The Betty Parsons Gallery records and personal papers measure 57.2 linear feet and date from 1920 to 1991, with the bulk of the material dating from 1946-1983. Records provide extensive documentation of the gallery's operations from its inception in 1946 to its closing in 1983 and of the activities of Betty Parsons as one the leading art dealers of contemporary American Art in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Over one third of the of the collection is comprised of artists files containing correspondence, price lists, and printed materials. Additional correspondence is with galleries, dealers, art institutions, private collectors, and the media. Also found are exhibition files, exhibition catalogs and announcements, sales records, stock inventories, personal financial records, and photographs. Betty Parsons' personal papers consist of early curatorial files, pocket diaries, personal correspondence, and evidence of her own artwork, including sketchbooks, and files documenting her personal art collection.
Scope and Content Note:
The Betty Parsons Gallery records and personal papers measure 57.2 linear feet and date from 1920 to 1991, with the bulk of the material dating from 1946-1983. Records provide extensive documentation of the gallery's operations from its inception in 1946 to its closing in 1983 and of the activities of Betty Parsons as one the leading art dealers of contemporary American Art in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Over one third of the of the collection is comprised of artists files containing correspondence, price lists, and printed materials. Additional correspondence is with galleries, dealers, art institutions, private collectors, and the media. Also found are exhibition files, exhibition catalogs and announcements, sales records, stock inventories, personal financial records, and photographs. Betty Parsons' personal papers consist of early curatorial files, pocket diaries, personal correspondence, and evidence of her own artwork, including sketchbooks, and files documenting her personal art collection. An unprocessed addition donated in 2017 includes personal correspondence with friends and colleagues, writings by Parsons, artists' files, photographs of Parsons with friends and her works of art, artwork including sketches, printed material and a VHS recording about the Chinese text I Ching. Materials date from 1922-1981.
Artists files, the largest and most extensive series, consist of a wide variety of documents, including biographical materials, correspondence with or related to the artist, exhibition catalogs and announcements, sales and expense invoices, clippings, price lists, and photographs of the artist, exhibitions, and artwork. The files reflect Parsons' close personal relationships with certain artists, particularly Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. Extensive documentation is also found for Forrest Bess, William Congdon, Paul Feeley, Thomas George, Alexander Liberman, Seymour Lipton, Richard Pousette-Dart, Jesse Reichek, and Jack Youngerman. Historians and researchers will find these files to be an invaluable resource both in tracing Betty Parsons' role in promoting Abstract Expressionism and researching individual artists.
Exhibition files primarily document the gallery's infrequent group or themed exhibitions. Of particular note are the files on The Ideographic Picture, which was organized by Barnett Newman and included his work, as well as that of Pietro Lazzari, Boris Margo, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, and Clyfford Still. Price lists, artist biographies and exhibition schedules are housed in the general exhibition files. Loan exhibition files provide documentation of artwork borrowed by other galleries or institutions for exhibitions, as well as shows outside of the gallery that were organized by Betty Parsons. Also found are gallery exhibition guest books, and announcements and catalogs.
Gallery correspondence is primarily with galleries and dealers, museums, arts organizations, and collectors. Scattered letters from artists are also found, although the bulk of the artists' correspondence is filed in the Artists Files. Also found here are memoranda and letters between Betty Parsons and her staff that contain detailed information concerning Parsons' schedule and gallery activities. Similar correspondence is found amongst the correspondence files within the series Betty Parsons papers.
Appraisal and conservation files include correspondence, appraisal invoices, forms, and appraisal requests and other information from the Art Dealers Association of America, and conservation invoices and reports. The majority of the appraisal records contain information about the specific works of art, including artist, title, date, current owner and the estimated value at the time of the request. Conservation records document conservation treatments undertaken by outside conservators to gallery stock.
Sales, purchases, stock and inventory are well documented in the sales and inventory records. The records provide detailed information about individual sales, prices of individual pieces of artwork, consignments, and loans. Most sales records also include detailed information about the buyer and are a valuable resource for provenance research. Files documenting the general administration, routine business operations, and financial transactions (not individual sales) of the gallery are housed in the general business and financial records. These records include ledgers, receipts, tax records, and banking records. There is some limited information about works of art scattered amongst the receipts and in the "in/out slips" files. Legal records house general legal documents and those concerning specific lawsuits. Of particular note is the file detailing the lawsuit between Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis over the fifth floor of 24 West 57th Street.
The remainder of the collection consists of Betty Parsons' personal papers which document Parsons' career prior to opening her own gallery, her work as an artist, and her personal art collection.
Some information about Parsons' work prior to opening her own gallery is found in the early curatorial files she retained from her curatorial and administrative work at the Wakefield Gallery and the Mortimer Brandt Gallery. Clippings, correspondence, announcements, exhibition lists and exhibition files are found. For both positions, she kept only the exhibition files for a small group of exhibitions organized around a specific theme, the most notable being the exhibition of Pre-Columbian Sculpture at the Wakefield Gallery.
Biographical materials include copies of her biography, family genealogies, photographs of Parsons, interviews with Colette Roberts and WYNC radio, memberships, photographs, and ephemera, including a collection of programs and invitations from events that she attended. Throughout her life Parsons gave generously of her time to various cultural and charitable institutions and was awarded for her contributions. There are also a number of files that document her speaking engagements, her participation as a juror in numerous juried exhibitions, charitable work, and awards that she received.
Parsons' personal correspondence files reflect how deeply Parsons' life was intertwined with the gallery. There are letters from museum directors, dealers, artists seeking representation, and personal letters from artists with whom she had close personal relationships, most notably Larry Bigelow, Alexander Calder, William Condon, and Ad Reinhardt. There are also letters from the English artist Adge Baker, with whom Parsons was romantically involved. Correspondence also includes several files of postcards and Christmas cards.
Pocket diaries and engagement calendars, spanning from 1933-1981 (although the 1950s are notably missing) record social engagements, meetings, vacations, and telephone numbers. Also found are three notebooks, and thirty-two sketchbooks, many of which are annotated. Writings by others include writings about Betty Parsons or the Betty Parsons' Gallery, such as Lawrence Alloway's unpublished typescript titled "An American Gallery" and other topics.
Printed material consists of exhibition announcements and catalogs, art magazines, and newspaper and magazine clippings about Betty Parsons, her family and acquaintances, artists, and other art related topics, coupled with a miscellaneous selection of clippings on topics that presumably captured Parsons' attention.
Personal art work records document Betty Parsons' career as an artist through inventories, group and solo exhibitions files, price lists, appraisals, sales and consignment invoices. Photographs are primarily reproductions of her works of art, although there are scattered photographs of exhibition installations.
Betty Parsons private art collection files document Parsons extensive personal collection of art that included works by Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Romare Bearden, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, in addition to Amlash sculpture from ancient Persia and primitive sculpture from New Hebrides. These files include inventories, lists, exhibition records, sales and purchase invoices, and photographs. There are also files for donations and loans from Parsons' personal collection to museums and fund raising auctions for several non-profit institutions.
Finally, the personal financial records provide information about the Parsons' family finances and her personal financial success as an art dealer. In addition to her own investments, Parsons inherited shares in family investments through the estates of her parents, J. Fred Pierson, Jr. and Suzanne Miles Pierson, and younger sister, Emily Rayner. Real estate files include correspondence, utility bills, receipts, area maps, and land plots for houses in Sheepscot, Maine and St. Maartens, Netherlands Antilles. Tax returns, ledger worksheets, receipts, banking statements, deposit slips, and cancelled checks are among the other financial records.
The collection is arranged as seven series. Many of the series are further divided into subseries.
Series 1: Artists Files, 1935-1983 (Boxes 1-18, 51, 55, OVs 53, 60; 18.8 linear feet)
Series 2: Exhibition Files, 1941-1983 (Boxes 18-21, 51, 55, OVs 54, 61; 3.8 linear feet)
Series 3: Correspondence Files, 1941-1983 (Boxes 21-24, 52, 55); 3.8 linear feet)
Series 4: Appraisal Files, 1935-1983 (Box 24; 0.7 linear feet)
Series 5: Sales and Inventory Records, 1941-1983 (Boxes 25-28, 51; 3.0 linear feet)
Series 6: General Business and Financial Records, circa 1956-1983 (Boxes 28-38, 51, 55; 9.8 linear feet)
Series 7: Betty Parsons Personal Papers, circa 1920s-1991 (Boxes 38-51, 55-59, OV 61; 15.3 linear feet)
Betty Parsons (1900-1982) was one of the leading art dealers in New York City specializing in modern art, particularly the work of the Abstract Expressionists. She opened Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946 at 15 E. 57th St., later moving to 24 W. 57th St.
The history of the Betty Parsons Gallery is inextricably bound to the life and experiences of its founder. Betty Parsons was born Betty Bierne Pierson on January 31, 1900 in New York City. She enjoyed a privileged childhood, which included vacation homes in Newport and Palm Beach. Her only formal education was a five year stint at the prestigious Chapin School from 1910-1915, where she met many of the women who would become life long friends and supporters. In the spring of 1920, she married Schuyler Livingston Parsons from one of New York's oldest families. The marriage ended after only three years and the couple traveled to Paris where they could obtain a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. She retained her married surname and purchased a house on the rue Boulard in Paris, where she remained for ten years, pursuing studies in painting and sculpture.
Financial constraints forced Parsons to return to the United States in 1933. She first traveled west to California, but it was her return to New York in 1935 that marked the start of her career as an art dealer. Her first opportunity to connect with the New York art world came after a successful exhibition of her watercolors at the Midtown Galleries where the owner, Alan Gruskin, noted Parson's faithful and wealthy group of supporters and offered her work installing exhibitions and selling paintings on commission. Her work for the Midtown Galleries led to a second position in the Park Avenue gallery of Mary Sullivan, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art. Here, Parsons learned the business of running a gallery. By 1940 Parsons was ready to take on more independent responsibility and agreed to manage a gallery within the Wakefield Bookshop. In this job, she exercised full curatorial control by selecting artists and organizing exhibitions. She championed then unknown contemporary American artists and the gallery's roster soon included Saul Steinberg, Hedda Sterne, Alfonso Ossorio, Joseph Cornell, Walter Murch, and Theodore Stamos. Although the majority of the exhibitions were solo shows, there were a few group shows and themed exhibitions, such as Love in Art (1941) and Ballet in Art (1942). Under Parson's direction, the gallery hosted an important exhibition of Pre-Columbian sculpture, curated by Barnett Newman.
When the owners of the Wakefield Bookshop decided to close the gallery late in 1944, Mortimer Brandt, a dealer who specialized in Old Master paintings and drawings, offered her a position as head of the newly created contemporary section of his gallery. Many of the artists who had shown with Parsons at the Wakefield Gallery followed her to her new gallery, where they were joined by Ad Reinhardt, Boris Mango, and Hans Hofmann. While the exhibitions garnered attention from the press and the interest of contemporary artists, the contemporary section was not a financial success and Brandt opted to close his gallery in 1946.
Using $1000 of her own money and an additional borrowed $4000, Parsons sublet the space that previously housed Mortimer Brandt's contemporary section, on the fifth floor of 15 East 57th Street, and opened the Betty Parsons Gallery.
In many respects the early years of the Betty Parsons Gallery were the most vital, as it was during the period of 1947-1951 that the gallery became linked with the Abstract Expressionists and the history of post-WWII American Art. In an unpublished history of the gallery, noted art critic Lawrence Alloway stated that the significance of the gallery's early exhibitions ranks with Durand-Ruels Impressionists exhibitions or Kahnweiler's shows of the Cubists. Betty Parsons Gallery quickly became one of the most prestigious galleries in New York City associated with new American Art of all styles. Her close friend Barnett Newman organized the gallery's inaugural exhibition of Northwest Coast Indian Art and he soon began to exhibit his own work at the gallery. When Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery closed, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko joined Parsons' growing stable of artists. Although Parsons continued to promote and exhibit many of the artists whom she had previously discovered, these four artists dominated this period. Newman, Pollock, Still, and Rothko worked closely together, holding themselves apart from the other artists somewhat. They were actively involved in the curatorial process and often hung their own shows. For these artists, the exhibition itself was an artistic act of creation.
Parsons provided a supportive environment and allowed her artists enormous freedom in planning and designing their exhibitions. She was not, however, an aggressive salesperson. During this early period the gallery ledgers document sales to an impressive array of museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as important collectors such as Edward Root and Duncan Phillips. Nevertheless, the art that the gallery promoted was not yet widely accepted. Sales were few, prices were low and the business would not turn a profit for several years. Meanwhile, there was mounting pressure from Pollock, Newman, Still, and Rothko to drop some of the other artists from Parsons' stable and focus all resources on them. They wanted to be promoted to a larger audience and have their work sold at higher prices, but Parsons enjoyed discovering new artists and did not want to be restricted in this endeavor. The year 1951 marks the last time that Pollock's drip paintings or the monumental works of Newman, Rothko or Still were shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery.
In the following years the Betty Parsons Gallery continued to attract a diverse group of talented artists. Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Tuttle, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jack Youngerman had their first New York exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Parsons opened Section Eleven in 1958, a short-lived annex to the main gallery, so that she could promote younger, less well-known artists. It closed in 1960 due to the administrative difficulties in running two essentially separate galleries.
In 1962, Sidney Janis, another prominent art dealer, started proceedings to evict Parsons from the floor that they shared on 15 East 57th Street. The Betty Parsons Gallery moved to 24 West 57th Street in 1963, where it remained until it closed in 1983, following Parsons' death the preceding year. Throughout the gallery's history, Parsons continued to promote faithful artists such as Hedda Sterne and Saul Steinberg, who had been with her from the beginning and to seek out new talent, both for her main gallery and for other venues, such as the short-lived Parsons-Truman Gallery, which she opened in 1974 with former Parsons Gallery director Jock Truman to show works on paper by emerging artists.
In addition to being an art dealer, Betty Parsons was a respected artist and collector. With her connoisseur's eye and connections, Parsons amassed an impressive private collection of art. She bought her first piece while an art student in Paris in the 1920s, a small gouache by Zadkine, but did not begin acquiring works in earnest until she was established as an art dealer. Partial inventories of her personal collection show that the majority of her collection contained works by artists associated with the gallery. Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Kenzo Okada were among the artists represented. Many were gifts from the artists, such as an ink drawing by Jackson Pollock, inscribed "For Betty." Selections from her collection appeared in small museums across the United States, including a traveling exhibition organized by Fitch College, New York, in 1968. In her role as a promoter of contemporary American art, Parsons lent generously from her collection, particularly to the federal Art in the Embassies Program. Throughout her life she also donated works to a variety of museums, most notably, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Parsons frequently claimed that her desire to pursue a career as an artist stemmed from a visit to the Armory Show when she was thirteen. In her late teens, after pressuring her father for art lessons, she studied with the sculptor Gutzon Burglum of Mount Rushmore fame. In Paris, she continued her studies first with Antoine Bourdelle, whose sculptures she had admired at the Armory Show, and later with Ossip Zadkine. The first exhibition of her work, figurative watercolors and sculptures, took place in Paris in 1927. As she matured as an artist, her art became more abstract. Her late works were painted wood sculptures that she pieced together from wood that she found near her studio in Long Island. Parsons' work was exhibited in more than thirty solo exhibitions, including, Betty Parsons; Paintings, Gouaches and Sculpture, 1955-1968, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. During her lifetime, she would not allow her works to be shown in her own gallery. Shortly after she died of a stroke in 1982, In Memoriam, Betty Parsons: Late Sculptures, opened at the Betty Parsons Gallery.
Also found in the Archives of American Art are oral history interviews with Betty Parsons, June 4-9, 1969, by Paul Cummings, and June 11, 1981 by Gerald Silk.
Some of the material originally loaned for microfilming in 1968 and 1969 was not included in later donations and can be viewed on microfilm reels N68/62-N68/74 and N69/105-N69/106. Loaned materials are not described in the container listing in this finding aid.
The gallery donated some records in 1974, many of which had been loaned earlier for microfilming. The bulk of the collection was donated in 1984 and 1986 by William Rayner and Christopher Schwabacher, executors of the Estate of Betty Parsons. Additional material was donated by William Rayner in 1998 and Christopher Schwabacher in 2017.
Use of original papers requires an appointment.
The Betty Parsons Gallery records and personal papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.