Behind the curtain: UMass Amherst's new digitized arts archive is a haven for high culture past and future

Last modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hear the word “archive” and you might envision dusty historical records — old letters and documents, photographs, maybe newsreels or other old films. In short, a place of interest mostly to historians and researchers.

But organizers of a national archive of arts management material at the University of Massachusetts Amherst say their new resource, formed with the assistance of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), ideally will provide a road map for many people involved in the arts.

“The general perception is that an archive is about the past,” said Rob Cox, head of the Special Collections Department at UMass. “But a properly constituted archive is about the future ... it’s about setting the stage for determining the future.”

Cox is one of a number of people at UMass involved with the creation of what’s known as the National Arts Policy Archives and Library, or NAPAAL. It’s a vast collection of material, much of it from the NEA, that details the history of the arts and cultural policies in the country over the past 50-plus years: books, posters, documents, films, plays and screenplays, art periodicals, artists’ personal papers and more.

The project, which has been in the planning stages for eight years and was officially launched last week during a day-long symposium at the university, represents a collaboration between the UMass Arts Extension Service, the Special Collections Department, the NEA, and a number of other organizations, including state arts agencies from across the country.

Dee Boyle-Clapp, director of the Arts Extension Service (AES), says the materials are still being cataloged but will eventually all be digitized and made available online to researchers, students, Five College faculty and others. The collection will continue to grow, she adds, given that the university will receive new material from the NEA every two years.

Boyle-Clapp believes the archive will be a vital resource for people who, like herself, work in fields such as arts management or policy making, giving them a one-stop resource for examining how those issues have played out in the past. Knowing how a previous arts policy was shaped, she notes, gives people working today a better sense of how they might, for example, seek federal funding or other monies for a new project.

“Arts management is really about all the stuff that goes on behind the curtain,” she said. “It’s the administrative side of things, from seeking funding, to identifying your audience, to understanding how federal art policies interact with state polices and community arts program.

“A lot of people don’t realize that arts management, federal arts involvement, all that is still relatively new,” Boyle-Clapp added, noting that the NEA was created by Congress in 1965. “So there hasn’t been any move, until now, to get the materials in one place, and in a safe environment where they won’t deteriorate.”

Some of the materials are in forms that are fast becoming obsolete and inoperable, she added, such as cassettes and floppy disks, so digitizing them now will preserve them — “just as digitizing papers will prevent them from getting ruined by water or mold.”

Public participation in the arts

At the UMass symposium, held at the Campus Center, organizers and other speakers told an audience of about 125 people, including UMass art students, that the NAPAAL materials would also provide a key resource in understanding the role art plays in the lives of everyday Americans. The NEA has long surveyed public participation in the arts, and in fact the organization has just released its most recent study along those lines, analyzing how many Americans annually read novels and poetry, for instance, or attend a dance performance.

Robert Lynch, a UMass graduate and the AES director from 1976-1985, is the president of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit group that supports community arts programs and art education for schools. He told the audience that NAPAAL, which his organization is contributing to, will also play an important role in preserving a “behind the scenes” look at U.S. art policies over the years.

For instance, he said it’s not well known today that President Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress to vote on the creation of the NEA after Senate leaders told him they wanted to postpone any decision on the bill, which was somewhat controversial. “That’s the stuff that’s behind what gets written and put out there,” he said. “That’s part of what this archive is going to be about.”

And, he noted, the new UMass archive will help document the history of the culture wars that first arose in the 1980s, when conservative politicians tried to dismantle the NEA or stop certain federally funded art projects they deemed objectionable.

The idea behind NAPAAL dates back to about 2005 when Maren Brown, then the AES director — today she teaches arts management classes at UMass and works as an independent arts consultant — met with Patricia Walker Powell, an NEA program official, and the two began talking about how such a resource might be created. They brought Cox, the UMass Special Collections director, on board to help shape the effort.

In a paraphrase of Hillary Clinton, Brown said “It takes a university to raise an archive library.”

Boyle-Clapp and other speakers said they hope the new archive, which will also include nearly 40 years of records from the AES itself, will help future arts-management staff and artists themselves avoid some of the missteps current arts-management people have made over the years while working in the field.

“I’ve forgotten what I did 30 years ago,” joked Alex Aldrich, the longtime director of the Vermont Arts Council. But, he told students, they could avoid that problem in their future arts management careers by establishing a permanent record now: “For your own sake, start a blog and keep it going.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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