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Episode 78
Lisa Darms, Executive Director of Hauser & Wirth Institute

  • 22 min read

Episode Description

A Conversation with Lisa Darms, Executive Director of the Hauser & Wirth Institute. The institute is a non-profit, private foundation dedicated to transforming the field of artists’ archives by nurturing equity and innovation, while also increasing access to archives. HWI provides grants for progressive archival projects and education, fosters networks locally and internationally and organizes public programming that expands conversations around artistic legacies.


Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with Lisa Darms, Executive Director of the Hauser and Wirth Institute. The institute is a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to transforming the fields of artists archives by nurturing equity and innovation, while also increasing access to archives. HWI provides grants for progressive archival projects in education, fosters networks locally and internationally, and organizes public programing that expands conversations around artistic legacies. And now, giving all voices an equal opportunity to be remembered with Hauser & Wirth Institute's Lisa Darms.

Craig: [00:01:07] Lisa Darms, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. Lisa, you are the Executive Director of the Hauser & Wirth Institute. And I guess my first question is when you sit down next to a stranger at a dinner party, do they hear the Hauser & Wirth name and automatically make a lot of bad assumptions about what you do?

Lisa: [00:01:29] I wouldn't say bad assumptions, but they do assume that we're part of the gallery. And that's really hard to get across. But my experience hasn't been that there's been a lot of negative feeling about the gallery or suspicion about our organization. I think it's more the challenging things are that we are a distinct nonprofit. And then also when you get to the part about archives, often people don't really know what archives are or have different ideas of what archives are. So it's kind of a multi-level challenge to explain what we do.

Craig: [00:02:06] Well, let's start there. I feel like there are quite a few people that would listen to this podcast that would be just as uninformed as the person sitting next to you at that dinner party. How would you start to describe to someone about the work that you do with archiving and just the practice of archiving in general?

Lisa: [00:02:27] Right. Well, I should just back up and just say that our mission quite broadly is to foster innovation and advance equity in the field of artists archives so we can go into later the different ways we do that. But one way I like to and I'm not here to say that there's one way to define an archive because there's actually many, many ways to define an archive. But the archives that we're really focused on are artists. Archives are sometimes called personal papers, and those are the materials that are just developed through the course of your creative process or your business. So I think a lot of people in the art world use the word archive to refer to a collection of artworks. And I think that a lot of people obviously are paying attention to artworks, but we're really focusing on these process materials. And so I have a long background as an archivist, so I work really closely with artists in a lot of different capacities, especially in the capacity of that moment where they're thinking about what they want to do as a next step with raw materials. And there's often confusion about what is or isn't an archive where it can go, how to make it public, how to make sure it's preserved forever if they want it to be. So yeah.

Craig: [00:03:54] I feel like, you know, as an artist, as somebody that tries to spend a lot of time learning about artists and getting inside their head, I feel a lot of times there's something...there's a transition in an artist's career, there's a turning point. And, you know, trying to...for an art historian to kind of parachute into an artist's life 50 to 60 years after their death and kind of understand what was going on in their head. If those notes aren't there, if there isn't some sort of history there, it's kind of hard to connect all the dots, right?

Lisa: [00:04:38] Yeah. And so more and more artists are not only thinking about maybe nearing the end of the career of what they have done and how to kind of organize it, but they're thinking ahead to how to create systems to self-document so that things will be preserved in a way that they want them to be. And that's really important. And I think there's a lot more awareness of that, especially because I think historically you can see that we can't rely on institutions of power to document all people equally. So I think that's why there's such a strong push now in community archives or self driven archive self created archival projects, is that the major institutions are largely just the most powerful or most well known artists.

Craig: [00:05:32] You know, recently I had a guest named Paul Farber, who's head of an organization called Monument Lab, and they look at how do monuments get erected, who erects monuments, Do they reflect the community? Right? And, you know, we discussed this notion that monuments represent the views of whichever group had the resources to erect the monument. Right? And so that means that marginalized, disadvantaged people groups typically aren't the ones that are able to commemorate the past. Right? And so I feel like there may be that same issue in archiving that for some groups survival...and that's true with, you know, whether a particular people group or a particular artist. You spend so much time just trying to survive and trying to keep the lights on that you really don't take the time to, you know, record, you know, record this history, you know, whether it's oral history or written notes or whatever it may, or maybe you just don't even recognize the value of what you could hold on to.

Lisa: [00:06:50] Or, you know, historically that these institutions just weren't interested in taking your papers. So, whether you were part of a marginalized group or maybe your practice was seen as a marginalized practice, then they're not going to let you into their institution. So I think that was also a major motivation for the sort of the major shift in the archive field to kind of turn away from just the end all, be all, you know, having your papers go to a major institution. And that our job, says archivists, was to kind of use the word hoard, you know, to extract and hoard these materials in these institutions that are always aligned with power. And instead, younger archivists. And really across the archives field, we're seeing ourselves more and more as facilitators where we can use our skills to help support people who want to keep control of not just the archives, but how they're preserved, how they're made accessible, how they're interpreted. And so I think that's a really important shift, and it's something that I really want the art world to be more aware of is happening because I think it's really important for all of us to really pay attention to.

Craig: [00:08:14] Well, on the hoarding end of the spectrum, I think I think of Andy Warhol. I mean, I've seen really interesting kind of behind the scenes footage of exactly how many boxes there are and how full each box is. And it's really interesting because, I mean, I feel like the the tricky thing with archiving may be that we need perspective to understand what was important in that perspective only comes with time. Time's also the enemy. Because if too much time passes, these things just kind of disappear into the ether. Right?

Lisa: [00:08:57] Right. And so Andy Warhol referred to those as time capsules. And whereas normally. So it kind of makes me think of the importance of context. So that was his practice to create these little time capsules. So whereas for another artist, it might have just been garbage for him, it was really important to preserve. And so there's no universal way of looking at an artist's archive like there's no standardized. And again, I'm not answering your question. I'm going off on my own tangent, but there's no standardized ways to come in and arrange and decide what's important. When you're looking at an artist's archive, you really need to look at what's important to their practice and the context of the movements that they were embedded in. And so when I use the word hoarding, it's not so much about the artists because they're free to do whatever they want. And that's something I really stress when I'm working with artists is to not make assumptions about how they should or shouldn't be arranging things. But the hoarding was more about these major institutions, one of which I worked for for many years, which is incredible and wonderful. And I really think they do a great job. But there's so much material there that the problem has become in part that there's a massive backlog and then it's more difficult in this field that's really famously underfunded to get those archives processed and cataloged and maybe even digitized so that people can get access to them. So the challenges of historicization. It's there's the hurdles of kind of understanding the value of what you have and preserving it properly of either creating a situation where your community can archive itself or donate to an archive. And then, once they get it, they need to then do this quite intensive work to preserve it and make it accessible.

Craig: [00:11:03] You know, I've already mentioned Ward Hall and I hate to bring up Van Gogh, but, you know, when we think about what really spurred Van Gogh's popularity in the 20th century, because he was pretty anonymous in his time, it was the fact that Theo's widow had held on to all those letters. And when people read those letters, as a compilation paired with that increased interest in postmodernism in the early 20th century, it really kind of opened a window for what Van Gogh as a brand has become, right?

Lisa: [00:11:45] I read those a couple of years ago, and they're so incredible. And letters are one of my favorite things. I think they're so important to history and they just gave such a sense of the struggle and the incredible work he put into going from someone who is pretty terrible at what he did to someone who was great and the generosity of his brother really comes across and all those things are really so important. But yeah, I think you're right that letters and I think another point about this, this's a way to enter into somebody's personal life and personal relationship to their practice, but it also is in a relationship. And I think that's the other really key thing about archives when they're used for historical research is that they're documenting not just an individual, but all of the connections and networks that individuals involved with. So for example, when I was a curator of archives at NYU's Sayles Library, the Downtown Collection, which is a collection documenting downtown art scene in the '70s-'80s-ish, we often collected artists that no one had ever heard of, but there, which I shouldn't say but and and their materials were often so intertwined with a large group of more famous. Artists or performers that their archives were much more important as documentation of those people than the famous artist's own archives were. If that makes sense. And so it's an archive on its own is one thing. And then the way that they start, start to communicate with each other just builds a picture of a period of history or a scene in a really compelling way.

Craig: [00:13:47] So let me ask you, have you and your organization given thought to how the nature of writing has changed from a technological...because we're really it's not just about a physical footprint. It's also about a digital footprint. I mean, are you are you guys already considering how would you go about documenting text interactions between artists or, you know, social media posts? What digital communication? Because, I mean, I think that, you know, going back to Van Gogh, if Van Gogh had been a practicing artist today, he wouldn't have been writing physical letters to Theo. He probably would have been texting him, right?

Lisa: [00:14:36] Yeah. So with the collections that we're currently working with, we don't have those particular materials, We don't have emails, texts. But it is something I've worked with in the past. So for example, when I brought in Chris Kraus's papers to NYU, we had a lot of conversations about her email and it's kind of two things. It's the technological challenge which archivists have been working on now for several years and have come up with really good systems to kind of preserve and then to be able to find things in the email. The other thing when you're talking to artists is obviously privacy. And it's interesting to see, having worked with so many artists and brought in their letters and how often they're quite cavalier about that, when it's they're email, they often have a fear that it could be much more public or much more out of their control. So a lot of the work that goes into working with artists or anybody's email as an archivist is kind of vetting it a little bit or giving the person a chance to vet it a little bit. But we do do a lot of work with the problem or challenge of of digital formats. So, for example, we've been working with Jason Rhodes Archive. He died pretty young in 2006 and that was right in the period of a lot of digital formats that are already pretty much on the edge of obsolescence. So things we thought were going to last forever, like CD's.

Craig: [00:16:13] Right

Lisa: [00:16:13] And so we have this a great archivist, Jenny Cornes, who is working not only to preserve Jason's studio archives, the papers and the paper manuals he created, but everything that's on the audiovisual material. So VHS tapes, audio cassettes and floppy disks and CD's to extract that content to make sure that those files are constantly...we call them migrated so that they're that they're not going to be obsolete. And to find ways to make them findable for researchers eventually. So it's a big it's a big concern in the archive field that one that people are really tackling.

Craig: [00:17:02] So your organization, you guys aren't actually keeping specific archives, You're consulting, promoting, leading the technology. I think from what I read, most importantly, providing funding to people that wouldn't have the ability to archive or do it the right way on their own. Am I getting that right?

Lisa: [00:17:27] I wouldn't say the right way. I think what we want to do, rather, is empower people who are already with our grants, already doing interesting archival work to continue that work on their own terms. But yeah, to back up, to just talk a bit about our kind of the three arms of our mission, right? So one of them is that we produce our own projects, so we will take on an archive, an artist's archive to process and digitize. But we don't keep it. We don't have our own collections, so we see ourselves as facilitators again. And then doing this service we can then help place that collection at a public institution where that institution can make it widely accessible and preserve it for the long term. So that's something we just did for the artist Mary Dill Henry, an under known abstract artist from the Pacific Northwest. And her papers just arrived today at Illinois Institute of Technology, which is where she went as a student when it was the New Bauhaus and she was a student in Moholy-nagy. So it was a great home for that collection. So that's just an example of one of the arms where we're producing catalog resumes, where we're processing archives. But with the goal of making them more and more accessible. And then with our grant program, that is really, again, the bottom of line is to increase access in various ways, especially for communities that have been marginalized. And so there's a variety of ways that we do that. And what I like to do is once somebody's been nominated to really start to form a relationship with that organization, to really listen to what their needs are. And this has been a really important part of our program. I think. I think it's easy to come in assuming what somebody might need. But when you actually take the time to listen, it's often something quite different. So. Yeah. So we're we're there to support these projects and there's a variety. There's so for example, with Asia Art Archive. Which is a Hong Kong based nonprofit that. There's wonderful work and has been for a long time to have a model where they digitize in the field all over Asia. And then the collection stays in its original home, and then they build this archive of digital material that's really easily accessed. When I went to John Teen, who's had a research there, I really thought, Oh, let's do a travel grant. And through conversation he said, "No, what I really need is money for digitization. That's how we're going to make things more accessible." And so that's what we ended up doing there.

Craig: [00:20:32] I think I've even seen that you guys have provided some some scholarship opportunities for.

Lisa: [00:20:37] Yeah.

Craig: [00:20:38] What do you guys look for when you're figuring out who to to reward there?

Lisa: [00:20:43] So that was the Pratt Institute. It's their dual degree in art history and library science. And in thinking about. So the field of archives is extremely, extremely white. It's been a problem for a long time that the field has been aware of, and it really hasn't...has made some strides, but to diversify the field professionally, I think one thing you can do is to support students at the very, very beginning of their careers to even be able to go to a program and get a free ride for three years, I think is is a really great way to create the archivist of the future. And then one of our newer grants that we just announced is for the Southside Community Arts Center in Chicago. And they came to us with the idea of an internship program. Again, these are statistics they gave me that only 3-4% of museum registrars and archivists in the arts are black. And to sort of start at the beginning by supporting students who want to learn more, but want to be fairly paid for the work that they do. So that's going to be three internships over the next couple of summers. And just related to that is something else we're really trying to prioritize is to support labor generally of the people who preserve these things. So people were calling memory workers, archivists and and others in the field. And so we really want to make sure that that work is appreciated and understood and and rewarded and respected.

Craig: [00:22:40] It makes me think a little bit about the topic of income disparity in the museum field, and can I safely assume that that's something that's been kind of holding back growth on the archival side of the House that...I have a background in business and I know that in the business world, you know, compensation varies widely and there's always this thought that income generators earn more than, you know, revenue consumers, if you're in sales, you're bringing in revenue, and so you're worth more from a compensation versus if you're in operations, you're a cost center. Is that a battle that's having to be fought on the archival side in terms of our archivists being compensated fairly? I mean, or is that even a question you would dare answer?

Lisa: [00:23:36] No, they're not. And I'd say, well, the disparity question is very important in the field as well, maybe less so in the art world with its extreme wealth. So archivists are often working for universities or research centers. But I'd say the bigger questions are disparity more in terms of maybe race and gender. So it's a very, very female field, but still a disproportionate number of the people at the top are men. But even above all of that is just no archive has the funds it needs to do the job. It needs to meet the demands of people to to get access to the material. And it can be very hard. There's, I think, a lot of burnout in the field because of that pressure to do more and more with less and less, which of course is happening all over every field right now. But I think it's because our field is misunderstood. It's often pushed to the to the bottom of the to-do list in terms of priorities. And one thing people don't understand, too, is just how vast the materials are. So I think if we think of an artist's artwork, we might think of a catalog raisonne.

Speaker2: [00:24:58] There's 1000 items that seems manageable with an artist's archive. It can be millions and millions and millions (at a research center) of pieces of paper or notebooks or photographs, all that are deteriorating and need to be, we just stem what time is doing to them. And so I've often thought I remember thinking when I was working in special collections at NYU, like we were trying to come up with ways to make processing even more and more. We would call it minimal processing to try to speed through and get things out more quickly. And I kept thinking, maybe we just need to be better advocates for what we do, maybe instead of just saying,"We don't have enough". And so we have to do, frankly, a less good job like. Maybe if people knew what archives were and how important they were, we could just get more funding. And so I just realized recently, that's what I'm doing now and how wonderful that I have the opportunity, hopefully to do that.

Craig: [00:26:04] You're a grant making organization. Are you working from a bucket that is endowed or is part of your job to continue to fundraise, to be able to to help these other organizations?

Lisa: [00:26:21] No, I'm in a very privileged position where we're a private foundation. So although we're distinct from Hauser & Wirth Gallery, we are fully funded by them. And so that takes the pressure off me to do fundraising and it allows me to put a lot more energy into all these other things that we're doing. And I really acknowledge how lucky I am right in that position.

Craig: [00:26:44] One of my guests a few months back was someone who just recently started an ICA, the one in San Francisco, and she was she was describing exactly what percentage of her job involves fundraising at this point. And it's, you know, for someone that kind of got into the business as a curator to be spending like 60% of their time talking to people about money is, you know, it sounds like you're very appreciative to not to be having all those conversations about people opening up their wallets to you, right?

Lisa: [00:27:22] Yeah. And our funders have been really excited about our mission and hoping that it can be seen as a model to others for maybe a different kind of philanthropy that maybe overstates it to just that there might be other funders out there who be interested in funding archives rather than the usual art world. Build a wing at the museum, maybe instead help process 50 archives.

Craig: [00:27:54] Is technology making any part of this easier? Because I mean, I think like even within the amount of time that I've been doing podcasts, I started with a different podcast about four or five years ago, and I remember the first time I tried to transcribe an episode, it was torturous. And now I'm able to use an A.I. that lives in the cloud and, you know, it returns back something to me in like 5 minutes that is like 95% accurate. Are we seeing advances in technology that are making the work of the archivists easier, quicker, able to to do more with less? Are there those advances. 

Lisa: [00:28:40] Somewhat. Just obviously something like OCR character recognition can help, you know? Take a digitized letter and help us create a transcript from it. But in terms of the efficiencies of just what an archivist is doing with processing a paper archive, it's hard to introduce technological tools into that to speed it up. And part of that is because, you know, you're working with fragile materials sometimes, but in other areas absolutely. I mean, obviously digitization. Has been really important and the whole COVID lockdown era really proved that because all of a sudden nobody was able to do research. But archivists were able, in many cases, to still supply access because of digitization. And of course, digitization is super expensive and takes a long time. But a lot of archives are now doing on demand digitization as well so that people can do research remotely. Or one of my favorite things is I know curators who will meet with you remotely with a document camera and just leaf through, say, a folder of materials and the researcher can identify what it is they want scanned or ask questions about it. Live with the curator. In terms of efficiencies, definitely efficiencies for things that are born digital, you know, so aggregating content or finding algorithms to speed up processes for processing not, but for for old school materials. It's a little more challenging.

Craig: [00:30:31] If somebody wanted to support your organization, what can they do to support you. If you already have the financial resources that you need, wow are other ways that someone who believes in the work that you're doing might be able to. To support or advocate for you?

Lisa: [00:30:48] One thing I just want and thank you for helping me in this is just I want people to understand what it is we do. So the more that people can get the word out there that we're doing this to better. I don't think there is another organization like us that is really focused on artists archives and we are aggregating resources to help people who have questions about. To preserve their own archives. How to donate archives and digital preservation. So I'd love for people to be able to know about those. I guess I'm not sure about support, but I just love the idea of growing and growing and growing this community and I think we're going to support each other know. And so the one of the things I love about giving these grants to these small nonprofits and communities is they kind of start to become part of your community as well. And the ability to generate new ideas also grows. A couple of years ago when I was still...kind of a lockdown moment, trying to figure out what the right thing to do was. I held a couple of remote roundtables where I invited what I was thinking of as innovators in the field of artists archives with specifically people who worked on the ground in the field, not people who are theoreticians of archives and asked the question like, "what is it that the field needs now? What do the people that you're working with need now" And that was. Um, a really great, great way to support ourselves or each other and also to informed the direction of the grants since that time. So yeah, in terms of support, I guess spread the word and you know, and I also am happy to talk to people. I always make myself open to talk to people who have questions about these things as well. I offer my support to the listener too.

Craig: [00:33:06] I feel like a lot of my listeners are artists. Artists have a tendency to listen to a lot of podcasts while they work in their studios. And I guess a question I would have for you is what would you encourage an artist to do now to make an archivist work easier at the end of their career?

Lisa: [00:33:30] I don't want to say too much about how you should arrange things, because we we really love to preserve the way you arrange things that reflects your work. It reflects your practice, it reflects who you ar. But what you can do that's really important, especially if you're thinking long term to your posthumous career is to identify things to if it's visual. Who are these people? If it' things, I mean, these are just little things, but I can't tell you how many times you see something undated. And how different it would be if it was dated. And then. I think. Yeah. Reaching out to these resources to help. Get advice, too, is really important. Things like the Joan Mitchell Foundation's call program Creating a Living Legacy. There's a program that was in North Carolina called Artist Studio Archives that created a bunch of great workbooks that you can work through and then organization that we collaborate if you're in the UK is Art 360 Foundation and they'll place archivists or other professionals in your studio with you to help you with a particular challenge. If it's digital, if it's just arranging your stuff, if it's preservation issues. Those are all ways that I think you can kind of seek out advice to help you with your specific challenge.

Craig: [00:35:09] One of the things you said there reminded me of this conundrum with family photo albums where in your parent's lifetime, you know, they're full of all these photos in there telling you who everyone in the photos are these aunts and uncles. And then by the time they're passed down in, you're sitting with your kids, you you can't tell them what year it is. You can't even identify who's in the photos anymore. And so it's like, you know, within even just the family family photo album, you know, we do such a good job of like preserving the visual, but we lose the oral history, right?

Lisa: [00:35:48] Right. And don't don't they always write on the photo, too? That's the thing. I always drives me crazy. And Edna across her face.

Craig: [00:35:57] All across her face. Exactly.

Lisa: [00:35:58] But yeah, no, you're right. The oral history piece is really important, and one of the nonprofits that we really recommend looking into is Voices of Contemporary Art - VOCA. They do a series of and have been for, I think, ten years, artist interview workshops. So I think those workshops originally maybe were more directed towards the organization itself. I hope I'm not misspeaking, was more directed towards conservation of work. So it was a way of documenting your practice so that conservators of the future could know how to handle the work. But it's kind of brought it broadened out into the importance of all sorts of interviews, but especially ways that you can document your practice in your archive through interviews. And it also makes me think, you know, one of the the grants that we just announced is to support a five month oral history for the Caroline Schneeman Foundation. And the reason that this project was so pressing is because the group of people who will be interviewed are almost entirely in their 80s. And so you really need to gather that information. It's like not...the stories, the narratives that aren't part of a static photograph or an exhibition poster before they disappear.

Craig: [00:37:23] Well, Lisa, I really appreciate your time today, and I love learning things, and I feel like you've kind of opened a window to something that I honestly haven't spent nearly enough time thinking about. And if if folks wanted to follow your work, is their website or a social media handle that you kind of direct people to.

Lisa: [00:37:47] Sure. Our website is and people might want to go to the resources page where we've aggregated or compiled all these different organizations and workbooks for them. We also have Instagram accounts that is just about to be a little bit more vital. So I would recommend going there. A lot of our stories there are about interesting artists archives projects or resources or workshops that you can take from other organizations.

Craig: [00:38:20] Well, again, Lisa, I really appreciate your time and thank you for joining me today.

Lisa: [00:38:25] Thank you so much. I love to have the opportunity to talk about artist archives. And if you ever want me back, I'm sure we could fill another couple hours.

Craig: [00:38:39] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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