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Wittliff celebrates anniversary with new director

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

David Coleman has the big-picture view of the Wittliff Collections, the literary and photographic archives here at Texas State University.

"The Wittliff is about storytelling," Coleman says. "And the story is about the identity of a place, a region."

Coleman is the newly appointed director of the Wittliff Collections. Previously he was chief curator for photography at the University of Texas' Ransom Center, where he worked for 15 years.

The timing of Coleman's appointment is auspicious.

Tonight, Wittliff supporters will celebrate the archives' 25th anniversary with a gala at the Four Seasons. Sam Shepard — Pulitzer Award-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor — is the keynote speaker. Shepard is a benefactor of the Wittliff, having donated a sizable portion of his papers over the years. And the gala has been sold out for weeks.

Founded in 1986, the Wittliff is named for Bill and Sally Wittliff, who donated their collection of manuscripts and books, which began what is now a growing archive of literary and photographic materials that reflects the culture of Texas, the Southwest and Mexico.

Bill Wittliff is a writer, director, book publisher and photographer who, among other projects, penned the screenplay for the "Lonesome Dove" TV mini-series and for the films "The Perfect Storm," "Legends of the Fall" and "Barbarosa."

Now, the archives named in Wittliff's honor house manuscripts by writers such as Cormac McCarthy, J. Frank Dobie, John Graves, Larry McMurtry, Walter Prescott Webb, Bud Shrake, Larry L. King and Horton Foote.

The Wittliff is also home to the archives of Texas Monthly magazine and of the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. There are drafts of song lyrics by Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. And, housed in more than 100 archival boxes are drafts of scripts and other materials relating to the Emmy-award winning television series, "King of the Hill."

The Wittliff's singular collection of Southwestern and Mexican photography houses images by noted artists including Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Keith Carter, Russell Lee, Kate Breakey, Rocky Schenck and Graciela Iturbide, along with a remarkable gathering of thousands discarded negatives by commercial photographers who in the early 1970s took souvenir pictures of clients who visited what was known as Boystown, a string of brothels along the Texas-Mexico border.

At first, such an archive with its variety of material might seem eclectic. But Coleman points out that the focus of the Wittliff is actually very specific.

"This is a collection that's about the cultural heritage of a whole mix of people in one region," he says.

A native Texan, Coleman, 45, grew up in Dallas. After college in New England and a master's degree in New York, he returned to the Lone Star State, going to work at the Ransom Center and completing a doctorate in art history with a specialization in the history of photography. Coleman points out that the Wittliff is not an historical archive, per se. "It's a literary and artistic collection," he says.

And literature, music and art — and film and television, too — provide creative interpretations of a place. Novels, artistic photographs and screenplays are not the same as, say, census records. Creative responses provide a context for a deeper understanding of a region, Coleman says.

The Texas State University campus is an easy drive from Coleman's South Austin home. But the identity of the Wittliff Collections is not conceptually fixed to its San Marcos address. "We have a larger identity," Coleman says. "We're about a region."

And the boundaries of that region don't end at the Rio Grande. The archive has always embraced an inclusive definition of the Southwest, one that encompasses the Spanish influence on the region and the Southwest's inextricable connection to Mexico.

One of the oldest items in the Wittliff Collections? A 1555 edition of "La relación," the account of Spanish conquistador Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca about his eight years with the indigenous people of South Texas after he was shipwrecked on what is now Galveston Island.

Two years ago, the Wittliff expanded its exhibition and research space on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library. With triple the original gallery space, it's possible to exhibit up to 150 photographs at a time. Right now, the galleries feature a kind of greatest hits display, the best of the photography collections. There's also a show of photographs of indigenous people of Mexico taken by Marian Yampolsky.

Surveying the galleries on a recent afternoon, Coleman says he sees plenty of potential to move the Wittliff Collections ahead. Yet he knows the challenge: With an annual budget of a little more than $1 million, the Wittliff needs to raise funds to keep growing.

"I think we can do more in terms of collection-building," Coleman says.

The story of our region is not over, after all.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'The Edge of Time: Photographs of Mexico by Marian Yampolsky' and 'The Dazzling Instant: A 25th Anniversary Exhibition'

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays (Thursday until 7 p.m.), 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 2 to 6 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 11

Where: Wittliff Collections, Alkek Library, Texas State University, San Marcos

Cost: Free

Information. 512-245-2313, www.thewittliffcollections.txstate.edu