The Cuba Poster Project: Collecting for People, not Profit
Honor the commons.
Political posters were made to be public—let us work together to feed their life cycle.

Lincoln Cushing, Docs Populi - Documents for the Public
In Collecting Prints, Posters, and Ephemera, edited by Ruth Iskin and Britany Salsbury, Bloomsbury 2020

Why collect posters? For most, it is a passion. It starts out innocently enough—someone gives us a poster he or she found in a garage, or we see something at a gallery that captures our fancy. Then we get another one. They are pretty, they are relatively affordable, they take us to another time and place. Before we know it, we are hooked. But with this newfound calling comes responsibility. This essay uses my collection of post-revolutionary Cuban posters as a springboard to explore the relationship between personal poster collecting, the commercial poster market, and the role of posters as documents belonging in the public sphere. It is a springboard to examine reasons for collecting, the role of digital technologies in gathering and sharing images and metadata, and observations on the role of such “ephemeral” objects in the long arc of art history.

First, the scope of the medium: I distinguish posters from prints. The former are deliberately produced in larger editions and posted in public, while the latter are limited editions intended for more controlled viewing and purchase. Of course, there is some gray area and overlap, but the works I am addressing were usually printed either to promote a product or service, or to provoke public discourse. They may be art, but they were not made purely to hang in a gallery or someone’s home. In that sense, they are related to other public visual art forms such as murals and monuments. All posters share the archival definition of an “ephemeral” medium: they are readily damaged by handling, storage, and display. It would be a sobering exercise to see the number of posters produced compared to the numbers available now.

Second, the subject. Posters range from purely commercial to earnest official public messages (“recycle your glass!”) to exhortations for rebellion and utopia. As a child of the 1960s, I was drawn to the latter category. I remember seeing my first screenprint against the Vietnam War by Sister Mary Corita in a gallery in Washington, DC. I said, “I want to do that!” so I did.

At first, I made screenprints, and later I worked for a community-based offset print shop and designed for that medium. I also began to gather some of the political and countercultural posters I found or bought at “head shops.” I still have one I bought in high school, a giant caricature of a bad-boy motorcycle-riding President Lyndon Johnson. Over the years as I continued to produce posters, I slowly added to my personal collection items given or traded by other artists. My current archive of physical materials numbers about 3,000 posters, about a third of those from Latin America and almost all made between 1965 and the present. But until 1989 I never really considered myself a collector, and that changed when I went to Cuba. I was born there to North American parents before the revolution, and those curious roots would prove to be very deep.

The Cuba Poster Project

I first returned to Cuba in 1989 as part of an artists’ delegation to the Third Havana Biennial Art Exhibition—a fantastic display of media from all over the world. As a printmaker I was excited to learn more about Cuba’s rich poster community. With two colleagues, Carol A. Wells (founder and director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles) and David Kunzle (professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles), I visited many of the studios and print shops that fueled the Cuban poster revolution. When I asked the producers about the history of their own bodies of work, their vague answers shifted me from a path of making art to one of documenting it.

Inspired by this experience, a few years later Dan Walsh and I formed the Cuba Poster Project. It was a highly unusual effort to explore the poster collections in Cuba and, through reproduction of commercial products, support the further documentation and preservation of those works. In 1986 Walsh sued the US Treasury Department, arguing that the US government’s embargo illegally restricted the exchange of trade in “First Amendment” materials (such as books and posters, which were legal to import) by restricting travel. The successful outcome of that lawsuit provided for a “specific license” from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control allowing the two of us to travel to Cuba. Our first trip was in December 1994, where we met with Cuban publishers and artists and came back with initial contracts. We reviewed many repositories, and after looking at over 800 slides, we selected a sampling of 180 slides and 100 posters.

To support the project, we produced a beautiful set of T-shirts that were sold through a national mail-order company. As the project evolved, I learned two things—one, that the commercial products created unrealistic profitability expectations from our Cuban partners, and two, that I really was more interested in the scholarly side of the project than the business side. I returned to Cuba and began to seriously research post-revolutionary Cuban posters by visiting studios and print shops, talking to artists, and digging through more archives in Cuba (including the national library, the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí) as well as in the United States. The result was the first catalog raisonné ever produced of the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL)’s work.  I shared the catalogued slide set with OSPAAAL, which they used to publish their first book of posters.
Others have also been lured by the challenge of collecting and cataloging Cuban posters. Lisbet Tellefsen, one of my primary colleagues in the small world of political poster archives, fell in love with images of Che Guevara. She describes how her collecting started:
Heriberto Echeverria, March 8—International Women’s Day, for Editora Politica, Cuba, 1972,"I began collecting posters (among other things) as a kid—decorating my walls with centerfolds of the Jackson 5 and other pop culture icons. As I grew older it turned to political posters of the day: Free South Africa, Black Women/Lesbian-related themes, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. In 1985 I was part of a group of musicians that traveled to Cuba through the Center for Cuban Studies in New York. While there I stumbled across a trove of revolutionary posters featuring Che Guevara. The paper was disintegrating and it felt like these pieces of history were in danger of disappearing so that day I began to collect Cuban posters. With the debut of eBay in 1995, a dedicated global trading community emerged and my poster collection began expanding exponentially."
The path to creating the OSPAAAL catalog taught me several lessons that inform my present practice; the first was that it was very difficult to shoot good images of posters—a step I believe to be crucial in building a solid research collection. In the early 1990s I partnered with another colleague, Michael Rossman. He had been a fixture of Berkeley’s Free Speech movement in the 1960s and one of his passions was collecting political posters. For him, that started in the 1980s when he was asked to explain the social movements he had lived through, and realized that posters were invaluable props, in his words, “because they are a great way to teach history.” He built a rudimentary vacuum board system for photographing posters, which held them gently and flat. We shot Kodachrome 25 slides, at the time the archival standard for color fidelity, resolution, and permanence.

We photographed the posters I had brought back, some of Michael’s, as well as some we borrowed from other collectors. Our goal was collecting the images rather than the actual posters. This was at the dawn of the digital age, and I used an image catalog using Kodak Shoebox. A local film-processing vendor offered a relatively cheap bulk process for digitizing slides onto a “Kodak Digital Science Photo CD,” and we were off to the races. It was simple but effective, allowing me to add basic metadata about artist, size, medium, etc. to a clear image on a computer screen. Once we had good digital images and data, we could share the images with others and begin to understand the scope of the field. Contact sheets from the digital catalog were faxed to the Cuban agencies for review and, with their help, the data became more authoritative.

The Commercialization of Political Posters

In meeting these artists and producing agencies I encountered a common story, which to me first revealed the tension between artists and the disposition of their work. The creators had happily worked for state agencies on a meager salary for years. Yet all had personal examples of seeing posters they had designed—and were printed as public service messages—being sold on the international art market for sums that were comparatively huge. They would inevitably drag out a sales catalog or a magazine clipping, point to one of their posters at auction, and ask me if that was fair. Many of them had traveled to other countries and understood that, under capitalism, people were free to buy and sell whatever they pleased. What they were asking was a more profound “Is it fair?” and I did not have an answer. They were bemoaning a huge divide in the poster making world, items produced for sale and items made for public display. The first includes almost anything made for direct sale or a poster promoting a commercial product. It is expected that such items would be bought and sold, and that is the bread and butter of the poster market outside of fine art reproductions.

The second is the world I deal with—posters about such issues as race relations, climate change, or imperialism. There have been periods in history when large numbers of such posters were created. Sometimes they were the fruit of public agencies, such as the Federal Arts Project in the US (1935–43) or Editora Politica in Cuba. More often they are made by untold thousands of individual artists and community-based organizations. Almost everywhere in the world there have been local struggles that resulted in “oppositional” or utopian media. Most of these are to the left end of the spectrum, but many are not, for example, funky flyers about the joining the Ku Klux Klan, or beautiful broadsheets declaring the joys of Italian fascism. From a legal and mercantile stance, all these posters are the same, but when free works intended to sway public opinion are commodified in a collector’s market it can be jarring for the artists who made them.

The relationship among scholars, collectors, exhibiting institutions, and the art market is also problematic. Those of us who research posters and write about them—usually involving items not held personally—contribute substantially to knowledge about the specific works, including, for example, the role that a poster played in a movement, how the artist struggled with the image, or how hard the printer had to work. All add intellectual value to the poster, and when a museum displays that poster, selected by an informed curator, that also elevates its visibility, especially if it is published in a museum catalog. Yet these free scholarly and curatorial acts also raise the interest in, and market value of, posters in the art market. This relationship overwhelmingly benefits the art market, and rarely “trickles down” to help support artists and archivists.

Let us consider some examples.

The first is from a major international bookseller, Maggs Brothers. Their 2013 online catalog #1,463 offered a Frank Cieciorka poster for sale. Note that I was the source of academic legitimacy, having been the archivist responsible for bringing in the collection, curating a 2012 exhibition, and writing the museum catalog information:
Item 86 CIECIORKA (Frank). [Hand]. Original poster. 88.9 x 58.42 cm., central motif in black and reverse white on a field of red in a white border, silkscreen, signed in the stone. N.p. [The Bay Area?], n.p., n.d., 1966. £10.000. A beautiful, crisp, clean copy, a creased tear on the upper right edge, light browning on margins. A copy in the Oakland County Museum of Art (OCMA) as part of the AOUON deposit, this copy a duplicate from the same collection. Very rare in both commerce and institutions—we can find no copies on OCLC or in IISH. A countercultural “white raven.”
I was stunned by the steep price listed, and unhappy that they misattributed the institution (it is the Oakland Museum of California). A second example came from National Book Auctions, found online July 2017:
2pc Black Panthers VINTAGE PROTEST POSTERS c1969 Huey Newton Seize the Time Social Activism Computer Paper Fortran; Sold for $66. These posters come from the estate of writer, activist, and collector Michael Rossman (1939-2008). Mr. Rossman was a key figure in the Berkeley Free Speech movement. In 1977 he began the “All of Us or None” archival project to document modern American progressivism through its posters. His collection eventually grew to approximately 24,500 pieces; following his death, his family donated it to the Oakland Museum of California, which created the exhibition documented in Lincoln Cushing’s book All of Us or None, published in Berkeley by Heyday in 2012.
This listing gave the credits correctly, and the posters are reasonably priced, but it serves as another example of the role that scholarly legitimacy plays in highlighting an item for sale.

A third example came from Swann Galleries based in New York City.
Swann Galleries and GettyImages websites showing examples of political poster and image sales; Swann Gallery auction held August 3, 2011; Getty Images captured February 9, 2016.
It is from a 2011 auction of nineteen screenprinted posters, including duplicates, from a 1970 Boston student workshop. In highlighting the importance of the prints, the catalog pointed out: “At least one exhibition has been held documenting similar posters from Berkeley during the same period (see Up Against the Wall exhibition at the Berkeley Historical Society, 2009).” I curated that exhibition. The lot sold for $2,160. Bear in mind that, at the time they were made, these posters were freely distributed as agitational propaganda. In some instances, they were sold to raise funds for activist groups, but they were never meant to be commercial products.

Not only objects, but also images of them have become commodities. A final example comes from the stock photography powerhouse Getty Images, advertised online in February 2016: “Viva Cuba : Territorio Libre de América” dated 1959 in their catalog.  Getty asked $575 for use of the high-resolution digital image. There are factual errors in this vendor’s offer: the poster was made in 1968 rather than 1959, and is not Cuban, but was produced by the Young Socialist Alliance (US). But more fundamentally, Getty Images is charging for something they do not own or control. I found the same image for free in the Library of Congress’s online catalog; it has several defects that also appear in the listing credited to “MPI/Getty Images” raising questions about exactly where this image first came from.  Moreover, scholars who wish to reproduce that image can do so using the Library of Congress image with no charge.

Sampling or Plagiarism?

Appropriation of political posters by practicing artists is a particularly complicated issue in the field today, as can be seen in the prolific career of contemporary artist Shepard Fairey, which raises questions about the boundaries between legitimate appropriation and plagiarism. In 2007 I confronted Mr. Fairey after seeing a T-shirt on his graffiti blog site that was directly derived from a 1972 screenprint by Cuban artist Rene Mederos Pazos. The image featured revolutionaries Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara on horseback in a lush tropical jungle. The first known reproduction of it was in my 2003 book on Cuban posters. I promptly took a screenshot and emailed the vendor. The T-shirt vendor was based in Canada, which still maintains diplomatic relations with Cuba and is sensitive to adverse publicity. With the aim of defending the artists’ rights, I wrote:
Please be advised that the “Cuban Rider” t-shirt you have listed for sale is a direct copy of a poster by Cuban artist Rene Mederos, and is an unauthorized violation of his work. I work closely with the Mederos estate and have represented them in several arrangements for use of his work. Given that your item is violating the intellectual property rights of another artist, you can do one of two things—either negotiate with Rene Mederos’ estate for a fair royalty (assuming they will grant it) or you can immediately stop production of this item and remove advertising from the public.
I promptly got a reply from Fairey’s partner in the OBEY GIANT clothing brand, who agreed that the use violated the creative work of Mederos. The shirt was pulled from production and a check sent to Mederos’ estate.  As a historian, I am troubled when artists deliberately strip away authorship or fail to do rudimentary research to give creative credit.

Some images are so well known that they require no context. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” was adapted in Rafael Enríquez’s stunning 1977 OSPAAAL poster, where the figure is chained and the caption reads “Capitalism: Denial of Human Rights.” More recently, the Second World War “We Can Do It!” poster (often misidentified as “Rosie the Riveter”), featuring a blue-shirted woman Home Front worker with a red polka dot bandanna, has become the most appropriated image of that war. It even graced the cover of the New Yorker, with a woman of color wearing a pink cat cap for the January 2017 Million Woman March. Interestingly, the original poster was an in-house campaign by Westinghouse Corporation, displayed for only two weeks in the Midwest, where women were making helmet liners. It was rediscovered by second wave feminists in the 1980s and it took off like wildfire.

Image abuse can appear in many forms. In 2012, for example, I was shocked to encounter a website featuring scores of posters I had photographed and published in books as high-resolution images without crediting me, or any other source. The site was hosted by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. After researching the extent of the damage, I concluded the site was using seventy-three poster images from my book Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art and ninety poster images from Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a book I co-authored and for which I was solely responsible for providing all the images. Eventually the site was shut down and the faculty member was fired. International copyright discourages such behavior, and academic institutions usually avoid intellectual property conflicts. In the digital world there are almost no safeguards for images posted at high resolution. Aside from a robust, proprietary (and costly) digital watermark service like Digimarc, I had no way of proving that images were mine. Even more distressing, I learned that my photo documentation was not protected.

Despite the years of experience and thousands of dollars I have invested in properly shooting large format documents, it is still considered mere “copy photography” in the eyes of copyright law. The only way to protect my work, and that of the original artists whose work I document, is to restrict public access to high-resolution images. A good example for such protection is the thousands of political posters I have shot that are appearing on the digital archive of the Oakland Museum of California, all presented in a way that allows a viewer to see details and fine type but not download a full image.

Repositories: Personal, Commercial, and Public

I offer the following schematic as a form of synthesis to better understand the ecosystem of political posters, which I have termed the “Life Cycle of a Cultural Artifact.” I developed it to understand the role of each step, and to see the interconnection of those steps into a sustainable flow.
The Life Cycle of a Cultural Artifact, by Lincoln Cushing, all rights reserved.

It includes the role of the art market as a participant equal to an archive or a museum. I suggest that, under the worst of circumstances, the art market step could be the end of the cycle; under the best circumstances, it could be a constructive part of it. The history of art is full of struggles over ownership and control. For example, in the early 1800s, England thought nothing of taking Greece’s Elgin Marbles, and in the twentieth century Nazi Germany actively destroyed or sold for profit looted art that it labeled “degenerate.” Yet political posters generally fall outside the status of fine art. Some specific genres and artists have attained iconic status, but the bulk of them do not get much respect. And the very issue of value means different things to different people.

Many of the most “important” political posters are not aesthetically pleasing, but reflect a particular moment that is otherwise under-recorded in history. Because political posters were intended to provoke public discourse, I believe they have a legitimate claim to remain in the public sphere as much as possible. But this goal raises several practical challenges. All the steps I describe below involve curation and selection. A collector appreciates certain subjects. An art dealer knows what his or her clientele want. A museum has a designated scope of content. Therefore, almost all physical collections are incomplete. Likewise, all collection repositories have their advantages and disadvantages. Within the political poster community there is a range of opinion as to what constitutes the “best” setting. Here are five collections I have worked with that represent the spectrum:

Private Collections

Example: Michael Rossman’s “All Of Us Or None” archive while at his residence in Berkeley, California:

Pros: Low cost to operate; staffed by a passionate and often well-informed collector; informal setting allows for close contact with artifacts; ownership of content assures control over messaging of collection.
Cons: Generally poor security and environmental controls; lack of resources for conservation and cataloguing; access to see the collection based on availability of one individual; often facility not accessible to disabled; reliance on a single person limits long-term viability.

Small Community-Based Collections

Example: Interference Archive, Brooklyn, New York:

Pros: Moderately low cost to operate, staffed by several dedicated volunteers; political commitment to preserving subject messaging; informal setting allows for hands-on access to materials; nonprofit institutional status helps draw more attention and support for collection; focus on subject matter allows for a deep dive into content.
Cons: Limited security and environmental controls; minimal resources for conservation, digitization, and cataloguing.

Large Community-Based Collections

Example: Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles, California:

Pros: Well-developed operational budget for a nonprofit organization; political commitment to preserving subject messaging; posters are stored under decent environmental and security controls; paid professional staff; collection is catalogued for access, mounting exhibitions, sharing content online, and accommodating researchers; focus on subject matter allows for a uniquely informed exploration of content.
Cons: Financial solvency and long-term institutional stability is always tenuous.

CSPG founder and director Carol Wells:
"CSPG (and Interference) were founded as a resource for activists and as a basis for traveling exhibitions. CSPG’s collection is large, but the organization is mid-size (based on budget). We also provide up close contact with artifacts, user-friendly online access to collections. Currently have 3,000 searchable images online, and are regularly adding to this.

Also, there is online access to 95 percent of the content of the collection through the Online Archive of California—including artists, subjects, place made, and keywords (without images at present, but we are working on this). CSPG also has a long track record of mounting high-profile exhibitions using posters. The most recent one is “Hollywood in Havana” which has been covered by the Smithsonian Magazine, Vanity Fair, and even by the Wall Street Journal. Los Angeles Times and AIGA will be covering it soon, plus all the local papers. CSPG gives scholars as full access to images as possible. Most problems/restrictions that arise are in response to requests for permission to reproduce things for which we do not have copyright. I assume all archives have this problem."

Book and Print Dealers

Example: Bolerium Books, San Francisco, California:
“Purveyors of rare and out-of-print books, posters, and ephemera on social movements”

Pros: Very strong subject expertise; currently available materials are catalogued online; staff is engaged with the local political community and serves a vital function for disposition of collections; sales serve as benchmarks for financial appraisal of collections.
Cons: “Collection” is really “inventory” and constantly in flux; long-term viability of a business is always precarious; sales to certain parties may remove the works from public access.

Alexander Akin of Bolerium adds:
“Many young people are unclear about what a bookstore is, and they actually have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that everything here is for sale. People frequently try to ‘donate stuff for your collection,’ sometimes under the impression that they can come back and get it later. For this reason I always avoid words that could give the impression that our holdings are any sort of collection or archive. The stuff in the shop is simply the residue of the inefficiencies in our business model. Another category is real art dealers: the sort of people who commission limited, signed editions of Occupy posters and charge thousands for them. Their cons are similar to ours, though.”
Antiquarian merchant Lorne Bair describes the value added by dealers:
“We’re often at the front lines in discovering and making available the raw material that scholars use. Many of us in the trade come from academic backgrounds and we get a thrill out of knowing that our work is actually of use to someone ‘out there’.”

Major Archives or Museums

Examples: Oakland Museum of California, The Bancroft Library (University of California, Berkeley).

The Bancroft Library is a much larger archive inside of a much bigger institution, but still has many of the same issues:
Pros: Long-term institutional stability is likely; state-of-the-art conservation and storage facilities; strong relations with other institutions; user-friendly and relatively thoroughly catalogued online access to collections; ability (though not necessarily the commitment) to mount high-profile exhibitions using posters.
Cons: Researcher access to physical posters is limited; access to digital images for scholarly use can be restrictive; institutional interest in collecting genre often dependent on a single curator; “one of many” place among other collection priorities can mean spotty subject expertise; and loans of original work subject to security and environmental restrictions that limit community venues.

The major archives, museums, and universities experience more self-censorship about controversial content because of the influence of their Board of Governors, Funders, etc. Radical content in these settings is generally less likely to see public exposure and be awarded resources for cataloging and preservation. It is never overt, but many institutions are happy to accept a radical collection but, without specific support for technical services, may let the posters languish un-catalogued for years or even decades. And items for display can suffer as well. Recently, OMCA hosted a fantastic exhibition on the Black Panther Party which used posters from Rossman’s AOUON collection there as well as loans from Lisbet Tellefsen—but a 2003 exhibition on Vietnam generated so much controversy from parts of the exile community that key features were changed, including the promise to omit any image of Ho Chi Minh. Carol Wells adds: I don’t think tuniversities or museums would have funded the “Boycott” or “Police Abuse” exhibitions that CSPG has generated.

burned poster; Resist Oppression: Refuse the Draft!, 1968Posters are classified as “ephemeral” documents, and anyone who handles them knows how fragile they can be. At best, we cringe when we hear paper ripping or see a folded corner; at worst, we hear of whole collections lost to mildew, fire, flood, or simple carelessness.

The lower a collection is on the institutional food chain, the more likely posters will be at risk. That is probably the strongest argument for collections aggregating and moving to larger settings.

But the perceived compromises are legitimate. Unquestionably, the biggest risk is loss of control over access and messaging. Once a community-based collection goes into a more established institution there is the strong likelihood it will lose its political punch. There are exceptions—one example is the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, run by Julie Herrada, an archival activist who collects and manages their holdings of international social protest movements; she also curates exhibitions, and is committed to providing universal access to hidden histories.

Lisbet Tellefsen highlights similar issues while reflecting on the evolution of her practices of collecting Black and LGBTQ posters, and her remarks offer insight into her decisions about the place of curated political content within institutions:
As the founding publisher of a Black lesbian journal in the late 80’s, Ache: A Journal for Lesbians of African Descent, I amassed a substantial archive of Black LGBTQ material—including posters. Several posters in that collection were used in diverse exhibits at San Francisco’s GLBT History Museum. The archive of the Aché journal was acquired in 2016 by Yale University in a deal brokered by Bolerium. It was a major eye-opener when I realized that it was possible to find a good permanent home for the collection where it would be well cared for, more accessible, and better utilized—while getting paid for the privilege of doing so.
Every collector knows it is a very expensive endeavor to create and maintain a poster collection. Never blessed with “deep pockets,” I have been very resourceful in finding ways to keep it all going. One of my main vehicles has been the Swann Galleries institutional auctions. In general, I do not sell items from my collection unless they are duplicates, or their theme or production source places them outside my subject specialty. Yet there have been a few pieces that I have felt guilty about holding onto, since they belong in a museum rather than in my storage closet. While you cannot ever guarantee that the buyer will indeed be a museum, through the Swann auctions I have successfully moved items to both the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I also have sold to the Smithsonian directly specific items that I wanted to ensure made it into their hands rather than into a private collection.

Proposed Best Practices

Given my experiences based on the Cuba Poster Project and other archival adventures, I would like to suggest some ways for the commercial art market world to play well with the nonprofit world. As I point out above, no collection scenario is perfect. As Lisbet points out, “while all collectors have dreams for the future of their collections, rarely do they come to pass. Rarely are collections kept intact, rarely are they ever utilized to their full potential—most will never even find a permanent home.” So, here are some suggestions:

For collectors:
1. If possible, get good digital images of work in your collection. The images will help to share your content with others and serve as a record for appraisal and deaccession purposes. It is also smart to embed basic metadata into the file information, so that it stays with the image.

2. Build a simple electronic catalog. For posters, the ideal tool is called a “digital asset management” (DAM) application. There are several contenders for this that can be run on a personal computer. Linking basic metadata to the image is enormously helpful in building knowledge about your collection. A good DAM will let you find, select, and reformat images to smaller sizes for sharing.

3. Note that once materials are sold to an institution, they usually have no further responsibility to credit you; when materials are donated, they generally do extend credit when displayed and reproduced. If you care about this, be clear about the contractual details.

3. Consider distributing duplicates (thankfully, a common occurrence with posters) to different institutions. This increases the likelihood that they will survive and be exposed to the public.

4. Carefully curated collections may be broken up for curatorial or commercial reasons; if your intent is that the posters remain together you should define that contractually.

5. Negotiate the specific terms with the acquiring institution: secure a commitment, if possible, as to how, when, and how often the works will be used.

For art dealers:
1. Allow subject-expert scholars access to your inventory and let them take reference photos.

2. Encourage sales and donations that benefit the local independent art and archival community.

For larger institutions:
1. Consider erring on the side of digitizing content for access, not for conservation. This means photographing posters at a reasonably high technical standard but not so high that the cost is prohibitive. When the AOUON collection went to OMCA, they paid me to shoot all 24,000 posters while they were at my studio before the collection was turned over. As a result, the collection could move online for public view.

2. Do not wait for a complete or perfect record before making the item available in a catalogue. With the AOUON donation to OMCA, a crew of initial staff entered basic obvious information about each item as they were physically processing each poster—size, medium, full text, and so forth. My job involved pulling up those records and correcting/amplifying them—when was it made, who made it, explaining why one should care about the ten-year community struggle for the International Hotel—all without handling an actual poster. This was a process that went a lot faster without large and fragile sheets of paper all over one’s desk.

3. Loosen up access to images for educational and research purposes. Low and moderate resolution images go a long way toward helping teachers and scholars, and many images can be safely shared under the Fair Use provision of the US Copyright Act. The thousands of AOUON images online through OMCA—neatly displayed at high resolution, but not copyable—have helped fulfill collector Michael Rossman’s vision of sharing these with the public. Many current artists refer to these posters for inspiration.

Finally, honor the commons. Political posters were made to be public—let us all work together to feed the life cycle of those artifacts.

Selected Bibliography

5. Cushing, Lincoln. “Adventures in Copyright Violation: The Curious Case of Utopian Constructions.” Docs Populi, 2013.
8. Cushing, Lincoln, with Timothy W. Drescher. Agitate! Educate! Organize! American Labor Posters. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2009.
7. Cushing, Lincoln. All Of Us or None: Social Justice Posters of the San Francisco Bay Area. Berkeley, CA: Heyday. 2012.
1. Cushing, Lincoln (image provision) 11/26/2016. “Castro’s Revolution, Illustrated.” New York Times, obituary.
2. Cushing, Lincoln. “Cataloging as Political Practice.” The Stansbury Forum. 4/4/2015.
6. Cushing, Lincoln. “Interview by Interference Archive about Radical Archives, Including Discussion of Evidence-based Politics and the Life Cycle of a Cultural Object,” 2016.
4. Cushing, Lincoln. “Privatizing the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art.” American Institute of Graphic Art, 2009.
9. Cushing, Lincoln. Revolución! Cuban Poster Art. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003.
3. Cushing, Lincoln. “Suggested ‘Best Practices’ for Using the Graphic Artwork of Others.” Docs Populi. 11/30/2007.
11. Hearn, Skyla S. “Excavating Our History: What Does It Mean to Be a Social Justice Archivist?” Praxis Center, Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, Kalamazoo College.
12. Il manifesto della OSPAAAL: arte della solidarietà = El cartel de la OSPAAAL: arte de la solidaridad = OSPAAAL’s poster: art of solidarity Italy: TRIcontiental, 1997.
10. Krayna, Philip. “The Cuban Poster Crisis.” Communication Arts (September–October 1994): 40–49.
13. “Principles of ‘Radical Archiving.’” (Describes the principles of New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archives). Archives and Identities, University College London in the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies. July 14, 2008.
15. Springer, Kimberly. “Radical Archives and the New Cycles of Contention.” Viewpoint Magazine. (Online only) Issue #5, posted 10/31/2015.
16. Vallen, Mark. “Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey: Critique on the Occasion of Fairey’s Los Angeles Solo Exhibition.” December 2007.

Archives and collections:

Center for the Study of Political Graphics
3916 Sepulveda Blvd, Suite 103
Culver City, CA 90230

Bolerium Books
2141 Mission Street #300
San Francisco, CA 94110

Interference Archive
314 7th St.
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Joseph A. Labadie Collection
Special Collections Library, Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan
913 S. University Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190


Heriberto Echeverria, March 8—International Women’s Day, for Editora Politica, Cuba, 1972, photo by Lincoln Cushing from Docs Populi Archive.

Swann Galleries and GettyImages websites showing examples of political poster and image sales; Swann Gallery auction held August 3, 2011; Getty Images captured February 9, 2016.

The Life Cycle of a Cultural Artifact, by Lincoln Cushing, all rights reserved.
First version published in ALA-SRRT newsletter March, 2014.

Resist Oppression: Refuse the Draft!, 1968, from a set of posters burned in a privately held collection, photo by Lincoln Cushing from Docs Populi Archive.

[Last modified 4/23/2021]