After years of speculation and negotiation, the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library has acquired the archives of lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer, furthering the library’s goal of preserving a diversity of voices.
The idea to acquire Hammer’s papers began with Ron Gregg, formerly a film studies professor at Yale. Greg took a particular interest in Hammer, whose career has spanned over 40 years and is widely considered one of the pioneers of American feminist and lesbian experimental film. The process of officially acquiring her archives, which consist of everything from beginning sketches and a collection of diaries to reviews from film critics over the course of several decades, took at least half a decade. In a monumental decision, Hammer opted last spring to sell the entirety of the collection to the Beinecke.
“It’s a big, personal, emotional, creative act to place your archive somewhere because it’s all these pieces of your history, of your work, of your background … when that leaves your custodianship, to come to a different place, a museum or a library, that’s never really simple,” said Timothy Young, curator for Modern Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke. “She had great faith that the Yale libraries preserve things, that they make them available, they teach with them, and of course it’s true.”
Hammer’s collection will be available for research purposes starting in 2018, but those interested in her work can view her films in several venues this fall, including the Leslie–Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City.
Hammer, 78, was born in Hollywood and began her filmmaking career in 1968. She studied at San Francisco State University, receiving a master’s degree in film in 1975. Her first film to include homosexual themes was “A Gay Day,” a 1973 satire about gay marriage, followed shortly by “Dyketactics” in 1974, which was one of the first lesbian films by an openly lesbian filmmaker in the U.S.
Hammer’s filmography spans over 40 years and includes nearly 80 films and a handful of accolades. Hammer told the News that her films have consistently been of the experimental and avant-garde genres, alike in their exploration of themes of lesbian identity and sexuality. However, her work has not been solely limited to these themes: Her latest film, “Welcome to this House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop” (2015) is a documentary about the various homes and personal life of the eponymous American poet.
Hammer’s desire to compile her archives for research purposes stems from both an artistic and academic perspective. She said that while debating where to leave her archives, she considered the existing content of each institution, but also the potential convenience for researchers seeking to study either her specific history or any broader topic.
“I chose Beinecke for several reasons,” Hammer said. “It’s one of the most prestigious paper archives in the United States. My papers would be there with other creative artists whom I admire, like Georgia O’Keeffe, and it’s close to New York, so that many people who might want to use the archive could fly into New York and take the train to New Haven … it would be accessible not only to students but also researchers who are not connected to the university. And I knew it would be well taken care of.”
Young, whom Gregg had initially introduced to Hammer, said he understood the indecision of an artist debating whether or where to relinquish her life’s work. Beyond the Beinecke’s reputation as an academic setting, the library has a long history of exploring the possibilities of research and pushing the boundaries of its content. While Hammer’s archive is now the first major archive of a lesbian filmmaker, this acquisition is a step in line with Beinecke’s broader archival mission.
“The last 20-plus years, Beinecke has had a commitment to gathering diverse voices as much as we can, and one of the directions that we went in was gay and lesbian writers,” Young said.
Although the acquisition of Hammer’s archives may be an unsurprising move for Beinecke or even for Yale as a whole, it is still a powerful acknowledgment of the LGBTQ community on campus, said Andrew Dowe, associate director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources at Yale. Dowe, who last year organized a showcase of lesbian film that included some of Hammer’s work, expressed happiness with the prospect of more students at Yale being introduced to Hammer’s films.
“It’ll be that much easier and more likely that students here on campus will discover her work, if they aren’t already familiar with it, or if they are, it’ll be easier to explore it in greater depth,” Dowe said.
According to Dowe, this acquisition shows that Yale is dedicated, and in this case quite literally invested, in diversity of academic subjects.
While Hammer does not regret her decision, either in relinquishing her archives or in selecting the Beinecke as the recipient, she expressed a certain feeling of loss.
“I already miss some of the posters, the drawings, the photographs, the poems that Yale has and I don’t anymore,” she said. “So I want to give them a big kiss goodbye.”
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