What's So Surprising About the Henry Luce Foundation's Cataloging Grant to the Art Institute of Chicago?

The Henry Luce Foundation awarded the Art Institute of Chicago a $250,000 grant to support the first-ever cataloging of the museum's American silver holdings. The grant will support the online archiving of high-quality images as well as the publication of a printed volume, proving that the death of the hardcopy book has been greatly exaggerated.

Any time we run across the words "first-ever" in a news item we tend to perk up just a bit. And such is the case with the Luce Foundation's gift to the Art Institute of Chicago: For the first time, the museum's Department of American Art will have its silver holdings cataloged in a comprehensive fashion. The museum boasts one of the most impressive collections of silver in the country, which inevitably makes us wonder: what took them so long?

The most obvious reason, naturally, is money. Or more specifically, lack of money. Every museum, nonprofit, and arts organization in the world has a long to-do list, and most lack the funding to act upon these goals. But the foundation happily, and generously, opened its checkbook, and a logical follow-up question is why did they do so?

For starters, the museum made a compelling case that preserving and cataloging its silver collection benefits the public. "In our view, the history of American silver reveals the history of the nation itself," said Judith Barter, PhD, Field McCormick Chair and Curator, Department of American Art. "The study of inscriptions on objects has yielded fascinating information on silver commissioned for church work, for presentation to war heroes, in celebration of marriages and births, and even objects given to judges for their decisions in international lawsuits."

In fact, the institute has a proven track record of translating these objects into a powerful exploration of our past. Take, for instance, its 2013 exhibition, entitled "Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine." Using its silver collection as a foundation for its exhibit, the institute was able to create interesting stories documenting how Americans ate, drank, and entertained themselves since 1776.

But there's another interesting element to this announcement. Whenever we come across foundations doling out money for cataloging, digitizing, and archiving purposes, we inevitably view the news through the lens of emerging technology. In this case, we theorized that since cataloging technology is both mature and widespread, the Luce Foundation could confidently allocate funds to museums like the Art Institute of Chicago. And while the project promises to publish high-resolution images and a great wealth of scholarly information online, the project gives an equal amount of attention to the hardcopy catalogue itself. 

The proposed 224-page printed catalogue, entitled "American Silver at the Art Institute of Chicago," will be illustrated with 300 color images and have an initial print run of 1,300 and be available for purchase in the Art Institute's Museum Shop, with international distribution through the museum's publishing partner, Yale University Press.

Of course, we're talking about cataloging a museum's holdings here, so it shouldn't come as a complete surprise to see that the project will produce an ambitious hardcopy "finished" product. That said, the announcement shows that while museums and foundations continue to embrace digitization efforts, there still seems to be a market for a good, old fashioned book.