Folk Art Society of America Archives at the Virginia Historical SocietyFolk Art Society of America Archives at the Virginia Historical Society

by E. Lee Shepard

Since its founding in Richmond in 1831, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) has acquired and preserved historical records, documents and archives that date back to the time of George Washington and even to the founding of Jamestown and before. In fact, the VHS has more than eight million items in its comprehensive collection. Virginia Historical Society's stated mission is the collection, preservation and interpretation of the Commonwealth of Virginia's history within the even larger context of the Story of America.

Over the years, one of the most meaningful services we have offered at the VHS has been providing a way to preserve the records of businesses and organizations that are headquartered in Virginia. Many of the entities that have taken advantage of this service have had neither the facilities nor the expertise to identify, organize or care for the documents and artifacts that tell the stories of their founding, operations, accomplishments and contributions to Virginia and, indeed, to the social, economic and cultural life of America. The professional staff of the VHS, thanks to the vision of its Board of Trustees, has all of that capability The Virginia Historical Society has promised the safekeeping and sharing of these significant stories with a broad and diverse group of users.

When Ann Oppenhimer, executive director of the Folk Art Society of America, which was founded and remains located here in Richmond, approached the VHS about this need for the organization’s archives, we were enormously pleased at the prospect of being able to form a partnership to ensure the long life and accessibility of these important materials.

Readers of this publication are no doubt familiar with the Oppenhimers' collection and with the basics of the Folk Art Society’s history as an organization. They may not be as aware of the great cache of records relating to the operations and activities of the organization that has been amassed over three decades. Working with the VHS’s Associate Archivist for Business Collections, Laura G. Stoner, and with me as its Vice President for Collections, the Board of the Folk Art Society has targeted a large grouping of records that could be safely stored at the VHS and processed by our professional team to be made available to researchers.

Along with extensive publication records (and copies) of the Folk Art Messenger and documentation of conferences and other promotions of the history of folk art in Virginia, America and even outside the United States, this corporate archive includes rich resources. There is primary source material on the folk artists themselves, including interviews, letters, photographs, videos, audiotapes, newspaper articles, exhibition records and other artifacts, much drawn from the extensive correspondence and relationships of the Oppenhimers with the artists and their connection with the Folk Art Society. Such materials offer unique and valuable resources to future scholars and other potential users.

What the VHS offers to this project is space for storage of a substantial number of boxes of records (the total still to be determined); the expertise of experienced archival professionals to sort, arrange, describe, preserve and make accessible this rich collection; a library reading room where researchers can peruse the collection; and an online presence that will allow us to share imagery from the collection over time. As a matter of fact, the Virginia Historical Society has five archivists on its staff and storage space as large as a football field.

One of the reasons we are doubly happy to welcome this collection to the VHS is that it will join—and complement—the records of Best Products Company and its Richmond founders, Frances and Sydney Lewis, who amassed their own extraordinary collection of contemporary art and shared it with the public at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Best Products showrooms, and through countless exhibitions and other venues. Thus, a marvelous companion collection will make the VHS even more notable as a resource for the study of modern collections of art and the artists who produced them.

Such an enterprise is not without its monetary costs, but the Board of the Folk Art Society of America has recognized the important cost-effectiveness of working with an organization such as the Virginia Historical Society to ensure the preservation, care and accessibility of its historical records. We look forward to joining with the Folk Art Society over the coming months and years to complete the identification of the archives to be preserved at the VHS, to process the entire compiled collection and to welcome researchers to begin delving into the rich resources that will soon be available for their use.