Bravo! Carnegie Hall Goes Digital
The great American contralto Marian Anderson performs for an audience at Carnegie Hall in 1947. Carnegie Hall welcomed African American performers long before they were permitted to perform in other prominent concert venues in the United States. (Photo: Gjon Mili/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Thousands of treasures from the legendary hall’s rich history — programs, photographs, flyers, posters, one-of-a kind rarities, and more! — are now available through the just launched Carnegie Hall Digital Collections
As Gino Francesconi tells it, in the early days of building Carnegie Hall’s repository of historical materials, it was not uncommon for him to hear, “What do you mean, one of the most famous concert halls on the planet doesn’t have an archive?”
That was in 1986. Just five short years later, in 1991, the storied venue would celebrate its 100th birthday in the grand manner with an 11-day centennial festival. The lack of an archive was not entirely surprising, says Francesconi. Andrew Carnegie had the idea of building the hall not to house a specific choir or orchestra, but “as a stage waiting for the phone to ring.” Its location at the corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue — far, far uptown from Manhattan’s tonier neighborhoods to the south — was a challenge, as was the fact that there was little public transportation at the time. But the challenges only seemed to burnish the hall’s aura. As Francesconi puts it, “If you sold out Carnegie Hall, it meant you were good enough for people to go out of the way to go hear you.”
Andrew Carnegie’s insistence that “all good causes may here find a platform” meant that the stage at Carnegie Hall would be graced by some of the most important and sometimes controversial performers and public figures of the era, including many who were often shut out from other venues. Yes, the New York Philharmonic performed there, but the hall is also where Margaret Sanger came to speak in 1916 about birth control. In 1939, one of the 20th century’s greatest singers, the African American contralto Marian Anderson, was prevented from performing before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because of her race. And yet, 11 years earlier, on December 30, 1928, Anderson made her Carnegie Hall solo recital debut, going on to enjoy many further triumphs on its stage. Jazz music, performed by black musicians, arrived in the hall when James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra presented a “Concert of Negro Music” in 1912. A storied 1938 concert by Benny Goodman and his orchestra was one of the first ever to feature an integrated band.
But Carnegie Hall’s status as a high-quality rental venue had implications when it came to the kinds of materials that were produced and saved (or not), because many of the most interesting programs, posters, photographs, recordings, and the like were produced by the performers themselves, not by Carnegie Hall. If anything was saved, it was saved haphazardly, not systematically. Judith Arron, director of Carnegie Hall at the time, charged Francesconi to create an archive, “once and for all,” as he recalls. He placed ads in news and trade publications asking people to send in whatever they had. “And so people started sending things in. One article in Modern Maturity generated almost 10,000 pieces.”
The material started piling up, and Kathleen Sabogal, who serves today as assistant director of the archives, was brought on board to work as part of the team charged with cataloging and organizing it into a full archives serving researchers, writers, and the public. In time, when the team aspired to take the archives to the next level — properly preserving and digitizing them so they could be accessed widely — it was clear that more help, financial and otherwise, would be needed to get things done. That help came from Vartan Gregorian and Carnegie Corporation of New York — happily enough, on the occasion of the foundation’s own 100th anniversary, in 2011, with that leadership gift soon inspiring other funders to follow suit.
With this grant money, the first major infusion of Carnegie foundation money to the hall in 80-odd years, the Carnegie Hall Archives was able to bring in experts to help them decide how to go about digitizing and organizing their paper and audiovisual materials in a systematic way, a process that included stabilizing and preserving the physical objects before scanning. The team researched digital asset management systems and brought on a digital project manager. “One of the best things that came out of the initial three-year grant was that the digital project manager, which was supposed to be a short-term position, has transformed into a permanent digital collections manager,” says Sabogal.
“With digitizing not just the programs, but flyers and posters and correspondence and architectural drawings, we are going to be able to share this material with people all over the world, whether or not they would ever be able to travel to New York City,” says Sabogal. “That was really one of the biggest reasons that we wanted to undertake what has turned out to be a massive project.”
Asked to select some of the real gems in the collection, Francesconi points to a couple of truly unique items. Yes, there are thousands of interesting concert programs, posters, and photographs, but there is also an autograph book that was kept by the hall’s general manager from 1917 until about 1939 with more than 300 signatures in it — covering everyone from Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to Igor Stravinsky. A collection of questionnaires completed by 60 composers for the 1934 edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians includes responses from such modern masters as Alban Berg and Edgard Varèse.
“Carnegie Hall was an anchor for America’s growing cultural identity,” Francesconi explains. “Back when it was established, the idea was that everything good, culturally speaking, had to come from Europe. Now there was something over here, a place that European musicians held up as a marker of success — ‘Jeez, I wonder if I can sell out Carnegie Hall.’ It became this high-water mark of achievement. You had composers like Camille Saint-Saëns and authors like Mark Twain and so on. Carnegie Hall’s archives are a really wonderful look into a period of America’s history that is unique.”