Burchfield Penney Art Center archives intern Francesca Ferrari

Burchfield Penney Art Center archives intern Francesca Ferrari

An International experience at the Center: Francesca Ferrari

Thursday, May 7, 2015

My experience as an intern at the Burchfield Penney Art Center has proved to be extremely informative in spite of the brevity of my participation. Not only I observed the concrete mechanisms of a cultural institution which had never been disclosed by my purely academic background, but I also became aware of the vitality of an art center in a community were artists, collectors, art dealers and art-education are closely connected.

My activity at the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s archives provided me with an exciting variety of applied, heterogeneous projects concerning on the one hand the selection and classification of written documentation regarding the activity of the Burchfield Penney and of the artists it is linked to, and on the other hand the detailed investigation of the historic records of a collection of ceramic sculptures, the Spong collection.

In the first case, I developed the ability to examine an auction catalogue and to understand the differences in the Art Center’s relationships with the artists’ whose auction records are worth preserving in the archives (for instance, the auction records for C. Burchfield hold a different meaning for the institution than those for C. Sherman). Moreover, I perceived the extent to which the Burchfield Penney is embedded in the Buffalo community and, generally, in the Western New York art scene by classifying diverse newspaper articles regarding the art center and by helping to expand the extensive database grouping the artists based or related to the Western New York area. Further, I had the opportunity to handle historic documents regarding the community’s past artistic activity – with its codification in the Buffalo Society of Artists – and to compare it with the contemporary one.

In the second case, I directly observed a great example of how a collector’s passion for art generates diverse relationships with the artists featuring in his collection, and how the collector connects with both commercial and educative art institutions. My contribution to the systematization of the information relating to the Spong Collection led me on a journey across the collector’s taste and artistic sensitivity, which highlighted Dean Spong’s collecting strategy, his intimate dialogues with his favored artists as well as with their dealers, his active collaboration with art schools and his patronage of both artists working on a local and an international scale. Concretely, I learned how to discern reliable documentation from simple conversation in the confuse whole of the collector’s files, and how to match the technical description of an artwork with its photographic representation. Moreover, I became able to find and select relevant information about both the artists and their work, in light of the Burchfield Penney Art Center current and potential curatorial needs. Further, amusingly enough, I developed detective skills while reconstructing the collection’s exact composition and while recuperating the featuring artists’ biographies and current contacts. This showed me how a well-organized archive is vital for a collection of artworks, and how information about the single artworks and their artists increases the value of the collection and the relevance of the collector’s patronage. On a methodological level, I learned how to juxtapose formal and informal documentation from both hardcopy and digital sources. 

I am convinced that this internship expanded my perspective on the art world, especially highlighting the importance of local artistic ecosystems. My academic background, consisting of a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and English Literature obtained from the University of Lausanne (Switzerland), and of a certificate for the Art & Business semester program gained from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art (London), has been successfully complemented by the practical knowledge acquired volunteering in the archives of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. This experience contributed to my understanding of the art world and increased my enthusiasm for its complex but deeply relationship-driven mechanisms, and I hope that my modest participation succeeded to return my gratitude to the Burchfield Penney Art Center for this exciting opportunity.

I would like to thank Heather and all the other volunteers for their incredible kindness and availability to answer all my questions and for their ability to create a relaxed work environment, and the Burchfield Penney Art Center for readily accepting my internship even under strange time-conditions. I would also like to express my admiration for the great projects that are being led at the Center, focusing on innovative exhibition strategies and establishing highly creative relationships within the Western New York artistic community in spite of limited budgets. I hope we will cross our paths again in the future!


Francesca Ferrari interned at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in February 2015, before conducting a longer-term internship working for Sotheby's in New York City. In the fall of 2015, she will begin the Masters of Arts in Art History Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.