In the second week of May, I began my first day at the Cranbrook Archives for my Senior May Project, a program ran by the Cranbrook Upper School to send anxious fourth quarter seniors off campus for internships and adventures. And now, after two weeks of dealing with numerous dusty, yellowed papers (and one suspicious wooden box featuring some dead bugs and cobwebs) my initial excitement only grew.
One of my first projects here was to research the tenure of past Academy of Art faculty and staff members between the years of 1932-1976, and to make a comprehensive spreadsheet on the matter. That project led me to read through old faculty files comprised of payroll information (“how did people survive on $200 a month!” I thought to myself), retirement records, old correspondence—I even came across the first telegram I had ever seen. I wondered, from time to time: “Did the secretary who typed this letter up ever think that a teenaged intern from China would one day behold this work and marvel at its antiquity?”
These pieces of paper serve as a fragmented testament to humanity in the most mundane form of day to day affairs. Some of the incidents recorded were indeed heartwarming. In the papers of Maija Grotell, Academy of Art’s Head of Ceramics Department (1938-1966), documents told of how, in her last days, the Academy and the students strived to take good care of her in her apartment on Cranbrook grounds. Though she was no longer teaching, the school let her keep her apartment, and, to make her feel easier about accepting this help, arranged for informal sessions between her and her students.
Another set of files tells the story of Richard Davis, a curator at the Art Museum from 1941-1943. On file there is a letter of resignation from him to the Academy, sent when he was promoted to become an Ensign in the army. He went to Japan in WWII and used his expertise in art to identify and preserve artifacts during the war. He returned safely and continued his career At Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Other stories, however, are more complicated and less heroic. The story that we can piece together about Eva Gatling, a curator who worked at the museum from 1949-1954, is one of such tales. Looking in three different locations for information about her, I was finally able to tell a reasonably detailed account of her life at Cranbrook.
A graduate of the University of Alabama and Yale University, Gatling enthusiastically applied for the position of curator at the museum. Her references had nothing but good words for her, calling her “conscientious,” “precise” and “agreeable.” She was, accordingly, welcomed to the museum with a pay of $210 per month. However, this initial cordial situation deteriorated over the years and, in 1954, resulted in Gatling’s resignation. At the time, Henry S. Booth even went to the length of calling her a “would-be Empire builder who knocks all available support under from her.” Though there is no way for us to tell, years later, the exact and objective version of this event, by referencing documents in the archives it is safe for us infer that the fallout may not have been because Gatling was “a difficult person for everyone to deal with” (according to Henry Booth) at all.
Though Gatling was initially quite excited about joining the museum, this enthusiasm seemed to be hampered somewhat after she arrived. On June 30, 1950, she submitted a report to the Academy’s Board of Trustees detailing the improvements that she recommended. Indeed, in the early years, the Art Museum suffered from the common problems of small museums across the nation: the lack of funding, organization, staffing and, in this case, the absence of a clear direction. In her future writing, Gatling pointed out that for a museum that connected to an institution, it always has to determine whether it wants to serve primarily the students or the general public, too; it also has to build its collections and conduct research with the objective in mind.
On January 19, 1954, Gatling sent Booth, then Chairman of the Academy’s Board of Trustees, a nine page letter detailing her suggestion for museum reorganization and means for raising revenue. On April 21st of the same year, Gatling again wrote to Booth, in a somewhat more stern tone, indicating that she would like to receive minutes from the Trustees’ meetings as she previously requested in order to understand the sometimes confusing commands, and she again urged the museum to find its direction.
In December of that year, Gatling resigned and Henry Booth’s biting letters complaining about her soon followed. A simple Google search told me that she eventually moved on to Heckscher Museum in New York, a then small art institution. According to the New York Times, the museum’s standard was elevated under her leadership and became known as one of America’s “finest regional museums.” Knowing how headstrong Henry Booth was at times, it is easy to imagine Cranbrook’s loss of Eva Gatling as at least partially his fault.
Reading these documents, I feel as though now I have enough Cranbrook “drama” to last a lifetime. However, to me, that’s one of the best parts of working at an archive—to be able to take sneak peeks into past human affairs, and to marvel at the ever so present joy, frustration, and unhappiness in all aspects of living.
Just like human nature, art is also timeless. Another way to understand this past ordeal is through looking at Gatling’s old work at the museum. This June, the Cranbrook Archives will feature the exhibition From the Archives: Teaching and Exhibiting Painting at Cranbrook, 1930-1970 which will, highlight past curators including Eva Gatling, Richard Davis, and more. Photographs, old brochures, and correspondence will be displayed so visitors may have an experience as exciting as mine piecing together the past.
Ruilin Fan is the 2013 Cranbrook Senior May Intern at the Cranbrook Archives and will be attending Mount Holyoke College in the fall. She is originally from Beijing, China, and loves cats.