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Downtown Collection at the NYU Special Collections

Guide to the Downtown Collection at the NYU Special Collections.

Downtown Collection Development Policy


The Special Collections serves as the repository for special collections materials in the Elmer Bobst Library at New York University and is committed to preserving the artistic expression of relevant cultural movements in their original formats, including books, manuscripts, archives, and other media. Special Collections complements the collection policies in the general stacks by supplying primary resources for scholarly research and by prospectively collecting works that will become important historical evidence, documenting the changes in expressive culture.

The Downtown Collection, which began in 1994, is such an attempt to document the downtown arts scene that evolved in SoHo and the Lower East Side during the 1970's through the early 1990's. The movement, taken as a whole, was very diverse, and its output includes literature, music, theater, performance, film, activism, dance, photography, video, and original art. The goal of the Downtown Collection is to comprehensively collect the full range of artistic practices and outputs, regardless of format. This research collection, built on a documentary strategy, provides primary resources for scholars who are interested in the role of literature and the printed word-but also its necessary intersection with other forms of artistic expression-in the history and culture of downtown New York. Its goal is to document the downtown community, which NYU is associated with in common thought.


  1. The Downtown Collection

    1. General Guidelines

      The distinctively new attitude toward artistic production that emerged in Downtown New York in the early 1970's was neither a consistent aesthetic nor a unified, directed movement-this "downtown attitude" was nevertheless shared by a wide range of writers, artists, performers, musicians, filmmakers, and video artists, many of whom inhabited the relatively inexpensive lofts and tenements of SoHo and the Lower East Side. Influenced by the Beats and New York School artists of the 1950's and 60's as well as hippies, Marxists, and anarchists, Downtown artists pushed the limits of traditional artistic categories and often moved into interdisciplinary ventures. Consequently, a broader, less rigidly defined collection development strategy is called for in documenting such a fluid, multi-directional, and informally structured cultural movement.

    2. Retrospective Collecting

      Drawing on information inside and outside the collection, Special Collections is currently in the process of compiling lists of writers, artists, organizations, and individual presses which contributed to the post-1975 "downtown" scene. These lists are not fixed, and are always open to modification. Precursors, other influences, and contemporaries to the movement are also taken into account and collected where appropriate. Attention is given to filling in any major gaps within these lists of compiled information and references. Works by authors, artists, and collective entities not currently represented in the Downtown Collection will be sought. Varying states of editions and/or significant copies will be collected where appropriate.

    3. Prospective Collecting

      Prospective collecting will involve the acquisition of works that reflect the aims and established pursuits of the Downtown Collection. Special Collections collects comprehensively the writings and artistic productions of New York, especially the work of those artists whose works and activities have influenced downtown artistic culture. Special Collections may purchase their published works in depth, hoping also to acquire their archives and personal papers by gift or purchase. Materials collected reflect not only traditional approaches to fiction and poetry in traditional genres, but also experimental approaches to the notion of narrative and genre itself. Included in such a collection would be the works of Lower East Side, SoHo, and East Village artists and writers, queer artists, writers and activists, as well as artists' collectives and the archives of art galleries and alternative art spaces. Other related artistic materials are collected to provide an understanding of the milieu in which these artists worked.

    4. Primary and Secondary Literature

      Primary materials such as artist papers, original works and publications, institutional archives, film, photographs, video, and related ephemera are collected by Special Collections. Secondary materials in art, literature, dance, music, film, and video will be collected by the Bobst Library and held in the general stacks, and by the Avery Fisher Center for Music and Media. Secondary materials will be collected by the Fales Library where appropriate.

    5. Language

      By the very nature of its core collections, Special Collections collects literature almost exclusively in English. The primary language of biographies, memoirs, and collected critical works is also English. This in large part also applies to the Downtown Collection and current efforts at Special Collections to document the Downtown movement. Due, however, to the ethnic diversity of the area-particularly that work relating to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side (Losaida), some Spanish language materials are also collected.

    6. Geographical Aspects

      Due to the rather tightly localized nature of the Downtown scene, the geographical area involved can be reasonably limited to the Lower East Side, SoHo, and surrounding areas. It is in this area that the majority of Downtown artists lived, worked, and interacted with one another, and also where many important fixtures of the movement and cultural contemporaries such as Between C & D Press and Judson Memorial Church were located. Publications and subsequent coverage of the scene, however, has come from inside and outside the United States, from such countries as England, Germany, Canada, Japan, and France.

    7. Chronological Aspects

      The Downtown Collection attempts to document artistic production of the Downtown arts scene from 1974 through the early 1990's. The inception date chosen by curators for collecting is a symbolic one marking the point when the New York state government first regulated loft buildings in SoHo to protect artists from being forced out of these commercial work spaces by developers. Serious attention is given to precursors influential to the movement as well as to later work bearing a clear association with the Downtown scene.

  2. Manuscripts and Archives

    1. Downtown Collection

      Personal papers and archives relating to the Downtown writing and artistic scene are the primary emphasis of collecting. Special attention is given to authors who are well represented in the Downtown print collection. Acquisitions are made via gift and purchase. The goal is to document the artistic and literary cultures of the post-1974 "Downtown" arts scene.

Types of Materials

Special Collections collects books, journals, newspapers, video, film, photography, yearbooks, annuals, manuscripts, archives, relevant ephemera and a variety of other original materials, regardless of format. In the case of texts, emphasis is placed on acquiring items in their first appearance. In general this means the first edition in the country of the artist, though precedence is given to the first appearance in print. Collected editions of works are purchased for major artists. Facsimiles are purchased, but sparingly. Most facsimiles should be purchased by the general stacks. (See the English Literature policy statement.) Video work is also collected extensively, particularly that of a documentary nature, and for finished works efforts are made to secure the earliest, quality copy available. Original artwork is collected selectively, and where appropriate. Toward this end, the Special Collections will coordinate collection management for original visual materials as well as exhibitions of this work with the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. The Grey Art Gallery will also house those materials not readily stored in more traditional, special collections environments.

Strengths & Weaknesses of the Collection

  1. Strengths

    Because the initial core collection at the Fales Library was text and book oriented, early collecting of Downtown work such as acquisition of the Dennis Cooper Papers and The Serpents Tail/High Risk Books Archive, centered on the literary aspects of the movement. The Downtown collection is particularly strong in major writers of the period. In terms of visual materials, the collection is stronger with the East Village scene, and especially in work from the 1980's and late 1970's. Acquisition of the Judson Memorial Church Archive, the Mabou Mines Archive and Richard Foreman's Papers improved the collection's holdings in experimental theater, performance, and post-modern dance. Experimental film and media arts are also increasingly well represented through the acquisition of archives for film festival and experimental media venues and the personal papers of experimental filmmakers and video artists. Although there is some representation of artists' collectives such as CoLab and REPOHistory in the collection, we continue to actively seek the archives of other related collectives, galleries and alternative art exhibition venues.

  2. Weaknesses

    Perhaps the largest deficiency in the Downtown Collection is the relatively small number of manuscript and personal paper collections of women artists. One reason for this is that many women affiliated with the movement are still active, and efforts are being made to secure their papers. Although the acquisition of the Bob Holman Collection of Spoken Word provided some documentation of performance poetry, we are actively seeking to strengthen our holdings in this area, particularly of hip hop materials and poets associated with the Nyuorican Poets Café. The Fales Library is also interested in documenting to a greater extent those precursor movements from the same geographic region, such as the Umbra Writers Workshop. Efforts are also being made to collect materials in all formats that represent the SoHo area from the early to mid-1970's. Another weakness is the number of holdings for gallery and alternative art spaces, which would provide an important link from Downtown work of 1975 and on, with collections of avant-garde work from the 1960's and early 1970's.


A goal of the Special Collections is to make media such as film, audio and video recordings available to researchers. Many of the media holdings associated with the Downtown Collection, however, are in need of preservation efforts before they can be made accessible. These efforts aim to ensure the long-term preservation of the library's media collections and, with the ability to make viewing copies or digital surrogates of the material, increase user access.