History of the Archives

The Iowa Archives of the Avant-garde is an umbrella grouping of several major collections of documents of twentieth- (and to some extent twenty-first-) century art and literature at the University of Iowa Libraries. How did these collections (the International Dada Archive, Alternative Traditions in Contemporary Art, and the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry) come to be housed in the heart of the American Midwest?

It all started with Dada. Specifically, it started in 1978 with an international, interdisciplinary conference at the university organized by Stephen Foster of the School of Art and Art History and Rudolf Kuenzli of then Program in Comparative Literature, and an associated exhibition at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. This was the first major conference on Dada to be held in the United States, and it led very directly to the founding of the Dada Archive. By the end of the conference, there was clear consensus that some sort of archive was needed to preserve the record of the Dada movement. Professor Michel Benamou of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee agreed to establish the archive as part of his Center for Twentieth Century Studies. Unfortunately, Prof. Benamou died suddenly very shortly thereafter. At that point, Professors Kuenzli and Foster agreed to take on the project, which became a collaboration between the School of Art and Art History, the Program in Comparative Literature, and the University Libraries. The libraries already had very strong holdings in Dada and related avant-garde movements, due to the interest of Franklin Hanlin, the library’s chief bibliographer, and Harlan Sifford, the long-time Art Librarian.

The Dada Archive and Research Center, as it was then called, was formally established in 1979. It consisted of two units, both of which had misleading names. The Literary Archive, under Rudolf Kuenzli, was devoted to the textual and printed documentation of Dada (not only material related to literature, but also fine arts material). Its mission was to inventory everything in the library system related to Dada, compile bibliographical information about the Dada movement, and begin filling the gaps in the collection. The main product was to be a card catalog, which started in six drawers on a desk in the library’s administrative offices, that grew 120 drawers before we started turning it into an online catalog. Before we moved the catalog online, the plan was to publish a book catalog reproducing the cards—the sort of thing that G.K. Hall used to publish. The archive received a series of grants from the NEH and the Jerome Foundation. The Literary Archive used its half of the grant to hire a bibliographer and a research assistant. The grant money also funded a series of microfilming trips to Europe; Prof. Kuenzli took a portable microfilm camera to various public and private collections in Europe, preserving thousands of documents using what was then cutting-edge technology. If this had been done ten years later, of course, it would have been a digital preservation project. When the grant period ended, the bibliographer role was taken on by the University Libraries as a portion of a full-time professional librarian position. Sometime around 1990 the Dada Literary Archive was renamed the International Dada Archive, and the former bibliographer, Timothy Shipe, was named the curator.

Two other projects that the archive took on were, first, the digitization of many of the rare primary sources housed in Special Collections—what is now known as the Digital Dada Library. Second, Kuenzli took on the editorship of the journal Dada/Surrealism, and then, around 2011, Shipe took on that role, and Dada/Surrealism was transformed into a free, peer-reviewed online journal.

Meanwhile, the Photodocumentary Archive started out as a project to make archival photographic negatives of major Dada art works and documents, with a view toward becoming the main source for obtaining illustrations for books and articles, slides, and so forth. Later, its name was changed to the Fine Arts Dada Archive, and its focus shifted to the production of a major ten-volume compilation of monographs and essays, Crisis and the Arts: The History of Dada. When Stephen Foster left the university, the Fine Arts Dada Archive ceased to exist as a distinct entity, and its image collection was incorporated into the International Dada Archive.

The world of art scholarship very soon became aware of the Dada Archive and its projects, and the other two chief components of the IAAG came to us as a direct result of this growing renown.

Numerous artists working in a tradition that was strongly influenced by Dada, some of them considering themselves “neo-Dadaists,” became very interested in the work of the Dada Archive. Many of them were associated with the Fluxus movement. And they started sending their papers to Stephen Foster and Estera Milman. These didn’t really belong in the Dada Archive, but were clearly an important primary source for the documentation of contemporary art movements. So these were collectively designated as “Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts” and were housed in the old Art Building. After the 2008 flood that devastated Iowa’s arts campus, the materials were moved to the Main Library for safekeeping, and were eventually made part of Special Collections.

Finally, in 2018, we were contacted by the curator of the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, the largest and most important collection of concrete poetry in the world. The Sackners had been building this private collection for over forty years,

and were hoping to eventually find an institutional home for it. Following Ruth’s death, Marvin began looking in earnest for such a home. This became more urgent when Hurricane Irma tore through his Miami condo, forcing him to move the entire collection to an art storage facility in New York. When they learned about the Dada Archive, Marvin Sackner and his curator approached us to see if we would be interested in housing the archive. The end result was that virtually the entire Sackner Archive arrived at Iowa in the spring of 2019 as a combined gift and loan, and following Marvin’s death in 2020, essentially the entire collection was donated to Iowa.

In 2021 the Iowa Archives of the Avant-garde was established as an umbrella for these three collections as well as other relevant holdings at the University of Iowa. The Archives could potentially designate holdings not only in the University Libraries but also elsewhere in the University, especially the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, which is seen as a major partner. An advisory bard has been appointed, and we envision a Campus Partnership that will include staff from the Libraries and The Museum as well as faculty members from relevant departments.