The archival collection at the Art Institute of Chicago defines itself thus:
The Ryerson & Burnham Archives collect artists’ and architects’ papers that complement and extend the permanent collections of the museum’s curatorial departments. The collections contain a wide range of media, including correspondence, published and unpublished writings, scrapbooks, architectural drawings and prints, business papers, photographs, slides, audio recordings, films, video, and ephemera. The Archives’ collections are notably strong in late 19th- and 20th-century American architecture, with particular depth in Midwest architecture… The Archives also collect the papers of artists and designers. Of particular note are the archives of such figures as Ivan Albright, Irving Penn, and Richard Ten Eyck, each of whom played a key role in recent exhibitions organized by The Art Institute of Chicago.
Looking at the various collections, many of them appear to defined by their creator and circumscribed by particular subjects and periods of investigation (such as the papers documenting Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural work in Michigan from 1945-1988), while others have the documentation of a life’s work as their primary subject matter, but are not limited by time or scope (such as a number of personal papers held in the collection). They also have collections which have been made by the institution, such as the American Mural Painting Scrapbook collection, which brought together newspaper and magazine clippings of mural paintings done in the U.S. and published in the 1930s and 40s.
A short survey of some of the collections in the archive reveal that many of these were gifts or donations to the institution. Only one that I looked at, the World’s Columbian Exposition Photographs by C.D. Arnold, noted a purchase, and even this collection was only partly composed of purchased materials. Many of the other major collections were gifts, donations, or in a couple of cases, inheritances that were willed to the institution. It was surprising the number of times acquisition information was simply unknown, or at least parts of collection’s acquisition information was unknown.
A number of different descriptors are used for collections. Extent in linear feet is used to describe the sheer volume of material, as well as a short abstract describing the content or subject matter of materials in each collection. Physical description gives a brief overview of the media in the collection, and there are also brief descriptions of origination. Each collection has information on acquisition as well; that is, how it came to be in the collection.
The archive seems to have a graded access policy; that is, they are open to anyone viewing certain materials for research purposes with an appointment. Some materials may not be available for use or viewing, but the website indicates this is usually because of privacy agreements or fragility of the materials. In the latter case, they indicate that a surrogate record (microfilm and in some cases an electronic record) is usually available for research if desired.
The scope of the materials in the collection ranges, from personal correspondence and typed manuscripts to photographs, architectural drafts, sketches, and magazine clippings. The archival collections are part of the Ryerson and Burnham libraries at the AIC and managed by archival staff at that location.
The highlights and strengths of the collection seem to lie in the architectural holdings. Especially of interest for Chicago-area and Midwestern architecture are the Frank Lloyd Wright (world-famous designer and architect of what he referred to as “organic architecture”) and Mies Van der Rohe (an extremely influential modern architect) collections. The archive also holds a collection of personal correspondence by one of my favorite artists, Georges Rouault, a 19th century French painter often loosely grouped with the fin de siècle Fauvism movement, but whose emphases and concerns were entirely his own.