The Arensberg Archives contain correspondence, ephemera, clippings, writings, art collection and personal records, and photographs created and collected by Walter and Louise Arensberg, as well as some material created on the couple's behalf by their secretary and the staff of the Francis Bacon Foundation. Through letters with contemporary artists, art dealers, museums, galleries, and publishers emerges a vivid picture of how the Arensbergs built and maintained one of the most important collections of Modern and Pre-Columbian art in the 20th century, particularly from the early 1930s to the early 1950s. Magazine and newspaper clippings; exhibition announcements, invitations, and catalogs; loan forms with various museums and galleries; tax and financial records; a card catalog; and photographs further illustrate how the Arensbergs acquired, cataloged, loaned, conserved, and administered their art collection. Countless letters are preserved from admirers wishing to visit the Arensbergs' Hollywood, California home to view the art collection. In more cases than not, a response from Walter Arensberg granting permission is also preserved. Also included is a significant amount of legal and financial material documenting the Arensbergs' negotiations with the Francis Bacon Foundation, the University of California at Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as several other institutions to find a suitable permanent home for the art collection. Walter Arensberg took a proactive role in promoting modern art in California, as demonstrated by records related to his role in the founding and administration of the short-lived Modern Institute of Art in Beverly Hills.
A significant amount of correspondence with economist John Nef, artists Marcel Duchamp and Charles Sheeler, and art dealer and Armory Show organizer Walter Pach, for example, demonstrate the variety of intellectuals with whom the Arensbergs' maintained close and long-term friendships. Countless other notable figures of the 20th century also crossed the Arensbergs' paths, ranging from literary figures, such as Arthur Cravan, to actors, such as Vincent Price, and these encounters are recorded in the Arensbergs' correspondence and photographs. The collection also includes a significant amount of correspondence with and experimental poetry of Elmer Ernest Southard, an important psychiatrist and neuropathologist, who was Walter's close friend and classmate from Harvard University. Walter received this material upon Southard's death in 1920, and he kept it for the rest of his life.
Art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg were friends with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, and as such, played an integral role in the formulation and promulgation of avant-garde artistic ideas and activities in the United States. Walter Arensberg (1878-1954) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of Conrad Christian Arensberg and his second wife, Flora Belle Covert. Walter's father was President and partial owner of a successful Pittsburgh crucible company. Between 1896 and 1900, Walter attended Harvard University. Following graduation, he traveled to Europe, where he spent at least two years. In 1903, he returned to Harvard, as a graduate student. He did not complete his degree, but rather moved to New York City to work as a cub reporter from 1904-1906.
Initially, the couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they purchased and renovated Shady Hill, the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and later Charles Eliot Norton. There, Walter pursued a career as a poet, publishing his first volume, Poems, in 1914. The Arensbergs' traveled to New York in 1913 to view the International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show), where Walter purchased an Edouard Vuillard lithograph. He later returned the work during the Boston venue of the exhibition, purchasing instead lithographs by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, as well as a small painting by Jacques Villon. Henceforth, the Arensbergs would dedicate their time, energy and money to amassing a seminal collection of twentieth-century art.
During these years, the Arensbergs' apartment served almost nightly as a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and writers, including John Covert, Arthur Cravan, Jean and Yvonne Crotti, Charles Demuth, Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, Mina Loy, Allen and Louise Norton, Francis Picabia, Henri-Pierre Roché, Pitts Sanborn, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Wallace Stevens, Elmer Ernst Southard, Carl Van Vechten, Edgard Varèse, William Carlos Williams, and Beatrice Wood. Through these intellectual exchanges emerged such important art movements and developments as New York Dada, the Society of Independent Artists, and The Others Group of poets. Amongst these influences, Walter pursued his interest in poetry and his other literary interest, cryptography. In early 1921, he published The Cryptography of Dante, and the next year The Cryptography of Shakespeare. Walter sought to interpret both authors through the analysis of puns, acrostics, and anagrams. For the rest of his life, Walter avidly pursued the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy in the hopes of using cryptography to establish incontrovertible evidence that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the Shakespeare's plays, poems and other writings.
Once in California, the Arensbergs quickly re-established their importance in the art world. By 1922, they began lending works to galleries and museums for exhibitions. They felt strongly that the public should have an opportunity to view works in the hands of private individuals, and thus were very generous in making loans, limiting, but never ceasing, their cooperation only after several of their works were damaged. Their Hillside Avenue house also served as an ad-hoc museum. Almost anyone who sought permission was granted a visit to their home to view their art collection. The Arensbergs also played an active role in many art associations. Walter served as a board member of the Los Angeles Art Association (1937), Los Angeles County Museum (1938-1939), and the Southwest Museum (1944-1954). In addition, he was a founding board member of the short-lived American Arts in Action (1943) and the Modern Institute of Art, Beverly Hills (1947-1949), organizations dedicated to showing modern art in California. The Arensbergs were among the Modern Institute of Art's biggest supporters, lending generously to its exhibitions and providing financial assistance. Despite this, and the support of many Hollywood notables, including Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, the Institute failed.
In 1937, Walter Arensberg organized the Francis Bacon Foundation; a non-profit educational and research institute dedicated to the study of Francis Bacon. In 1939, the Foundation became the legal owner of the Walter and Louise Arensberg art collection, an arrangement agreeable to the Arensbergs for both financial and ideological reasons. The Arensbergs maintained that the so-called Baconian method for the interpretation of nature was also applicable to the interpretation of art (Walter Arensberg to Kenneth Ross, unpublished interview, circa 1948).