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A Lament for the Lost Art of Letter Writing

Okay, it’s a standard thing these days, to grouse about the lost art of letter writing. At least, it is for those of us old enough to remember the pleasure of receiving actual handwritten letters, enclosed in stamped envelopes and delivered to your front porch mailbox. But that’s not what this particular grousing is going to be about.

Instead, I want to lament the fact that future historians aren’t going to have the pleasure that I’ve had while researching the upcoming book celebrating 125 years of IMA history, Every Way Possible—the pleasure of opening musty file folders to discover inside letters written decades in the past. If you happen to find good ones—and I did—it’s the closest thing to time traveling that you’re likely to experience.

And among all of the letters I discovered in my research, the very best ones were those written by Kurt Pantzer. He who was an attorney and a member of a number of boards of directors, including that of the Art Association of Indianapolis, the group that later renamed itself the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (He was also an art collector, who became one of the most respected J.M.W. Turner scholars in the world. His collection of Turner works is one of the IMA’s jewels.) But for as busy as he was, Pantzer was a prolific letter writer—he would have a meeting with someone in the morning, and that evening he would write a letter to the same person, detailing what had occurred as a result of their meeting. Pantzer was a skillful writer who clearly liked the idea of creating a record of what he was doing in Indianapolis in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s.

And what a record he created. The Indiana State Library is home to Pantzer’s papers, and in box after box are expandable file folders filled with correspondence, much of it having to do with the Art Association (and later the IMA). From early discussions about moving the museum off the Herron campus at 16th and Pennsylvania streets to letters detailing his negotiations with members of the Clowes family to convince them to transfer their valuable collection of Old Masters to the museum, Pantzer was meticulous about keeping copies of what he wrote—and copies of the replies he received. His archives are a gold mine of insights into not only the museum’s history, but that of Indianapolis in the mid-20th century.

But Pantzer’s letters are just one example of the first-hand accounts I had the pleasure of reading as I did background work for the book—first-hand accounts that we aren’t creating much anymore, at least not in the same way that the letter writers of the past did. What we’ve gained in speed—from e-mails and faxes to text messages and IMs—we’ve lost in content. Writing a letter by hand forces you to reflect on what you want to say, then word it carefully before committing it to the page. It’s less immediate, but more meditative. And in the hands of someone like Kurt Pantzer, sometimes it becomes a window to the past for people in the future.

Filed under: Musings

One Response to “A Lament for the Lost Art of Letter Writing”

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    Pantzer is revered this side of the Atlantic for his benfaction to the Turner Society (when I founded it in 1975) and his belief in the validity of Turner’s aims for his bequest. Sadly those have still not been realised. We must hope that Pantzer’s own gift to Induanapolis is treated better.

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