THE HAMMER MUSEUM has breathed new life into one of its most dynamic and historically significant exhibitions. “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980” explored a robust period in the city’s history when a pioneering group of African American artists established an influential creative community and produced important works commenting on the state of culture, politics and identity. The exhibition featured 140 works by 36 artists, including Charles Gaines, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Samella Lewis, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar, practitioners motivated in part by the civil rights and Black Power movements, and the passage of federal anti-descrimination legislation.
“Now Dig This!” was first presented five years ago to coincide wth Pacific Standard Time, a collaboration of more than 60 Southern California cultural institutions coming together to “tell the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene and how it became a new force in the art world.” Curated by Columbia University Professor Kellie Jones, “Now Dig This!” was organized by the Hammer where it opened in October 2011, traveled to MoMA PS1 in New York in 2012, and concluded at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in 2013.
A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of its Made in L.A. biennial, the Hammer Museum re-introduced “Now Dig This!” in a new format. With support from a Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the museum has launched a digital archive, making available videos of artist talks and panel discussions, artist biographies, images of artworks presented, installation views of the exhibition at the three venues where it appeared, and all eight essays published in the now-out-of-print exhibition catalog (at right), among other material.
With the $500,000 Mellon grant received in 2013, the museum expanded its curatorial team, hiring a project manager for digital archives to oversee the initiative, which includes research and infrastructure development to content creation and dissemination. “Now Dig This!” is the first of a selection of Hammer exhibitions—major shows that involved significant curatorial research and a coinciding catalogue—that will receive similar treatment and be documented in the digital archive.
Throughout the field, museums are exploring strategies for growing their audiences and attracting a new generation of donors and visitors to their physical spaces and across a range of online platforms. At the same time, preserving museum programming—which is expanding to appeal to younger and more diverse audiences, sustain deeply informed existing patrons, and serve peers and researchers—has become a priority.
Culture Type reached out to the Hammer Museum to learn more about its approach, posing a series of questions about the new expanded digital archive via email. Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director of collections and director of the Grunwald Center at UCLA Hammer Museum, addressed the inquiries. Her responses are below:
CULTURE TYPE: What made you decide to launch the digital archive with the “Now Dig This!” exhibition?
CYNTHIA BURLINGHAM: When considering exhibitions for the first digital archive, “Now Dig This!” was an easy choice. Not only is it one of the Hammer’s most historically significant exhibitions, presenting vital new scholarship about Los Angeles’ black artists, but it traveled to two additional venues – MoMA PS1 in New York and Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts – that resulted in additional research content that could be presented and preserved in the archive. Documenting an exhibition across multiple venues is something we hadn’t seen a museum do before, and we felt that it allowed us to take a much broader and fuller view of the impact of “Now Dig This!”
“When considering exhibitions for the first digital archive, ‘Now Dig This!’ was an easy choice.” — Cynthia Burlingham, Curator, Hammer Museum
What does the digital archive contain beyond what would usually be preserved on a past exhibition website?
The digital archive is a major departure from the Hammer’s standard exhibition site, which generally includes a brief explanatory text, a handful of artwork images, an artist list, and links to related programs at the Hammer. The Now Dig This! site offers much more: zoomable images of all 130 works in the exhibition, accompanied by the text that appeared on the Hammer’s wall labels; eight essays, 35 artist biographies, and a detailed chronology from the now out-of-print catalogue; and documentation of the exhibition, including checklists, installation images, related programs, and critical reviews, at the three venues that hosted the show – the Hammer, MoMA PS1, and Williams College Museum of Art.
For context, is the Mellon grant from October 2013? What role if any did it have in the Hammer’s 2014 website relaunch?
The grant from the Mellon Foundation coincided with the Hammer’s new website launch, but they represent two discrete projects. As we were in the process of planning for the website relaunch, we realized that there were some aspects of the museum – including our exhibition history and collections – that were underrepresented online. The Mellon-funded digital initiatives provide an opportunity to remedy that, to ensure that the redesign of our website is accompanied by a bolstering of our content, and to turn the website into a space that can educate and inspire.
Describe the role of the Andrew Mellon Project Manager for Digital Archives. When was that person hired, who are they?
Philip Leers was hired in May 2014 as the project manager for digital initiatives. He came to the Hammer from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he served as project manager for a Mellon-funded project to catalogue and provide access to their collection of film and video work. Philip’s role is to oversee all aspects of the Mellon digital initiatives, including research and content development, budget and schedule, and our web design and development contractors.
From the Archive: Curator Kellie Jones previews “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980 | Video by Hammer Museum
Did curator Kellie Jones have a role in the digital archiving of the exhibition? What role, if any, did Williams and MoMA PS1 play in completing the archive?
The goal of the project was to preserve Kellie’s existing research, writing, and curatorial vision, as well as that of other scholars involved in the exhibition. She was not directly involved in the process of developing the archive but is very enthusiastic about the result.
Our colleagues at MoMA PS1 and Williams College Museum of Art were very supportive of the project, sending us photos and videos documenting their installation of “Now Dig This!,” their opening events, and their public programs. We felt it was important for the digital archive to represent how “Now Dig This!” changed as it traveled from venue to venue, and we could not have done that without the generous help of those institutions.
How do you envision the archive being used by your audiences?
Our greatest hope for the digital archive is that it will be embraced by students and educators across the globe. We built the “Now Dig This!” site with a scholarly audience in mind—developing new features like a citation tool and interactive footnotes—and we hope to see it included in syllabi and cited in new scholarship. We want the digital archive to serve as a research hub for anyone interested in this history of art in Southern California, and about the communities that formed around art in this part of the country during the 1960s and 1970s.
“Our greatest hope for the digital archive is that it will be embraced by students and educators across the globe. We built the ‘Now Dig This!’ site with a scholarly audience in mind …and we hope to see it included in syllabi and cited in new scholarship.”
— Cynthia Burlingham, Curator, Hammer Museum
Were you anticipating when the “Now Dig This!” exhibition was organized that you would be creating a more robust archive of the exhibition than had been standard practice? Were measures taken for instance to capture the programming for this purpose?
When “Now Dig This!” was being planned, we had no idea that such a resource would ever exist. Fortunately, the Hammer has a policy of recording all of our many public programs and keeping detailed records of our exhibition planning, so most of the materials we needed for the archive were close at hand.
Similarly, now that you have created the digital archive, how has your approach to exhibitions, related content and documenting programming been modified in anticipation of preserving materials for the digital archive?
We have identified some upcoming exhibitions that we feel are well-suited to a digital archive, and have met with the curators of those exhibitions to discuss how they can prepare their materials for an eventual archive.
What exhibition is up next? What is the plan/schedule for rolling out digital archives of current/future exhibitions and past exhibitions?
Our next exhibition to receive the digital archive treatment is “Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology,” which showed at the Hammer in 2014. We hope to launch the “Take It or Leave It” site later this summer. We also hope to create a digital archive for the upcoming exhibition “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985.” In addition, we plan to adapt the digital archive format to feature selected in-depth research projects from the Hammer’s collections.
Where is the rest of the museum field on this front? Are you at forefront?
We do feel that the “Now Dig This!” digital archive has put the Hammer at the forefront of museum practice. Museums put an astonishing amount of hard work and research into organizing large-scale exhibitions like “Now Dig This!,” and so much of that work disappears after the show comes down. We saw an opportunity to use our exhibition research to create a new kind of digital resource, and we hope other museums follow suit. CT
Published to coincide with the exhibition, “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles,” a comprehensive catalog edited by curator Kellie Jones with contributions by Jacqueline Stewart, Naima J. Keith, and Franklin Sirmans, among others, highlights participating artists and their works, and features documentary material from the period such as exhibition posters and promotional cards. “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art” by Jones, “offers a glimpse into the family conversation that has shaped and sustained Jones, insight into the development of her critical and curatorial vision, and a survey of some of the most important figures in contemporary art. The exhibition archive includes video documentation of a conversation between Jones and her late father Amiri Baraka about “EyeMinded.”
From the Archive: “This suitcase was recently found in the archives of Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York, where it sat undisturbed for thirty years. It belonged to Charles White, and Concholar, White’s student, carried it from Los Angeles to New York in 1979. Inside the suitcase—alongside tools, supplies, newspaper clippings, and personal ephemera—works by George Clack and Ruth G. Waddy were found. The suitcase, with all its artifacts, is like a time capsule of the period covered in ‘Now Dig This!'”