Jacob Tynan: Burchfield Penney Art Center Internship Final Summer Essay

Monday, August 12, 2019

During my time at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, my tasks were many and varied. Physically reorganizing archives in folders and boxes, reexamining archives to better describe them in the finding aid, and assisting with preparations for the annual Art Auction and Gala were some of the major highlights, yet are not fully representative of my experiences. During my time with the SUNY Brockport History Department, my education has ingrained many important idea necessary for serious historical study.

One of the most basic ideas is that of the primary source. An artifact or writing from the time or place of a certain event, primary sources are the foundation on which historical studies are built. All history professors in my experience have taught that although primary sources may give only fragmentary or biased pictures of the past, these sources are the most advantageous avenues for fresh interpretation and discovery. In many respects, my time as an archive intern at the Burchfield was an active dialogue with a trove of primary sources. The primary sources in the archive I primarily worked with revolved around Artpark, and extended in time from the 1950’s through the early 2000’s, from the early architectural plans for the construction of a theatre for massive pageant productions in the fifties and sixties to the plans for privatization and its eventual implementation in the nineties and 2000’s. Artpark remained both an avant-garde space for artists and craftspeople from around the country and a theatrical production space for ballets, plays, and musicals. During the summer, starting in 1974 and continuing annually, artists and craftspeople were commissioned by Artpark, funded by the New York State Park System, to create temporary installations on the park grounds, allowing active observation and participation in the artistic process. Considering the idiosyncratic nature of such an avant-garde space in a state park, and especially in Western New York, it naturally followed that the Burchfield, which specializes in collecting and exhibiting the works of Western New York artists, was interested in acquisitioning the Artpark Archive.

Much of this archive had been neglected and forgotten about for decades, and housed in much less than ideal conditions. Consequently, rehousing and inventorying the archive while retaining original order was a colossal task. The contents were rehoused in acid free folders and boxes, which will not damage the contents over time. When folders and boxes have original titles, these titles are used, and notes are added which indicate whether these titles are representative of what is within said folders and boxes. When organization in the original housing is apparent, that order is respected and maintained; when such an order is not apparent, folders are placed in chronological order. Nevertheless, no matter whether an original order is apparent or not, the contents of each individual folder are not tampered with or reordered.

By the time I began my internship at the Burchfield all of this had been completed, and much of my duties consisted of editing and reordering the Artpark Archive Finding Aid on Word, as well as examining the best final organization of the boxes using Excel. One option would be to organize and number them according to chronology; another would be to organize them by series. Series are categories that folders and boxes can be divided into. In the case of the Artpark Archive, the boxes were categorized into “Administrative,” “Public Relations,” and “Program Documentation.” Of course, some of the boxes deserved to be listed in multiple series, and we consequently listed them as such. Moreover, in multiple instances the contents of two boxes came from the same box in the original archive sites before the Burchfield acquisitioned the archive. In the current Artpark Archive, these paired boxes share the same title and carry respective “1/2” or “2/2” designations when appropriate.

            Although the ultimate goal is to add permanent labels to the boxes, I and my fellow interns’ duties consisted in adding permanent labels to the archive folders as well as temporary labels on the boxes. By the end of my time at the Burchfield, we had contributed greatly to the completion of the finding aid, the organization of folder boxes (as well as the rehousing of those boxes that needed it), and the more thorough labelling of the archive folders.

            The other major project during my time at the Burchfield was the Annual Art Auction & Gala. Helping the museum staff prepare for this event comprised the majority of my work during the week preceding. This afforded me and the other interns an opportunity to learn how to properly hang artwork according to museum standards, and in the process we hanged the majority of the artwork up for auction at the Gala. We also assisted in preparing, placing, and arranging the tables and chairs for the event, which was a trickier process in that this was the first time that the Gala was held within the Art Center building. In prior years, the Gala was held outside in a rented tent with outdoor flooring. Nevertheless, the cost of such an event outdoors was nearly prohibitively high, so the museum staff decided to hold it indoors this year. In the end, this Gala and its accompanying fundraising drive was the most successful in the Burchfield’s history.

            The staff at the Burchfield Penney Art Center were extremely warm, welcoming, and helpful in both assisting me in completing the tasks at hand as well as answering any questions and sating any curiosity I had. Heather Gring, the head archivist, gave me both the access and time to explore the galleries with their ever changing exhibits, as well as to examine the contents of the Artpark Archives for their inherent historical and artistic values. Moreover, she repeatedly acquainted us with the history of the Art Center, the life of Charles E. Burchfield, and Artpark. In fact, my first few days at the Burchfield consisted in reading a 2010 exhibition book about Artpark as well as two overviews of DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard), the system which everyone working in the archives repeatedly utilized during the course of our work.

            I am grateful that I’ve had such an opportunity to become acquainted with the work done and the standards and practices used by archives since, as a history major, they are one of the major locations for the acquisition of primary sources in historical research. That this experience enabled me to learn about exhibition standards as well as local art history was unexpected but equally fortunate. Such a positive experience was only possible due to the open, positive, yet challenging attitude of the staff at the Burchfield; and for that I am most grateful, since such a positive and educational experience will assist me greatly as I move forward with both my education and career.


Jacob Tynan is a History Major at SUNY Brockport.