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Jean Brown papers, 1916-1995 (bulk 1958-1985)

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Brown (Jean) papers

Biographical/Historical Note

Jean Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York, 20 December 1911. Her father, Irving Levy, was a rare book dealer. During the Depression Brown worked in a library in Springfield, Massachusetts where she was trained in library cataloging.

Brown amassed a significant and rich body of materials by many of the most influential and challenging artists of the 20th century. The initial inspiration for the collection was provided by Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, 1951, edited by Robert Motherwell. In the 1960s Brown and her husband, Leonard Brown, traveled to Europe frequently to acquire Dada and Surrealist art works, books, pamphlets and papers, many of which were documented in Motherwell's anthology.

When Leonard died in 1971, Brown moved into the Shaker Seed House in Tyringham, Massachusetts. From this point on her collection grew rapidly as Brown acquired materials from the movements, especially Fluxus, mail art and concrete poetry, that grew out of Dada and Surrealism. Many of these artists worked on the fringes of the established museum and gallery system and showed their work in alternative spaces or created alternative distribution systems.

Brown's primary goal was to assemble a study collection. She acquired comprehensively on the topics mentioned above. This included standing orders with some small presses to acquire all of their output. Her early appreciation of books lead naturally to an interest in artists' books. If an artist's work interested her she asked the artist to create a book for her archive. In the early 1970s, her son Jon sent notices about the archive to every art history graduate program. Scholars and graduate students with research interests were invited to use the collection.

Brown maintained close friendships with many of the artists whose work she collected, including George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Ken Friedman, Peter Frank, Mirella Bentivoglio, and Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin, to name a few. They visited frequently and created works for the archive in her upstairs workroom, a room designed by Maciunas. Brown became a part of the international mail art network. Every major mail artist sent her examples of their work. Eventually, she found it impossible to keep up with the quantity of mail she was receiving and by the mid-1980s had stopped answering their letters. Brown died May 1, 1994 in Tyringham.

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