Artist Documentation Program Enters the Digital Realm

The surface of a painting is only the beginning of its story. It is what lies beneath the layers of paint—the artistic process—that allows for full understanding of the work. The Artist Documentation Program (ADP), founded in 1990, presents this more subtle facet of artists’ work. The project—a compilation of interviews with notable artists including Jasper Johns, Max Neuhaus, Frank Stella, and Cy Twombly—presents a valuable source of information for conservators and researchers. On October 14, the ADP launched an online archive of their collections, making more than 50 hours of previously unavailable interview footage available to the general public.

The ADP originally began at the Menil Collection, the Houston museum complex that houses the art collection of founders John and Dominique de Menil. The Menil Collection, originally private, opened to the public in the late ’80s. When notified that one of the Collection’s artists would be visiting, Dominique de Menil asked Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro, then the Menil chief conservator, to bring out the artist’s previous work for viewing. De Menil’s gesture inspired Mancusi-Ungaro to begin asking the artists technical questions about the work at hand.

Reflecting on these early conversations, Mancusi-Ungaro said, “Much to my surprise, artists in general liked to answer these questions. These were decisions they had made. The decisions were very clear to them. They readily answered them—and expounded upon them. So after this happened two or three times, I realized I was getting extraordinary information that my profession did not know.

Before long, Mancusi-Ungaro had attracted the attention of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for her interview work. After receiving a grant from the foundation to continue the interviews on a larger scale, she formalized her work as the founding director of the ADP. Joining the Whitney Museum of American Art as well as the Harvard Art Museums, Mancusi-Ungaro has expanded the project beyond the artists featured in the Menil Collection.

Not only did Mancusi-Ungaro include more artists in the documentation project, but she also began filming her interviews instead of simply storing voice recordings. The choice of film over audio, she said, “was a deliberate one.” “The real reason for filming was to see the state of the work under discussion at the time of the interview so you could see what we were talking about and eventually assess how that work had aged over time. You would have a reference.”

All of the filmed interviews are accompanied by a subject key that splits lengthy interviews into topic-specific video clips. This indexing, now available on the ADP website, provides historians and curators with a unique resource for efficient primary research.

As the ADP continues to expand, Mancusi-Ungaro is working to strengthen the collaboration between the Menil Collection, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Harvard Art Museums. Heather E. Nodler, the project archivist, said, “[We will] evaluate the partnership, define policy parameters, and analyze researchers’ use of the collection. Our goal is to formalize the relationship on a more long-term basis in order to ensure the project’s ongoing sustainability and success.”

As Mancusi-Ungaro describes, the importance of the Artist Documentation Program comes from its ability to track how an artist—and their work—ages. “When an artist finishes a work of art, it is brand new. Then it goes into the world. The artist may not see it for a very long time and works of art change—as people do.”