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Hauser & Wirth Institute: Democratizing the Archives - Features - Independent Art Fair

Mary Dill Henry’s Thesis, Institute of Design, 1946, courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology

Who should have the power to document, preserve, and present cultural history? Is it experts and institutions, as has long been the case, or is it the artists and communities themselves—the ones who were generating the material in the first place? The question doesn’t come with an easy answer. But the nonprofit Hauser & Wirth Institute exists to provide possible paths forward. The New York-based foundation, which launched in 2018, supports nonprofits and collectives to process and present their archives to the public, so they can tell their own stories.

Operating independently from its primary benefactor, Hauser & Wirth Gallery, the Institute provides funding to organizations to foster creative approaches to making archives more available to the public, and for archival education. The word archives may mean different things to different people, but the Institute’s focus is on “the materials that accrue through artists doing their work,” explained Hauser & Wirth Institute’s executive director Lisa Darms. That is: notebooks, photographs, posters, letters—the granular drip of artifacts amassed through a lifetime of art-making. Within those contours, the Institute has a mission to foster diversity and agency. “Underlying everything we do is increasing access,” Darms said.

Hauser & Wirth Institute: Democratizing the Archives - Features - Independent Art Fair

Zahoor ul Akhlaq studio, photo: Richard Seck, courtesy and © Estate of Zahoor ul Akhlaq

She previously spent more than seven years as the senior archivist at New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, where she specialized in documenting the downtown arts scene from the 1960s to the 1990s. In 2010, she began an initiative to archive materials from the feminist youth movement Riot Grrrl. “At that time, it was unusual for institutions to collect materials like that,” Darms said. “People were motivated to donate to the collection because of the history of feminist erasure—it was a way to make sure that people who had been written out of the canon in the past were actually part of it, by having their archives preserved.”

During her own career, Darms has noticed significant changes in the profession that have put a greater emphasis on self-determination. “The field has really shifted in this direction,” she said, referring to efforts to democratize the archival process and make materials more accessible. “And that’s primarily through supporting communities to archive themselves.” 

Hauser & Wirth Institute: Democratizing the Archives - Features - Independent Art Fair


Aay Preston-Myint conducting research in the collection of the Leather Archives & Museum as part of the Chicago Archives + Artists Project. Photo by Ryan Edmund Thiel.

Unlike a collecting institution, Hauser & Wirth Institute follows a two-pronged model that it describes as “non-custodial.” It has the resources to catalog and digitize artists’ archives at no cost for an artist, their estate, or arts organizations; it is then able to assist in finding a permanent home for those collections. Perhaps more radically, its grant-making program enables others to take charge of their own archives. “People should have the choice,” over how to preserve their histories, Darms said.

A case in point is the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York, a 2022 grantee. A similar archive would have likely gone to a major collecting institution in the past, Darms said. But the almost 50-year-old workshop decided to keep its documents on site, where artists in residence and other researchers are able to access them. 

Then there is the Chicago Archives + Artists Project, a 2021 grantee, which is an initiative created by the collective Sixty Inches From Center. Dedicated to preserving the culture of the Midwest’s Indigenous, diasporic, queer, and disability communities, the organization “was trying to find other ways of deconstructing the art-historical canon,” Darms said. Since 2017, the Chicago Archives + Artist Project has paired up artists and archivists in year-long residencies. The results have now been published in a book, Chicago Archives + Artists Project: Case Studies in Collaboration, funded in part through the Hauser & Wirth Institute grant.

Hauser & Wirth Institute: Democratizing the Archives - Features - Independent Art Fair

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Radio Photos of Objects Unidentified, 1983, etching, 50.5 x 40 cm, photo: Asif Khan, courtesy and © Estate of Zahoor ul Akhlaq

At Independent 20th Century, the Institute will present selections from the archives of two artists which it has recently supported: the Pakistani artist and educator Zahoor ul Akhlaq and the American abstract painter Mary Dill Henry. Participating in a fair offers “an opportunity to actually talk to people and have a forum where there’s archival material present,” Darms said. “We’re hoping that we can help people understand who we are and what we do.”

Akhlaq’s archives were organized and digitized via a $25,000 grant to Asia Art Archive. Known for his synthesis of traditional forms—such as calligraphy and miniature painting—with more abstract, modernist impulses, Akhlaq is one of Pakistan’s most influential artists. A selection of archival materials will be on view at Independent 20th Century, curated by John Tain, the head of research at Asia Art Archive.

Hauser & Wirth Institute: Democratizing the Archives - Features - Independent Art Fair

Mary Dill Henry painting a mural, courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology

Henry studied with László Moholy-Nagy in Chicago at the “New Bauhaus” and then took an extended hiatus from art-making. Later in life, she found acclaim for her geometric abstractions that at times reflected the landscape of her Pacific Northwest home. The artist’s archives, which include sketchbooks, letters, and photographs, came to Hauser & Wirth Institute directly from her family. In a process facilitated by the Institute, her papers have now been donated to the Illinois Institute of Technology—the artist’s alma mater.

Public displays of archives can help to shine a light on a practice often sequestered inside of the abstruse halls of academia. To a general audience—or even to members of the art world—the archival process can seem mysterious. “I still sometimes have trouble explaining it after 17 years in the field,” Darms admitted. “What I really love to do is to bring people into collections and actually go through stuff with them. That’s when the light bulb really turns on.”


John Chiaverina is a writer based in New York City. He has contributed to publications including ARTnews and T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Learn more about Hauser & Wirth Institute’s presentation of Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Mary Dill Henry at Independent 20th Century.

Learn more about Hauser & Wirth Institute’s 2023 and past grantees here.