Distinguished Service Award: Janis Ekdahl

2018 ARLIS/NA DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD Acceptance Speech by Janis Ekdahl; DSA ceremony held at the Grand Ballroom of The Grand America Hotel, March 28, 2019

Thank you, Chantal, for your lovely introduction. And thank you ARLIS/NA for bestowing this incredible honor on me. To be recognized by one’s peers is truly the best compliment one can receive. I am proud to have my name added to those of past Distinguished Service Award recipients—many of whom I’ve known and worked with during my long career. 

Since learning of this award I’ve spent a great deal of time reviewing my career and I have become keenly aware that the accomplishments for which I’m being celebrated today are, in large measure, the result of the generous mentoring, tutoring and professional support I’ve received from a host of ARLIS friends and colleagues. I would like tell you about each of these individuals but, in hopes of getting to the reception on time, I’ll mention only a few as I briefly outline my career. 

It all began in 1967, after my junior year of college, when the Topeka Public Library hired me as a summer intern to fill-in for vacationing staff members. I was introduced to the library’s various services by spending time in each department: the bookmobile, the children’s room, the circulation desk, special collections, the reference desk and, finally, the fine arts department. I thoroughly enjoyed all aspectsof the work but most especially my time in fine arts. This is when it occurred to me I might be able to put my undergraduate art history degree to some use if I pursued a Master's degree in Library Science. 

Columbia University’s MLS program was my first choice because—one, it was in New York City—and two, it offered a Fine Arts Literature course taught by the librarian of the Museum of Modern Art, Bernard Karpel. This turned out, however, not to be a conventional “literature” course with standard bibliographies, reference books and encyclopedias. Instead, Mr. Karpel casually tossed rare Dada and Futurist manifestos and broadsides onto the table alongside piles of current exhibition announcements and brochures. His point, of course, was that we—librarians—must pay attention the ephemera of today's artworld since it would become ourresponsibility to collect, organize and preserve this elusive material for the future. 

In 1971, after two years at the Brooklyn Public Library, I was hired by Vassar College to be their Art Librarian. It seems the art department’s first-choice candidate had decided, at the last minute, to accept another job so—with the semester about to begin—they took a chance with this very young novice. I was panicked, though, when I realized I knew nothing about running a library—let alone, an art library—and I didn’t know anyone who could advise me or show me the ropes! 

You can imagine my excitement then, the following year, when I learned about a new organization—the Art Libraries Society of North America. I devoured the organization’s inaugural Newsletterand was thrilled to read that this new group, ARLIS, would be holding a one-day conference at Columbia during the College Art Association meetings in January 1973. I could hardly wait. I was finally going to meet colleagues who would understand my problems and challenges.I still remember how immensely relieved I was that day to confirm that, yes, my problems were not unique; other, more seasoned, librarians faced exactly the same challenges.

Of course, the most consequential outcome of that first ARLIS conference was connecting with a communityof art librarians. I will always remember with great fondness the warm, gracious welcome extended by Bill Walker and Wolfgang Freitag. Both of these distinguished gentlemen treated me as a colleague; they seemed confident I could contribute something of value to ARLIS—even as a novice librarian. Indeed, I soon joined a committee and, in 1976, ran to become the Society’s Treasurer. 

An election, I’m happy to report, which I lost to my friend Sherman Clarke! 

ARLIS—the larger North American organization and the local New York chapter—became my primary professional association. I relied on the annual conferences and the quarterly Newsletterto regularly re-charge my batteries. And I networked with ARLIS colleagues—near and far—when I needed advice about problems I wasn’t able to solve by myself. 

After 10 good years at Vassar, though, I was ready for a change and was thrilled when I was hired by the Museum of Modern Art as Special Collections librarian. Through ARLIS, I already knew Clive Phillpot, the Head Librarian, and Daniel Starr, Chief Cataloger. I had a high regard for them both so the prospect of joining them in the Museum Library to work with curators and scholarly researchers was extremely attractive. I was also eager to return to the City where an exciting contemporary artworld beckoned. My weekends soon included gallery crawls and museum visits–-all of which made for lively discussions in the library the following Monday and, of course, lots of additional ephemerafor MoMA’s artist file!  

When Clive departed for London in 1994, the Museum promoted Daniel Starr and me— simultaneously—to the position of Chief Librarian—he for Technical Services, me for Administration. It was an arrangement that could have resulted in a struggle for power but, instead, we each were able to play to our strength. At this juncture, I also became de facto curator of the MoMA Artist Book Collection and found myself newly inspired and energized by interactions with creative book artists. 

I have especially fond memories of the Library’s talented, congenial staff—professional and paraprofessional—with whom I had the privilege of working during the years I was at MoMA. There isn’t time to list them all, but a few names will be familiar to this ARLIS audience: Danny Fermon, Eumie Imm, Hikmet Loe, Michael Carter, Abby Bridge, Jenny Tobias, Milan Hughston and, of course, Daniel Starr.

It was also during these years—with the support of the Museum—that I become moredeeply involved in ARLIS—serving on the Executive Board twice—once as Eastern Regional Representative and once as President. In between, there were conferences to plan, committees to chair, and sessions to organize. It was all enormouslyenriching—professionally and personally—but I have to admit the details and timeline of this period are a bit of a blur—a result, no doubt, of burning the candle at both ends. 

When I accepted MoMA’s early retirement offer in 2002, the only thing I knew for certain was that I was ready for a change. It was serendipitous, then, when the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts contacted me about a temporary job as the interim Head Librarian. It was fun for me to again work with students and faculty although the academic information landscape had changed radically since my days at Vassar. So, once again, I found myself turning to ARLIS—colleagues, conferences and publications— for guidance and help. After a year I handed over the leadership of the library to Heather Topcik, who continues to ably oversee its steady growth. I, then, switched to a part-time schedule and worked at the BGC for another terrific 14 years—assisting with reference and overseeing collection development—until last August when I retired for a second—and final—time.

I want to close by thanking Liv Valmestad and the Distinguished Service Award Committee for recommending my name to the Executive Board. I also want to extend my deep personal appreciation to Chantal who orchestrated this nomination from start to finish. Chantal managed to locate colleagues from all parts of my long career. And—to those colleagues—I want to express my gratitude for their letters in support of my nomination. It’s been a humblingexperience to read these letters—-remembering the many wonderful ARLIS relationships that have so enriched my professional life. 

Finally, though, it is to all of ARLIS—past and present—that I am indebted. The Distinguished Service Award istheperfectcapstone to a fulfilling and satisfying career. I am honored and I thank you.