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June 30, 2016

35 Years of art, books and change

Cris Rom retires as CIA library director

35 Years of art, books and change

Photo by Robert Muller/CIA

By Karen Sandstrom

Just as a painter solves the problem of composing marks on canvas, a librarian answers the call to compose and recompose the library’s collections and services.

The library at the Cleveland Institute of Art has been Cristine Rom’s canvas for 35 years. Hired as special collections librarian, Rom was soon promoted to library director. When Rom retires in July, she will be succeeded by Laura Ponikvar, who has been the instructional services and images librarian.

During her tenure, Rom has seen big changes in the way the library operates. The collection has moved four times on her watch. Its catalog has been digitized. Rom has forged partnerships with other libraries and deepened the pool of books, periodicals and online resources.

And her pride and joy has been creating and building a renowned collection of artists’ books.

Milwaukee-born and Arkansas-bred, Rom’s history with singular editions stretches back to her days managing the University of Wisconsin’s rare book library, when her specialty was the avant-garde poetry collection.

“This genre was known as the little magazine genre,” she says. “That’s where a lot of writers and poets first published: Hemingway, James Joyce, almost any famous writer you would mention in the English language.”

Most of the books in that collection were traditionally produced, she says, although “once in a while you’d get something more unusual. The serials department would call and say, ‘We’ve got a light bulb that has a periodical title on it. Is it a light bulb or is it a periodical?’ And I’d say, ‘Send it up to the collection.’”

When her husband, history professor Alan Rocke, was hired at Case Western Reserve University in 1978, Rom moved to Cleveland and earned a master’s degree in American studies. “That allowed me to take art history classes here and focus on alternative publications,” she says. “So I was able to combine my interest in art with my very strong interest in alternative publications. “

In 1981, Rom started the artists’ books collection at CIA — a specialty she continued to pursue after she was promoted to library director.

But what exactly is an artist book?

“It is interpreted in different ways by different people,” explains. “The traditional definition is high-edition, low-cost art for anybody. Ed Ruscha’s books, which are very valuable now, were intended to be inexpensive. Anybody could own them and say they owned art.”

When Rom began collecting on behalf of CIA, artists’ books were “still in this democratic art form phase, and we bought some good things for not very much money.”

The collection ranges from conceptual books (Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and John Baldessari’s Brutus killed Caesar) to minimalist books (Sol Lewitt’s Color Grids) to books noted for their physical form (Keith A. Smith’s Book 91, aka “The String Book”) or those noted for their unusual materials (Paul Slava’s aptly named Tire Book or Josh Hockensmith’s Googled English Frontier Star, which is bound around a tin can).

In 1984, CIA hosted an artists’ book exhibition composed from the library collection and outside submissions. Rom organized the show with the head of the avant-garde arts organization Franklin Furnace in Brooklyn. The show attracted national attention.

CIA now has more than 1,700 artists’ books, Rom says. “Ours is not the biggest art school collection, but for a college our size it’s a very big collection, and is nationally prominent.”

The digital age has been another profound career challenge.

As the days of card catalogs gave way to Google, research has begun to seem easier but is also more complicated. Today’s art students are digitally oriented, though not necessarily averse to traditional books. “Artists are object-oriented people,” she says. “The book is still an object they can appreciate.”

But the Internet is an undeniable resource. It’s just a matter of educating students to be discerning consumers.

“We’re offering them a lot of online resources that aren’t just ‘on the Internet,’ that are the kinds of resources they need to be familiar with to be successful artists,” Rom says. “Our hope is to teach them to evaluate the sources they find, whether it’s a paid-for source or a free source. So if they’re doing a paper on Picasso, they’re not reading only Life magazine or Parade magazine or a blog by someone who may be good or who may not be. In this case, we want them to understand the scholarly structure. “

Jewelry + Metals professor Kathy Buszkiewicz, Rom’s longtime friend and colleague, says that after she joined CIA, Rom pressed her for suggestions on improving the library’s collection of books in her field.

“At the time, it was named the Silver Department, and was in great need of updating books beyond historic references to include contemporary art jewelry and works using other materials,” Buszkiewicz says. “With vigilance, and by acquiring yearly additions to the collection, Cris helped develop a compilation of books of which we could be proud and were an aid in moving student’s thinking in expansive directions. I am sure that she did the same for other faculty and each of the respective departments.”

In addition to books, though, Rom has contributed in what she calls “non-library ways” as well.

“I served on the faculty handbook committee, a marketing committee, and the BFA committee. That’s one of the truly wonderful aspects about a small college. You don’t just do your job you get to work with these other groups, which helps you understand how other departments work, which builds good will,” she says. “It’s just really great.”

As she looks toward the next phase, Rom has decided “I’m going to take a gap year. I’ve spent my entire professional life being highly scheduled, highly project-oriented. I’ve decided that that first year [of retirement] is going to be my gap year.”

Pleasure reading and travel are on the horizon. So is gardening and dancing, “especially international: Hungarian, Swedish couple dancing, Balkan line dancing. I even have special shoes.”

Not in her plans: moving.

“This is now home,” she says. “We love Cleveland."

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