The Archives of American Art (AAA) was founded as an independent non-profit corporation in 1954. Edgar P. Richardson, then Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and businessman and art collector Lawrence Fleishman were its founders. AAA originally focused on collecting and microfilming information documenting artists' lives and careers as reflected in the records of museums, galleries, family members, and collectors. Subsequently the Archives broadened its interests to include the visual arts in America from the eighteenth century to the present day.
From its founding in 1954 until 1960 the AAA operated from Detroit, headquartered at the Detroit Institute of Arts, but independently supported by gifts and grants. In 1960 the Archives moved its headquarters to New York City, retaining an office in Detroit. In 1963 the AAA opened a field office in Rome in order to tap the records of American artists' work in Rome and in Italy generally. In 1970 the AAA became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1970-1971 field offices were established in Boston and San Francisco, and in 1984 in San Marino, California.
Edgar P. Richardson, the first Director, had many other commitments, especially to his work at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Increasingly, most duties fell to the Assistant Director, William E. Woolfenden, who served in that capacity from 1960 until 1964, when he officially became Director. Woolfenden remained Director until 1983, when he was succeeded by Richard N. Murray.