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Visual Resources Collection grows in number
   of images — and influence

by Ethan Day

The Visual Resources Collection (VRC) has been a part of Harpur College since the liberal arts school launched in Endicott, and today it is Marcia Focht’s job to make this resource accessible to the campus population. Since becoming the curator in 1986, she has overseen the preservation and digitalization of 271,000 items, and thanks to Focht that number is about to get a lot bigger. “The last time I was at the Visual Resources Association conference in Albuquerque I got a raffle ticket and won 16,000 digital images worth $24,000,” Focht says. “We anticipate adding this collection of architectural images any moment now, and we’re excited.”

For a collection that relies mostly on donated items to grow this represents a big expansion, and one she hopes will encourage more students and professors to take advantage of her services. Though the collection is technically inside the Art History Department, it includes images of painting, architecture, sculpture, photography, graphic arts, and drawing, and Focht’s decades-long digitalization project is – in part – an effort to open it up to scholars of all disciplines.

“I provide different vantage points for access to the images that people would like to show in the classroom or use for research,” she says. “You have to provide for the different ways in which people think about images and use images so you can anticipate their needs.” Focht has a specialized background that has given her tools to manage a collection of this size for Binghamton University.

“I have a bachelor of fine arts in printmaking, I did a couple of internships in museums, and an assistantship in a different visual resources center while I was working on my master’s in art history,” Focht says.

She enjoyed her time at the Littleton Historical Society Museum and the Denver Art Museum where she interned, but it was the experience working in a visual resources center where she realized that it was the career for her. Since landing at Binghamton, Focht has expanded her passion for visual resources beyond her office in the Fine Arts Building. “I’m in my second term as the secretary of the Visual Resources Association,” she says. “It’s an international organization of image professionals which is in its 30th year, and I’ve been a member since 1985, so almost since its inception.”

Although Focht and her team may not be widely known on campus, those who’ve had dealings with the VRC and its curator acknowledge the importance of the work. “Marcia was almost a generation ahead of her time, moving forward with digitizing our slide collection as soon as the technology started appearing,” says Karen-edis Barzman, associate professor of art history. “She really was a trail-blazer – an innovator in this regard. Marcia was in the fore and also played an important role in innovating the management and delivery of accompanying information about the images.”

And it’s this accompanying data that Barzman mentions which makes Focht’s work so important to Binghamton. As the long-time curator explains, the data behind the images is what separates her database from a simple internet search. In an institution such as Harpur College where frequent reliance on primary sources is highly valued, accurate information on each piece is critical.

“We always try and provide the associated metadata with each image, and we use standardized lists and authority files,” Focht says. “So if you wondered about the birth and death dates of the artist it’s here; we vet it, we check it.”

There is a sense of permanence to Focht’s work in the VRC. Once an image has been entered into the system it is there forever, and one can only imagine the teaching and research each item will be used for in the future. Similarly, one may only guess at the number of students and future professors who will benefit from it.

“It’s here for everybody, and that’s why we don’t charge for our services,” Focht says. “It builds and grows.” Focht likes to say, “You can’t track potential use, because our faculty comes and goes, our students come and go, and topics of study change.”

However what she can track is an image’s past use. Seeing a student select a picture to work with that was part of a long-ago professor’s research is worthy of reflection. Focht notes the progress made at a University when the new generation takes on the work of the old. The best example may be the private collection of Professor Robin Oggins, which was donated by the retired associate professor of medieval history, and included an incredible 60,000 slides. “This is the work of his lifetime, he wrote on every single one of these, everything about it,” Focht says. “He’s given us this invaluable resource, and what makes them so important is how he documented them, and included his lecture notes with the slides.”

Perhaps the highest praise for Focht and her work comes from just down the hall. Christopher Focht has been the photographer for the VRC since 1968, and is also her husband.

“Working with Marcia has been a wonderful, stimulating, challenging, and fulfilling experience – after all I ended up marrying her,” says Focht. “She can find things for people given the most vague and subtle clues.”

When she puts down the slides for the day Focht has plenty to keep her occupied, and not what you might expect from a VRC curator. She takes in stray cats, serves as a lay speaker for the Centenary-Chenango Street United Methodist Church, and enjoys two not-so-gentle recreational activities.

“I do ultimate Frisbee and play racquetball,” she says. “What could be more fun than that?”

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Last Updated: 11/14/16