What this country needs is more design history archives, libraries and study centers, and I’m happy to introduce a new addition: The Dowd Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis. Its prime mover is Douglas B. Dowd, a faculty member since 1992 (professor of art and American culture studies, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts) who has worked as illustrator, critic and curator. Owing to his tenacity, the University has been avidly collecting illustration and design, and is set to acknowledge the dedication on Sept. 27. Here is more from Dowd.
What was the prime impetus of the Dowd Modern Graphic History Library?
In 1999, the university was approached about accepting a donation of numerous original works and papers of Al Parker, the celebrated illustrator whose career primarily spanned the 1940s and ’50s. I traveled to see the collection at the home of Kit and Donna Parker, and found myself in their garage, where by necessity much of the work was stored. It occurred to me at the time that Kit’s garage wasn’t just a place, it was a metaphor. Illustration had ended up in a sort of cultural garage. We accepted the Al Parker collection, and soon were on our way, partly by default.
As for how my name ended up on it, that’s an act of tremendous generosity by Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, St. Louis philanthropists with a fondness for democratic artforms. They have endowed the collections. Nancy insisted on affixing “Dowd” to MGHL. I am very humbled—and quite committed to paying off their investment.
You’ve acquired some illustrator and designer collections. Are these part of the library?
The Parker acquisition created a ripple effect. Although we accepted Parker’s work in 2000, it wasn’t until 2007 that we created a division of Special Collections called the Modern Graphic History Library, to bring focus to collections that continued to make their way toward us. We have acquired research collections from the estates of Walter Baumhofer, Cliff Condak, Robert Andrew Parker, Al Parker, Robert Weaver, Jack Unruh, Henry Raleigh, George Carlson and Stanley Meltzoff, among others. We own original works by Jessie Gillespie, Frederick Richardson, John Held, Jr., and many, many others. Recently we have accepted a collection of Herbert Matter’s photography and design work for Knoll, and we own the largest archive of Seymour Chwast’s extant posters.
Collections associated with individual practitioners are only a part of our holdings. For example, the Louis & Jodi Atkin Family Collection includes more than 400 World War I propaganda posters and associated ephemera from all major combatant countries. We are also home to the Walt Reed Illustration Archive, consisting of the research materials accumulated by the illustration historian, including 150 original works, 8,000 periodicals, 1,200 illustrated books and more than 200,000 magazine tear sheets of work by illustrators both famed and obscure.
What is your role in terms of acquisition, organization and archiving?
I am not a professional librarian or archivist. I do none of the critically important work of processing, conserving, cataloguing or creating finding aids. My wonderful colleagues lead that process.
As an essayist and critic, I work to shape how these sources are understood. As faculty director, I focus on creating learning opportunities with the collections. I work with students and faculty in American culture studies, communication design and art history to promote teaching and research. We offer undergraduate courses in visual and material culture with an emphasis in popular print. Jaleen Grove, our first postdoctoral fellow in popular print, joined us last summer; she’s teaching a course for us this fall. In collaboration with the Library, we are exploring the development of a master’s degree that we envision as a complement to advanced study in design, the humanities and library science.
What is the main focus under your large rubric?
That’s a very important question. We have defined our work as being devoted, especially but not exclusively, to the culture of the illustrated periodical. That’s different, of course, than saying the history of periodical illustration. By focusing on periodicals themselves, we create space for the art directors, editors, advertisers, photographers and pressmen who produced the deeply contingent artifact we experience now as—say—the February 1949 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. Our focus in this area is distinctive. Posters are also an important area for us.
Where are the contents coming from?
We have worked a lot with families and estates of illustrators. I think we have done important work by creating a cultural context for collecting and presenting this material. This is a library, not a museum; we welcome process materials, business correspondence, reference photographs, and the like. That’s reassuring to families who have labored to care for sometime ungainly materials—and who have also struggled to make sense of dismissive responses to illustration. I’m in conversation with a number of families right now that I hope will result in expanded holdings for us. We don’t accept absolutely everything, but we are very eager to work with people. We have also made very targeted, careful investments here and there.
Do you have a curatorial role?
On a strategic level I do important curatorial work, and I have strong opinions about our collecting mission. I’m frequently an early point of contact in discussions about acquisitions, and I often travel to meet with potential donors.
Our curator in the MGHL is Skye Lacerte, who has done an impressive job shepherding the growth in our collections. She plays a primary role in shaping what we do, managing acquisitions, planning exhibitions and presiding over the day-to-day work of the unit.
I curate exhibitions as part of my research. For example, recently I served as the consulting curator to Mac Conner: A New York Life at the Museum of the City of New York in 2014, which has traveled to The House of Illustration in London (2015), the Norman Rockwell Museum (2016) and next will appear at the Delaware Art Museum (2017). I worked with Terry Brown, the former director of the Society of Illustrators, who selected most of the work for the show; with Terry and Sarah Henry at MCNY, I worked on framing the concept for the show and wrote the materials for the exhibition. It was a great experience. MGHL was a contributing partner to the exhibition.
What are your plans for the future?
I am committed to building on what we’ve started, partly by continuing to expand the collections, and partly by doing the interpretive work that makes them accessible. Working with student assistants, this year I published over 30 biographical and critical summaries of women illustrators whose work appears in the Walt Reed tear sheet files, or in my own collections of ephemera. (Most of my illustration students are women; I feel an obligation to provide access to female predecessors.)
Far more broadly, I want to see the illustrated periodical find a place in our cultural history. Social relations in the United States are played out in the pages of these sources: the cruelty of Jim Crow; the advent of consumer culture; shifting constructions of domestic life; ideologies of self-improvement; representations of gender and the enforcement of cultural norms, sometimes delivered by people whose private lives flouted them. The visual history of our society as experienced by most people isn’t found in art museums; rather it appears in printed sources, usually hidden in plain sight, where it remains for those willing to look.
A Competition For All Things Type & Handlettering
All too often, typography gets overlooked in larger design competitions—which is why we developed one that gives the artforms their full due and recognizes the best designers in each category. Whether you design your own typefaces, design type-centric pieces or create gorgeous handlettered projects, we want to see your work—and share it with our readers.
Enter today for a chance to be featured in Print magazine, receive a prize pack from MyDesignShop.com, and more.