9,844 Local Artists: The Chicago Artists’ Archive

Robin Dluzen

I came armed to the Harold Washington Library with very little knowledge of the Chicago Artists’ Archive that is housed within. I had arranged an appointment with Librarian Leslie Patterson, the keeper of the archive, and I was surprised to see the whole thing — all 9,844 artist entries– housed in a set of file cabinets in a rather unassuming side room of the library’s 8th floor dedicated to Visual and Performing Arts.

I had my list of questions to ask Patterson, but I first needed to dive into the cabinets, and see what this thing actually looked like. Each entry in the archive is a physical file folder, with handwritten labels stuffed into the little plastic tabs. Some were very fat –the names you’d expect: Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, Gladys Nilsson. Other folders were sparse, their names not immediately recognizable to me. But still others were big files of under names that have no real internet presence, but whose impact can be seen to this day in the Chicago art world. A particular find of this type, one with a particular significance to me, was hanging out at the end of the bottom right file cabinet – the very last entry into the alphabetical archive: Paul Zubrzycki.

I had come across Zubrzycki’s work in the Roger Brown Collection last summer, though I had heard the name before in passing from some more veteran members of the Chicago art scene, and his work has kind of been a fixation for me within my own artistic practice. In Zubrzycki’s file was many of the same things as the other files: exhibition announcements and old-timey photocopies of articles and mentions in now-defunct print publications, all housed carefully in Mylar (one of the roles of Patterson’s two volunteers). Zubrzycki’s file also contained items that the archive is not necessarily meant for, but Patterson obviously won’t turn away, like hand-numbered original prints.

Paul Zubrzycki's file in the Chicago Artists' Archive

After I got over this personally delightful find (and after Leslie generously offered to make photocopies of the items I wanted to have from Zubrzycki’s file), I asked the one question that I’m sure comes up first and foremost regarding the archive: Is this online?

Patterson answered kindly that no, the archive is a physical archive only at this point and that this is the case for two reasons, the first being that “the Archive is enormous, almost 10,000 artists are listed in our database, and most of the material is on paper, either artifacts or copies. So it would take a huge amount of time to scan and digitize all the materials.” (The archive is maintained solely by Patterson, and a mere two other volunteers.)

The second reason for not digitalizing, Patterson explained, “is copyright. Since we are dealing with artwork and images, we would have to get permission from each artist in order to publish their materials online. For the artists who have passed away, this would mean tracking down their estates or families.”

However, the Chicago Artists’ Archive will not be totally absent from the internet: “Our more immediate goal is to get the database online,” Patterson said, “This database contains a wealth of information about the artists, including book citations, and would be valuable to researchers or anyone looking for more information on a given Chicago artist.”

For now though, Google searches on your artist would take you to the archive’s blog, which lists alphabetically the artists in the archive, and also identifies which will have slides or video.

Leslie Patterson in front of the Archive

I also wondered as to whether the archive was intended to be a record of historical artists of the city, or whether it’s something that is engaged with the contemporary artists of the city. Patterson explained:

“The majority of artists in [the archive] were active in the 20th century. But we continually add new artists, and so are working hard to represent the artists of the 21st century. To that end we are partnering with a group called Sixty Inches from Center, which is a fantastic group of young artists/art historians, who are documenting the new generations of visual artists in Chicago online.”

Also, as the Chicago Artists’ Archive was built by donations from individuals, many contemporary artists take it upon themselves to bring in their own exhibition materials to be archived as well.

In addition, the archive receives contemporary entries through the art exhibitions at the library. Patterson explained, “our Call For Artists goes out each fall on the Chicago Artists Resource, so anyone who applies for an exhibit gets added to the Archive (with their permission of course!) We use the exhibit space here on the 8th floor of the Harold Washington Library Center to showcase and promote Chicago area artists.”


Other things to find at the Chicago Artists’ Archive and the Harold Washington Library:

  • Exhibition poster archive
  • Artist Book collection from a guerilla project at the library by Temporary Services
  • The Chicago Artists’ Archive: Hidden Pages Brought to Light—Artist Anne Hayden Stevens’ selections from the archive, which she has been in the process of reading in its entirety since May 2010

To receive notification for the next Call For Artists, email art@chipublib.org. To submit your own materials to be archived, email documentation or questions to art@chipublib.org, call Leslie Patterson at 312-747-4820, drop off materials at the Art Reference Desk on the 8th floor of the Harold Washington Library Center or mail them to:

Leslie Patterson
Art Information Center
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago, IL 60605