History Research, Teresa Barnett.

Beginning in January 2008 and ending in March 2010, I conducted 17 oral history interviews with former CAFAM staff and board members. I am still working on the transcriptions, but the 56 hours of interview recordings have all been given to the UCLA Center for Oral History Research and will eventually be available online. After moving to Santa Fe last Thanksgiving, I went back to L.A. for eight weeks in February and March to help finish up the CAFAM Archives processing at UCLA. Another graduate student was hired by CFPRT to help and about a month ago, the last of the physical processing was completed. The final total of document boxes in the Archives is 549; that makes it one of the largest collections in UCLA Special Collections.

Since getting back to Santa Fe, I have been working by e-mail on the finding aid scope notes and I expect to receive a CD of the whole database (with over 20,000 file folder headings) to copyedit very soon. It should be uploaded to the Online Archive of California by the end of the year. So--I am still pretty busy with CAFAM Past: the Archives and the Oral History, but I hope to finish up both by the end of the year.

And then what? Well, I think I am finally going to tackle some more conventional retirement projects: gardening and working on my family archives! We live on Museum Hill and I suspect that I’ll get involved as a volunteer with one of the eight fabulous museums here in Santa Fe, but not right away. I’ve joined a neighborhood book club and so I’m reading twice as much as I usually do—actually reading for pleasure—what a concept! ARLIS has been such a big part of my life both pre- and post-retirement that I can’t really imagine doing without it.

I’m looking forward to meeting new friends at Mountain West chapter meetings and continuing my long association with colleagues in ARLIS/NA at the national conferences.

Hope to see you all in Minneapolis next March!