Dissertation Work, March Update

Last month I started telling you about all the things I’ve been learning about the VMFA’s initial artmobile program. Let’s see what I’ve been doing since then (spoilers: it’s a lot).

The first thing I did was finish going through the archival documents I had photographed. I had about 100 or so document clusters left to read and take notes on before I departed for Roswell (out of about 900), so I finished that within a week of my return. Once I concluded that, I began going through the documents in more detail. I was particularly interested in getting a better sense of the exhibitions themselves in terms of content and transit routes, so I created multiple spreadsheets in Excel for object checklists and travel schedules. Being able to plot this data out gave me a better sense of not only what information I had, but what was missing as well. While the VMFA archive has checklists for all 60 of the exhibitions it organized for the artmobiles, the travel schedules are more uneven. For some years I know the entire transit schedule, while others are only partially represented. This isn’t surprising, as all the other repositories I’ve looked at have also had lacunae in them, but it’s good to know where those gaps are so I can account for them.

From there, I spent a couple of weeks on Newspapers.com (free to me thanks to William & Mary’s account) to see about filling in some of those missing pieces. While the VMFA archive has hundreds of newspaper articles in its files, these primarily come from Richmond-based papers such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch or the Richmond News Leader. Newspapers.com, by contrast, features publications from different cities such as The Roanoke Times, The Hopewell News, or the Covington Virginian, so they offer different perspectives on the artmobile. By setting the search engine to look for any references to the artmobile between 1950 and 1994, I’ve been able to track down some of the missing sites in the schedules, giving me a better idea of where the program was traveling, and when. Additionally, I’ve found that some of these articles mention where the artmobile was parked while it was in a given town, such as by a school or grocery store. Not only that, but by comparing artmobile articles from the same newspapers in different years, I’ve noticed that it tended to return to the same sites year after year, giving its presence within the community a certain predictability in terms of season and place. My data remains incomplete, reconstructing the entire artmobile schedule would take a lot more time and travel than what a couple of weeks on a newspaper site can do, but the information I do have remains compelling.

Page from The Roanoke Times, 1954. An announcement about the Artmobile appears alongside wedding pictures and women’s fashion.

Looking at artmobile references on Newspapers.com was also interesting because I gained more context for the articles themselves. The news clippings preserved in the VMFA archive are just that, articles that have been clipped out of their original newspaper and reconfigured in a repository centered on the artmobile itself. I know what any given article has to say about the Artmobile, but I don’t know where it appeared within the newspaper, or what other kinds of headlines might have surrounded it. By contrast, Newspapers.com preserves scanned copies of entire newspapers, so when I check an artmobile reference I’m seeing it within the paper itself, not as an isolated article.

The location of these references has been really interesting to me. More often than not, they’re situated in the social pages, usually in the same sections as engagements, weddings, recipes, and meeting times for women’s clubs and related groups. Given that the Artmobile initially developed through a partnership between the VMFA and the Virginia Federation for Women’s Clubs, this isn’t surprising. Since the local clubs would have been the ones organizing artmobile visits, it makes sense that updates on the artmobile would appear in the same section as other club meetings. But seeing artmobile articles appear in this section as opposed to another part of the newspaper is also interesting because there’s definitely a gendered element, both in terms of content and intended audience, that doesn’t come through when the articles appear in isolation. It’s something I’ll be paying more attention to when I go back to my other chapters to finish any outstanding research.

Learning about the wall colors, furnishings, and other details used for the various artmobile exhibitions have been especially engrossing to me. Image: Interior of Artmobile II with “English Conversation Pieces,” 1966. This show was notable for introducing period furnishing alongside the paintings. Image source: VMFA’s Artmobile: Past and Present – VMFA Connect

As you might have gathered by now, the Artmobile and its history is replete with details, the kind of fascinating snippets and fragments that beckon researchers to disappear for weeks, months, or longer in the pursuit of teasing them out for analysis. While going down those rabbit holes might be fun, I don’t want to spend years trying to finish the dissertation, so the past few weeks have also been taking stock of what I have and getting what will become Chapter 5 organized.

We’ll take a look at that process next week. This was originally going to be one post, but as I said in my intro, there’s a lot going on dissertation-wise at the moment, more than I can comfortably cover in one post.

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