November 19, 2017

NYPL for the Performing Arts Acquires First Hip-Hop Collection

THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY: For the Performing Arts 50th Anniversary Gala

Tanisha Jones, Michael Holman, and Linda Murray at NYPL for the Performing Arts 50th Anniversary Gala
Photo credit: BFA.com/Zach Hilty

The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (LPA) is home to the archives and papers of such dance notables as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Isadora Duncan, and Merce Cunningham. In October, LPA acquired its first hip-hop collection with the archives of Michael Holman, New York dance impresario, filmmaker, musician, journalist, and television producer.

The archive, which spans the years 1978–84 and beyond, includes paper materials, three terabytes of electronic records, and over 500 audio and moving image items documenting the earliest days of New York City’s hip-hop dance culture. “This is our first hip-hop collection so I see this as a foundational collection for a brand new area for us,” said Linda Murray, Jerome Robbins Dance Division curator. “The dancing in [Holman’s] collection is unique, but it also relates to many of our collections…. It allows us to start a brand new arm of dance collection that we haven’t had in our division before, and I’m really excited to explore that.”

“NEVER THROW ANYTHING AWAY”

Holman first arrived in New York in 1978 to work as a junior banker on Wall Street and immediately dove into the downtown art and music scene. The job only lasted a year; Holman soon quit to devote himself to making music, painting, and putting together shows and parties. He was also drawn to the hip-hop culture uptown—not only the music itself but the performance of DJs spinning records, break dancers, and graffiti artists that made it an immersive, multimedia phenomenon. Holman wrote about the scene for papers such as the East Village Eye, where his 1981 interview with DJ Afrika Bambaataa introduced the term “hip-hop” to the printed page and, ultimately, the music mainstream. He went on to manage the New York City Breakers, a breakdancing crew from the Bronx, and in 1984 created and produced the first hip-hop television show, Graffiti Rock (the archive holds the master broadcast tapes); a single pilot episode aired on New York’s WPIX.

At the same time, Holman was documenting his uptown and downtown exploits. In addition to film and video footage, over the years he amassed photographs, production notes, press clippings, manuscripts, typescripts, screenplay drafts, event flyers, personal diaries, audio recordings of oral history and research interviews, studio master and live rehearsal recordings of Gray, the experimental noise band Holman formed with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat—and at least one View-Master with reels of 3-D hip-hop images.

In the early 1980s, Holman was bringing B-boys and rappers from the Bronx downtown to play parties at the Mudd Club, introducing denizens of the gallery world to graffiti artists, and shooting hours of film and video in an effort to capture a new kind of art form while creating art of his own. “I always aspired to the French New Wave, the Godards and Truffauts of the world,” he told LJ. “When I heard about break dancers spinning on their heads…. That led to me wanting to represent them and wanting to be part of the whole culture. It just mushroomed from there.”

At the time, Holman noted, he had no notion of the collection as a documentary archive. Although he sees himself as “someone who’s seen the value and power in history, and I think that collecting history in terms of artifacts and in terms of documentation in media…is an important aspect to being able to tell your own story, that you had an impact on history,” Holman wasn’t thinking about the collection’s long-term value so much as writer Glenn O’Brien’s admonition: “Never throw anything away.”

Holman took this advice to heart, hanging on to his storage space even when he found himself with no fixed address in the 1990s. “I wasn’t really sure in the beginning…how the history of hip-hop would play out,” he explained. “I didn’t see it at the time, and neither did anyone else really, as a multi-billion dollar industry that could possibly change the world. I just knew that I was on a wave of some importance.” And even while he was sleeping on friends’ couches—he has since moved into permanent digs—he “fought like a mama bear to protect my archive, my memories, from myself and from the city and from the economy.”

Fortunately, hip-hop promoter Bill Adler introduced Holman to Arthur Fournier, a rare book dealer and popular culture archivist who had recently helped place the archives of composer and producer Arthur Russell with LPA. Fournier immediately understood the significance of Holman’s collection, and the two spent the next year working together to inventory and document the material.

AN ECLECTIC COLLECTION

Fournier approached NYPL with Holman’s collection in fall 2015. Tanisha Jones, now director of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s moving image archive, was then serving as acting LPA curator after Jan Schmidt left the position that September. Murray, who stepped into the role in November, is quick to credit Jones with the decision to acquire the archive.

A Bronx native, Jones was familiar with the hip-hop milieu and understood the importance of the collection to dance history. “She really advocated for it in a way that I think usually an acting curator probably wouldn’t have stepped up and put their neck on the line,” Murray told LJ. With Murray’s approval, Jones green-lighted the acquisition, and LPA received the materials in January.

Archivist Robyn Hjermstad began a detailed survey of the collection in early June, beginning with the paper documents and photographs. At eight linear feet, that portion of the collection took only a month to process. The audio and moving image material, however, will take longer to inventory.

“I would say the biggest challenge [of processing the archive] is working with the different formats, because the majority of the collection is not paper,” Hjermstad told LJ. “The majority of the collection is audiovisual material, film and video, and those are things that we can’t necessarily look at when we’re doing the inventory.” NYPL’s Special Formats Processing unit will help digitize the materials to make them accessible.

For now, she is surveying the records contained on the three hard drives and 15 floppy disks. At three terabytes of material, this is the largest electronics ingest that the archives division has dealt with, said Hjermstad; the going has been slow because the digital archives team recently had to relocate within the building and acquire more storage space, thanks to the increasing number of born-digital collections NYPL is acquiring.

The collection also includes material that doesn’t fall into any of those categories. “The first thing I encountered when I opened the box for this collection was a View-master stereoscope with unopened reels of the New York City Breakers, which was pretty cool,” she said. “In the same box were photographs of the New York City Breakers, one autographed Polaroid of them with Holman and Andy Warhol autographed by Warhol…. That was the best first box I’ve ever opened.”

A PLACE IN DANCE HISTORY

Once the material has been processed in full, and the finding aid completed, the Holman archives will become a building block in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s contemporary dance collection.

New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has an extensive collection of hip-hop material, including promotional flyers and stickers, advertising, reviews, printed matter, biographical sketches, interview transcripts, lyrics, artwork, clothing, photographs, film and audio, and more. The Schomburg’s Education Department recently completed the third year of a three-year Hip-Hop History Curriculum Development Grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and is hoping to renew the funding. The Holman collection is the first piece in LPA’s hip-hop collection, noted Murray, and acquiring more contemporary urban dance material will be a priority.

“We definitely want to get more examples of breaking,” she told LJ. “We want to get more examples of that scene from the late ’70s, early ’80s, and up into the ’90s. We want to get examples of house. We want to get more examples of disco. We want to get examples of voguing, waacking, the hustle, hip-hop in general. Michael had the New York City Breakers; we want to get the Rock Steady Crew. We really want to try and capture that uptown New York scene from the late 1970s and the early 1980s.”

As Holman noted, hip-hop and rap are particularly interested in the minutiae of their origins. “Unlike a lot of other musical genres, because it’s so referential and because it’s so sample-oriented, people who are in the hip-hop world pay very close attention to its history,” he explained. In hip-hop, knowing who did something first “is a very big deal. So that’s another reason why this archive is such an important step for the Library of the Performing Arts, and for the city of New York, to have it available.”

Capturing late–20th century dance culture for LPA will require Murray and her colleagues to go out into the community and look at people’s collections of video, audio, documents, and ephemera. And most of the people who documented those scenes don’t have an Arthur Fournier to help organize their material.

Murray’s job, she said, will involve “sitting with people, going through their personal memorabilia, reminding them of things that they did…and often going through their storage units, going into their garages with them. It’s sitting in their living rooms and going through photo albums or old VHS tapes, and just helping them cull through their stuff, talking through things with them, and helping bring collections back together again.”

Some think they’re holding a valuable archive because they photocopied a lot of flyers, Murray said. “But other times people think, ‘Oh you don’t want this, these are just photos of me and my friends doing some dancing.’ And that’s the gold.”

The club and social dance community, she noted, does not yet have a vision of its place in the history of dance. “They don’t yet see themselves as a discipline to be reckoned with in the way that ballet…and modern dance [see themselves] as an important art form,” she told LJ. “…and it needs to. It’s important that that generation of artists now starts to take its place with all those other dancers and starts to say, yeah, we deserve to be in an archive. We deserve to be remembered hundreds of years from now.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

Share

Comments

  1. Greg Hillman says:

    Will they be calling this new collection, “The Message”?