From Oral History to Art History: Inside the Oral History Program at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Paul Ramirez Jonas with Josh T. Franco. Photo courtesy of Mary Savig.

Paul Ramirez Jonas with Josh T. Franco. Photo courtesy of Mary Savig.

“It’s something I wouldn’t give you, or I would double check,” artist Paul Ramirez Jonas said to Archives of American Art (AAA) Curator Josh T. Franco, referring to an item found in a box of studio materials recently donated to the Archives.

Beat.

“Um, it’s already here, Paul,” Franco replied, as the crowd in AAA’s gallery within the Smithsonian American Art Museum laughed.

Examining donated archival materials is not something usually performed in front of a crowd, but this event—with the AAA’s current exhibition, “Finding Source Material in the Archives of American Art,” as a backdrop—encapsulated the process of archiving an artist’s materials, while also demonstrating the value of those materials in context. The curator examined the artist’s donated materials, observing organizational structure and how that box fit in with the rest of the artist’s collection. In once instance, Franco came across an empty but labeled folder in the box, joking, “This folder would have to go in another folder as an archival document.” The artist provided contextual details about individual items, recalling memories they evoked, telling the story behind a piece, and in some cases noting that a photo or a slide was the only remaining record of an artwork. Included in Ramirez Jonas’ materials are plans for kinetic sculptures either never completed or no longer functioning. Of those plans, Ramirez Jonas said, “The work can never be as good as the notes,” identifying the division between imagination and reality, intention and the completed work—one of the fulcrums along which archival work, art historical research, and artistic practice pivot.

This summer at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, I’ve been focusing on this pivot point as it appears in the processing of artists’ oral history interviews within the AAA’s Oral History Program. My colleague Kim Henze interned in Collections Processing at the AAA last summer–where she worked with physical materials like diaries, sketchbooks, and correspondence, my focus has been mostly on digital and digitized audio files, as well as their corresponding transcripts.

The program began in 1958, at a time when larger institutions were just beginning to incorporate oral history archiving in a systematic way. The Columbia Center for Oral History had begun just ten years earlier. In the AAA’s Oral History Program, staff contracts art historians, critics, and writers to interview working artists about their lives and careers, documenting not just individual works and voices, but also of specific moments within American art history. Through artists’ immediate description and living memory, the over 2200 oral histories build context and complication for researchers weaving art historical narratives.

The first interviews collected in the program are with artists who had participated in the 1913 Armory Show, widely considered to be the first significant exhibition of modern art in the U.S. Since the 1963 launch of the Oral History Program’s first large-scale collecting project, an oral history of the New Deal art programs, interviews have typically been collected under the auspices of specific initiatives, such as the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and the Decorative Arts in America, which documents prominent craft artists; and Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, which examines the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the New York art world of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.[1]

The AAA records about 20-30 interviews a year, depending on collecting initiatives and funding. In 2010, the AAA received a Save America’s Treasures grant to digitize its remaining analog oral histories. In addition to my work with the Oral History Program this summer, part of my job has been to upload these digitized files to the AAA’s Digital Asset Management System.

At the same time, I’ve been researching the history of the program in order to create project pages for the AAA’s launch of its newly redesigned website. I’ve spent the majority of my time, however, moving bottlenecked interviews through the Oral History Program’s lengthy transcript review process.

Untranscribed and unindexed audio is not the most easily navigable format. Because of this, the AAA makes its oral history interviews more accessible to researchers by transcribing them. Alas, this transcription process presents another set of issues for the archivist. First, it’s very time consuming, as well as costly. The AAA transcribes its interviews through third party vendors, but these initial transcriptions must still be checked against the audio upon their return to the AAA, through a process called auditing. Second, the editing of these transcripts can pose questions of institutional policy, ethical practices, and archival theory. During the review and editing of the audited transcripts, artists’ individual preferences regarding their representation within the archive and archival documentation can sometimes collide.

Jennifer Snyder addresses an a GWU class on Oral History.

Jennifer Snyder addresses a GWU class on Oral History.

According to the Oral History Program’s currently established workflow, the AAA sends the audited transcript to the interviewer and interviewee (called “narrator”) for the correction of factual errors. The spoken word, however, is very different from the written word—occasionally artists want to make editorial changes or wholesale revisions to the transcription. As mediators within this process, the question that oral history archivists must ask themselves (and the question that has come up in many of my conversations this summer with Oral History Archivist Jennifer Snyder) is:  At what point is the transcript an existentially different record than the audio? This is a more important and potentially complex question than it appears to be at first glance.

Transcripts that differ markedly from the audio of oral history interviews can confuse researchers wishing to check the audio against its transcript, as well as institutions seeking audio excerpts of interviews for exhibitions and programs. These texts purport to be that which they are not, i.e. verbatim transcripts of a specific conversation that took place on a specific day. On the other hand, oral history archivists must balance the need for accurate transcripts with the wishes and intentions of the artists recorded. At the AAA, artists sign a “Consent & Gift” form for both the audio and the transcript at the time of the interview—occasionally the material is restricted, but often not. Despite unrestricted donation of this material, however, it is understandable that artists may wish to omit sensitive material, or alternately, material that they deem unimportant to the interview. The very accessibility that makes a transcript more navigable for researchers may be more access than an artist wishes to give. The AAA must balance the legal status of the interview and ease of accessibility for researchers with their ethical obligations to a living interview subject. This is especially true as more and more word-searchable transcripts are added and accessed online.

Within the AAA’s process, narrator and interviewer transcript reviews are received and input into separate electronic documents, those changes are accepted within a transcript, the document is archived physically and electronically, the catalogue record is updated, and the transcript is put online. The AAA currently has about half of its transcribed interviews online, with more going up every day.

The summer's tasks.

The summer’s tasks.

These complications in making an interview publicly accessible represent a microcosm of the issues artists and archivists face together. I’m ending my summer at the AAA with a stronger inclination that archivists must work with artists to clarify the control they can take in not just organizing their materials, but managing their legacies. This includes informing artists of their rights over their materials and options for restriction, making sure that what they have agreed to donate to a collection is what they actually want to donate, explaining how accessioning and processing work, and supplying scenarios for how their materials will be accessed and used–tasks made even more difficult when an archives is not the primary contact for an artist, such as when an interviewer or contractor without the same knowledge or commitment provides most of the information and facilitates the signing of any restriction forms for an oral history interview. I’m also leaving the AAA with a concrete understanding of the the very real and constant uncertainty that archivists work through in managing the materials of living artists, as well as the limitations that restrictions in time and resources pose.

For all these complications, though, the oral history represents a chance for the artist to respond to their art historical moment, and, perhaps more importantly, to how they may have already been narrativized by critics and historians. For instance, in a 1965 AAA oral history interview by Dorothy Seckler, Robert Rauschenberg responded to the contemporary critical reaction to his Black Paintings (1951-1953), saying:

“…they [critics] couldn’t see black as color or as pigment, but they immediately moved into associations and the associations were always of destroyed newspapers, of burned newspapers. And that began to bother me. Because I think that I’m never sure of what the impulse is psychologically. I don’t mess around with my subconscious. I mean I try to keep wide awake. And if I see in the superficial subconscious relationships that I’m familiar with, clichés of association, I change the picture…Very quickly a painting is turned into a facsimile of itself when one becomes so familiar with it that one recognizes it without looking at it…So if you do work with known quantities, making puns or dealing symbolically with your materials, I think you’re shortening the life of the work even before it’s had a chance to be exposed. I mean, it hasn’t had a life of its own. It’s already leading someone else’s life.”[2]

In this explanation, Rauschenberg militates against the attribution of intention, speaking to critics who might ascribe a subconscious meaning to his work.

In a different vein, Agnes Martin, in her 1989 interview, responded to the common labeling of her work as Minimalist, something she disagreed with on both practical and theoretical grounds, but chose not to protest. Of an early show in New York with nine other artists, she said:

“They were all Minimalists, and they asked me to show with them. But that was before the word was invented. And I liked all their work, so I showed with them. And then when they started calling them Minimalists they called me a Minimalist, too…Well, I let it go, but—I didn’t protest, but I consider myself an Abstract Expressionist.”[3]

And just this summer, in the course of the review process for the interview of Chicago painter Vera Klement, Klement objected to her interviewer’s characterization of her work as “abstract”, and requested a postscript be appended, clarifying:

“I spend much effort making the images…recognizable and believable as three-dimensional objects…They are icons from a common source, images that are in the collective consciousness, described by Aby Warburg as Urformen in the early 20th century. The unusual presentation of these objects doesn’t render my paintings ‘abstract’…”[4]

These clarifying voices are vital precisely because they can both complicate and sharpen overarching narratives, easy definitions, and overly obscure labels. This is the value of oral history—that people, when questioned, don’t always say what they are expected to say.

During the gallery event I described at the beginning of this post, the artist, the curator, the public, and the archival box were in one room. What a luxury! It was a rare, if limited chance to clarify issues that are often so muddled in archival work. What does a record represent, and what is its physical and meaningful relationship to other items within a specific location or collection? How does an artist represent her/himself, and how might s/he want to be represented? What should an archivist, a curator, or an art historian make of the daylight between the “does” and the “want”?

AAA collections storage.

A glimpse at AAA collections storage.

At the end of the session, Ramirez-Jonas, whose work often explores the relationships between the artist, artwork, and audience, responded with a metaphor to a question about when and why he began organizing his materials.[5] He said that he started early in his career and advises young artists to start now, because “Archiving is like brushing your teeth, you need to do a little every day, so you don’t get gum disease.” And what’s the archival equivalent of gum disease? Not just disorganization, but a loss of control over your own materials. Referring to studio archiving practices, Ramirez Jonas noted, “We don’t train artists to do this.” It’s true, and one of the cultural preservation issues that my colleagues and I are hoping to address in the “Learning from Artists Archives” Program.

Notes:

[1] In an interesting piece of serendipitous archival trivia, Kim Henze, during her internship at the AAA in summer 2015, catalogued the first interview that would eventually start the oral history program, a 1956 interview with Atta Medora McMullin, wife of Alson Skinner Clark, donated as part of Clark’s papers. The interview is only existent now in a transcript. Seven years later, in 1963, the AAA began actively collecting oral histories.

[2] Rauschenberg, Robert. Interview with Dorothy Seckler. December 21, 1965. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-robert-rauschenberg-12870.

[3] Martin, Agnes. Interview with Suzan Campbell. May 15, 1989. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-agnes-martin-13296.

[4] Klement, Vera. Interview with Lanny Silverman. June 12-14, 2015. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[5] Ramirez Jonas, Paul. “Statement.” Accessed on July 30, 2016. http://www.paulramirezjonas.com/selected/refImages/CV/statement.pdf

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A Thread of Smoke: One Artist’s Archive at the National Museum of the American Indian

Before I start, I want to direct you to Kim’s blog post from last summer where she gives an excellent overview of the work archivists do when they process an artist’s collection- a good introduction to the work I am doing here.

silhouette

Polaroid Works; undated; Kimowan (Metchwais) McLain Collection, Box 1 Folder 16, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Two silhouettes, the one on the left a familiar sight to my colleagues and friends at home in Chapel Hill, the one on the right an everyday sight for my current colleagues and friends here in DC. The Lucky Strike factory tower in Durham, NC and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, photographed by Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain, the artist whose archive I am working on this summer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center. These two Polaroids, taped together and masked with black construction paper by the artist, are an introduction to a recurring theme in Kimowan’s archive, a motif I want to play off of and trace throughout the collection as way to highlight the unique beauty and challenges found in an artist’s archives .

A brief introduction to Kimowan, a significant figure in contemporary Native art: First Nations Cree born in 1963, he spent most of his childhood and early adulthood on the Cold Lake First Nations reservation in Alberta. His art career began as an illustrator, cartoonist and later editor for the magazine Windspeaker. At age 29, he was diagnosed with a rare type of brain tumor (oligodendroglioma) and given a life expectancy of 10 to 11 years. He went on to complete his B.F.A. at the University of Alberta in 1996, and his M.F.A. at the University of New Mexico in 1999. He then moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina  where he continued his career as an artist and also became a professor of Studio Art in the Art Department, UNC-Chapel Hill. While in Chapel Hill, he had solo exhibitions and participated in group exhibitions, including the well-received Loom (2005).  He passed away in 2011 at age 47 when the cancer returned. His wish was that his works and studio archives be gifted to the NMAI and they arrived here in 2015.

While processing his archive, I have come to know Kimowan well. Sifting through his life, following his trains of thought, the minutiae of his days; his character, vibrant personality, and sly sense of humor slowly emerged through the text and images. I struggled with finding a way to condense the beautiful complexity of this collection into one blog post, and decided to trace one of the themes I have found throughout his materials – his struggle with his smoking addiction. Several of the most impressive pieces now in the NMAI collection are from his series focused on the Lucky Strike factory and imagery:

factory

Lucky Strike/Durham, c. 2001, Kimowan McLain, mixed media. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

lucky strike logo

Lucky Strike/Green, c. 2001, Kimowan McLain, mixed media. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

 

They are beautiful in their own right, but a look into his archive reveals the rich tapestry of thought and deliberation behind the creation of these paintings. I’ll begin with an excerpt from one of his sketchbooks: notebooks he filled with journal entries, sketches, grocery lists, loose photos, exhibition planning, and even a dead moth or two (taped in place). This entry from September 24, 1999 is Kimowan reflecting on the lawsuit just filed by the US Government against “Big Tobacco”, and his reaction to it:

“I’ve had the strangest reaction to this news. It has restored my fear – shaken my usual defense against my own smoking. […]There is a demon inside our bellies that eats smoke and steals life. God, what a beautiful creature it is. […]How black are my lungs? […] They were so defiant, they laughed at death; but they, like the Marlboro Man, will die too. Perhaps I will smoke in their honor. Cigarettes can be my death song, and I will laugh, fearlessly, as I sing. Then again, this could be just another item for my list (TOP TEN WAYS TO JUSTIFY MY SELF-DESTRUCTION). Shh. Not so loud.

THE MARLBORO INDIAN

We need a new hero for our myth. I suggest Marlboro Indian. Why not? We can work out the ramifications later. I wonder where I can get a cowboy hat? Maybe a machine that makes me breathe smoke, exhale fire like a dragon. I think, though, a cowboy hat will do the trick.”

journal

Black Sketchbook; 2000-2001; Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain Collection, Box 21, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

He followed this inspiration through to a series of Polaroids shot in his studio:

marlboro

Polaroid Works; undated; Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain Collection, Box 1 Folder 13, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

polaroids

Lucky Strike Factory; undated; Kimowan (Metchewais) McLain Collection; Box 7 Folder 18; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

You can see the specific leaves he decided on as lungs, the choice he made not to include any of the images of himself in front of the actual factory, his decision to capture the process of removing his shirt (the camera trigger visible in his right hand) for the Marlboro Indian series.

These Polaroids were an integral part of his artistic practice, and lived, neatly arranged alphabetically in these handmade boxes, until I rehoused them into Mylar sleeves and acid-free folders.

20160613_132632

How will I indicate this original housing in the finding aid? There are many other questions. One of the trickiest, thorniest problems comes from Kimowan’s place as an artist working in both analog and digital mediums. He had a carefully curated web presence:  a YouTube channel, a Twitter account, and website featuring images and blog entries, to name a few. Of these, only the YouTube channel and Twitter account are currently accessible. His electronic records, presumably the blog posts, the website, and more, are currently housed on an external hard drive the Archives and I are having trouble accessing. I know Kimowan wrote extensively and very personally in his blog, and it is frustrating to have that (large) piece of the story missing right now.

However, the story we do have is a compelling one. As art historians, Kim notes in her post, it is easy for us to see the many exhibits and research projects this material offers, and as archivists to see the value in making these accessible. The story behind the Lucky Strike images is only one of many in the collection; his turbulent, bitter relationship with his step-father (resulting in the installation piece Reburial: Wrathful Architecture), the inspiration he found in travel and in other’s works, the beginnings of his magnum opus Cold Lake, these are only some of the threads here in the materials, waiting to be teased out and added to the tapestry of his oeuvre.

Working with this collection has brought into focus for me the real urgency behind the work we are doing with the Learning From Artists’ Archives initiative. The workshop discussions and interactions with artists have taught me that many artists are actively thinking about their legacy. There are institutions like the NMAI who are interested in collecting the archives of these contemporary artists. How then can the complexities of material, content, and intention found in a studio archive be effectively transferred from the artist to the institution ? That’s the question, the one we have been working on since the beginning of this project, thinking through in these blog posts, and the one we will continue to explore together at our upcoming workshop, symposium, and for many of us fellows, beyond that into our professional careers. I hope this peek into one artist’s archives has served to emphasize the importance of this work, for all of us.

 

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Apply Now: Archiving for Artists Workshop, Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC

We invite all North Carolina visual artists to apply for Archiving for Artists, a day-long workshop to be held at the Mint Museum Randolph Location in Charlotte, NC on Saturday, October 8, 2015. This workshop is designed to empower artists to develop sustainable practices for personal and studio archiving.

Archiving for Artists will cover strategies for organization, preservation, and documentation that will help make your archives an integral and useful part of your artistic practice. Having good documentation of your artwork and career will make it easier for you to apply for grant funding, prepare to sell your artwork, and manage the legal aspects of your artistic practice. In the workshop, you will get hands-on experience with a variety of tools and strategies in both large and small group sessions, including best practices for both digital and physical media.

Archiving for Artists is free, however, only twenty-five spots are available for the Mint event in October. If you are interested in participating, please apply using this online form: https://unc.az1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_0xsRBIA6oTCCUCh We are committed to accepting a diverse group of artists from a wide variety of backgrounds, all career stages, and different visual arts media. Please note–if you are a studio assistant to an artist, please apply for the artist only and then note your name where requested below to accompany the artist to the workshop.

Archiving for Artists is made possible with funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and additional support from the University of North Carolina’s University Library, Art Department, and School of Information and Library Science. We also wish to thank the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Mint Museum for their support in hosting Archiving for Artists.  If you have any questions regarding this program, please contact JJ Bauer (jbauer@email.unc.edu) or visit our website for more information: http://artiststudioarchives.org/

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Institutional Internships Commence

Happy Summer all!

I’m ecstatic to share that, as part of the Artists’ Archives initiative, I’m spending the next three months working as an intern in the Archives department at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

O'Keeffe Museum Research Center

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is a single-artist institution dedicated to the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).  The art collection reflects O’Keeffe’s experience primarily in northern New Mexico, Texas and New York, comprising over 3,000 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings.[1]  In addition to her art, the Museum also maintains two historic properties owned by the artist in Abiquiu and on Ghost Ranch, roughly an hour north of Santa Fe.

The Museum recently opened an exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Far Wide Texas, part of the installation of Becoming A Modern Artist.  Portions of the collections are also on loan to the Tate Modern for its upcoming exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe and The Harwood Museum of Art for its exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and The West.

Besides the Museum proper and the historic houses, the O’Keeffe campus (as the staff calls it) extends to the Education and Conservation departments, as well as the Research Center, which houses the artist’s Library and Archives.  The relationship between Curatorial, the Registrar and the Archives is especially close-knit.  Even the interns benefit from this team mentality; staff members throughout the campus have extended invitations for me to shadow them and join their interns for relevant events.  As part of this, I will sit in on inter-department staff meetings, join both the Registrar’s interns and the library staff for cataloguing at the historic properties, tour the galleries with Curatorial’s drawing interns, and meet with the director of the Research Center for a glimpse into the planning for an upcoming forum for single-artist institutions.

This year, the Museum focused the arrangement of its galleries around themes, which accommodates display of the personal effects of O’Keeffe, which are the purview of the Archives.  Thus, Curatorial and Research Center staff are navigating a new relationship that fosters increased coordination of collections.  As a nearly life-long fan of the art and aesthetic of O’Keeffe, I’m thrilled to act as a fly on the wall while the two departments work out the kinks, such as what to do if a researcher presents a compelling need for an archival item that’s being housed in the galleries, or if another museum requests the item for an exhibition.

The scope of the Archives covers O’Keeffe’s life and artistic practice, American Modernism as it relates to O’Keeffe and her circle (including her husband Alfred Stieglitz), local histories relevant to O’Keeffe and her interests, and institutional history for the Museum.[2]  Currently, the Center’s archivist, Liz Ehrnst, is reviewing the collections development policy to tighten the scope even more on materials not just relating to, but significant to a deeper understanding of O’Keeffe and her artistic practice.  

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center Library

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library

The Archive’s appeal extends beyond staff; scholars and visitors are welcome by appointment.  In recent years, the Research Center—like many similar institutions—has relaxed its more stringent access policies, ones that accommodated only the most accredited scholars.  In order to tour the display cases and drawers, one need only make a reservation (which I would highly recommend, since they’re focusing on O’Keeffe’s passion for cooking at the moment).  And in order to conduct research, simply submit an application with your information and purpose for using the collection.

Some scholars that produce significant work as a result of working with the archival collection donate their materials to the Archive.  One such scholar is Jan Garden Castro, who wrote the book The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe.  As part of my internship, I’ll process her research papers, paying item-level attention to the interviews and other primary research conducted by Castro.  O’Keeffe’s papers are also in process.  I’ll be continuing work on O’Keeffe’s photos, exhibition history, travel ephemera, and correspondence.  This week, I began working on the correspondence by reviewing and standardizing the transcriptions for the letters from O’Keeffe to Stieglitz.  Once the transcriptions are ready to import into CONTENTdm—the host for the Archive’s online collection—the letters will be keyword searchable.  Keyword searching is a powerful tool for scholars, making the large correspondence collection easier to navigate and reducing the need to browse the physical collection, which is hard on the letters and demanding of staff time.

As mentioned previously, the current scope of the Archive includes materials belonging to those close to O’Keeffe.  The Estate of Maria Chabot—a companion to O’Keeffe when she lived in New Mexico—recently donated Chabot’s library to the Archive.  One of my tasks this summer is to inventory the remaining shelves of books, searching them for valuable annotations and inserted materials, as well as cross-checking them against the holdings in O’Keeffe’s library.  Following standard gift procedure for archives, those books that relate to O’Keeffe and her interests will be incorporated into the collection, while those outside of the Archive’s scope will find new, appreciative homes where the books will be more relevant.

Since the Research Center and Museum are in flux while redefining approach and scope, the Archive is in need of establishing consistent documentation for its new workflows.  The Museum maintains different platforms to host its various collections

  • Vernon Systems to internally manage object collections;
  • ContentDM to make online collections available for public searching;
  • Wrike to internally manage the historic properties;
  • ExLibris Voyager to integrate the library system for on campus public searching;
  • Extensis Portfolio to internally manage digital assets;
  • Archivists’ Toolkit to internally manage the archival collection (soon to be defunct);
  • and ArchivesSpace to internally manage the archival collection (data from Archivists’ Toolkit is currently migrating to this platform so that it can be the exclusive archives platform).

One of my highest priority tasks is to test the current documentation noting the workflows for ArchivesSpace.  The IT department is also looking into fostering a centralized documentation platform so that the institution maintains consistent documentation across all departments.  Wiki pages are one avenue to explore.  Wiki’s major advantage is that it’s accessible to everyone in the organization (unlike current project documentation) and that it’s linkable, which means that the documentation maintained in Dropbox, Google Drive, and other file share applications can simply be linked, rather than migrated to a platform unfamiliar to the users. This week I start researching options that might best serve the Museum’s needs—like Wiki—to write up a proposal for adoption.  

With the guiding themes of documentation and processing to direct my summer work, the internship at the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center promises to be highly educational regarding how an institution might deal with the materials addressing every aspect of life and practice for just one artist.  Such a refined focus will allow me to dig into these dealings with some depth, as well as breadth. Now that the first week here is under my belt, I’ll have more to report as time goes on.  

 

[1] “About the Museum.” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2016. https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-the-museum/.

[2] “Research Center.” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2016. https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/research-center/; Elizabeth Ehrnst in discussion with Elizabeth Grab, May 10, 2016.

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Presenting the Project and Summer Plans

As we wrap up the school year, I wanted to update you all on our experiences at the various professional conferences we have been presenting at throughout the year; while also exploring the topic of the wider impact we see this project having. I also want to point out some important dates on the horizon and let you know what to expect from the summer blog posts.

SNCA conference

(L-R) Elizabeth, fellow panelist Wickliffe Shreve, and I at the SNCA conference Photo credit: Valerie Szwaya

The Art Libraries Society of North America Southeast Chapter (ARLIS/SE) held their annual conference this past November in Atlanta Georgia. Elizabeth, Erin, and I attended and gave a presentation on the Learning from Artists’ Archives initiative. We gave an overview of the entire project but we focused mainly on the first workshop. We received a very positive response and the audience was full of questions, both logistical/practical and theoretical. In March, Kim and JJ attended the annual ARLIS and VRA joint national conference. Kim gave a poster presentation focused on empowering artists and outreach through artists’ archives. She also received positive responses, and several people told her how helpful they had found the workbook to be. Also in March, Elizabeth presented a little closer to home at the LAUNCH-CH conference here in Chapel Hill. Speaking to a more general audience of librarians, she enjoyed the challenge of tailoring her presentation to an audience largely unfamiliar with initiatives of this type. Most recently Elizabeth and I presented at the Society of North Carolina Archivists/ South Carolina Archivists (SNCA) annual conference as part of a panel focused on archives- community outreach and engagement (moderated by our own Denise Anthony!). Next on the agenda is Colin at the Personal Digital Archiving conference in Ann Arbor, coming up this week. He will be focusing on the digital preservation and storage sessions of the workshop. For the fall, Fannie is going to present on best practices for archiving fiber art at the Textile Society of America Symposium in Savannah, GA.  Carol, JJ, and Erin are also planning a panel for the College Arts Association Conference, February 2017 in New York. We will keep the PUBLIC EVENTS page on this site updated, so keep an eye out for a presentation near you.

It has been a valuable experience I think for all of us, to frame the project in these varied ways for different audiences, focusing sometimes on the entire project, sometimes on specific elements. For example, Erin, Elizabeth, and I found thinking about Artists’

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Kim’s poster for ARLIS/NA

Archives as an outreach endeavor and how it was impacting the local artist community, really gave us a chance to come up with creative solutions and innovative ideas for the upcoming workshop. We have also been so excited to get such positive responses at our presentations – archivists volunteering themselves to be part of the workshop lunch panel, art librarians considering similar initiatives for their institutions, and most notably hearing people’s reactions to the workbook. One archivist from SNCA was thrilled to be able to tell us in person how helpful the workbook had been to her son as he moved his studio across the country and began to build a studio archive. Don’t forget the workbook is available for download here on the site.

This summer, the four first years will be interning at various institutions and keeping everyone informed on our work via posts on this blog. Look forward to Elizabeth’s post soon from the Georgia O’Keefe Research Center in Santa Fe, NM. Next month, Fannie will be updating from the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. Erin and I will both be in D.C. at the Smithsonian, Erin will be interning at the Archives of American Art, and I will be in the archives of the National Museum of the American Indian. We are all looking forward to these exciting opportunities and to sharing with you what we are learning.

Keep in mind these upcoming dates- October 8th for the second ASA workshop at the Mint Museum Randolph Center in Charlotte, NC. Registration for this will open mid-June. Also, March 11th for the un-conference at Wilson Library UNC, in Chapel Hill. More information to follow on both of these events, so stay tuned, and we look forward to seeing you!

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2015 Workshop Follow Up: Where are we now?

Now that our first Archiving for Artists workshop is six months gone, we’ve begun planning our next workshop in earnest, scheduled for 8 October at the Mint Museum.  To help us improve upon the successes and weaknesses of the 2015 workshop, I checked in with some of our previous attendees to see how they’re processing through and applying their workshop experience.  Alberto Ortega Rodas, Keanna Artis and Eric Serritella generously responded to my questions with thoughtful and revelatory answers.   

I asked the artists six questions:

  1. Which skills or tools from the workshop have you found most useful to your studio’s organization, artistic practice or personal archive?
  2. How did the workshop change your attitudes towards maintaining a studio archive?
  3. What are you struggling with most in terms of your studio archive?
  4. What do you see as the primary benefit of maintaining your studio archive?
  5. How have you maintained contact with other artists, archivists or art historians in attendance at the workshop?  Has that contact impacted the way you continue to think of your studio archive?
  6. Are there skills or topics you wish the workshop covered more deeply?

Alberto, Eric, and Keanna’s responses confirmed and tweaked several ideas on which the Learning from Artists’ Archives team has been ruminating.  

Idea 1: Modeling practical application facilitates understanding.

Since skill acquisition and tool use are the primary reasons people attend workshops, this first idea may seem obvious.  But reviewing the consequences of modeling reinforces the value of group instructional events and begins to reveal their far-reaching consequences.

Eric noted that the tools and resources covered at the Archiving for Artists workshop took the “mystery out of the [archival] process” and made “maintaining a future archive much more approachable and do-able” now that the “intimidation factor” was removed.  He also pointed out that walking through the variety of tools that might solve one problem “saved tons of research time” that he would have otherwise needed to perform on his own.  The where-to-even-start obstacle holds the potential to rebuff even the most determined artist.  Tools modeling, skill development and reminders in the form of handouts are a first step in overcoming the entry obstacle.

The consequence of increased approachability allows the tailoring of these new skills and tools once workshop participants arrive home.  Keanna wrote that the “easy-to-do techniques…do not disrupt [her] workflow.”  Alberto similarly commented that the modeling of various “techniques of labeling and describing files…improved the way [he accesses his] reference library when looking for images to work from.”  The outline for goal setting and the handout comparing artist-oriented databases feature in Eric’s archival planning, which help him in archiving new materials while updating old archival formats without becoming too overwhelmed.

Mapping out the options available to artists on a spectrum of issues enables a real sense of information access and skill ownership that translates into the ability to adapt tools to virtually any context, thus ensuring the viability of studio archives for a wider audience.  For this year’s workshop, we are already working on more handouts that walk artists through their options on topics ranging from archival storage media to setting automatic backups.  We also plan to mine artists studio and business needs even further so to orient the content of the breakout sessions towards concrete take aways.

Idea 2: Building common understandings benefits everyone.

Modeling practical applications to facilitate understanding does more than teach artists tools.  It also builds a common language through which multiple groups can communicate.  For example, Eric wrote that the workshop “changed [his] understanding of what and how an archive is used.”  Part of this stemmed from “[l]earning what an archivist would be interested in.”  Immediately after the 2015 workshop, other artists similarly communicated their realization that archivists and art historians deeply value not just an artist’s work, but also her or his process and mundane documentation.  This art information professional-to-artist motive and skill disclosure has the potential to clarify archival questions.  Alberto noted that the Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe archival principle has”changed the way [he sees] the studio environment, the materials [he works] with, and [his] process.”  In a sentiment shared by Keanna, Alberto also commented that, while the workshop covered its scope of topics in various depths, each session communicated enough “to put you [on] the right track to keep investigating,” even if it didn’t answer all questions in their entirety.  Each session at least provided a foundation of common knowledge.

The artist-to-artist communication proved just as important as the sharing between the archivists and artists.  Keanna and other early-career artists, for example, benefitted from the experience and work arounds shared by mid- to late- career artists.  This was most obvious in the physical storage session in which the more seasoned artists were able to supplement the options provided by those leading the discussion, since the artists knew the brands that worked best, where to buy them and when to invest in certain studio installations, like built-in vertical painting storage.  Thanks to the connections that Keanna made during the workshop, she also now has avenues to restructure her studio archive as a “reference for [her] progression as an artist” by examining how the websites and social media presences of her fellows make “their progression evident.”  By communicating and dealing with shared needs as a community, no artist need reinvent the wheel when addressing a problem.

Awareness of one another’s needs and interests opens avenues of communication that are mutually beneficial to artists, archivists, historians and the general public.  While the artist-to-archivist avenue was less explored in the 2015 workshop, we will pass the information we’ve learned about artists’ needs on to a gathering of archivists at the Learning from Artists’ Archives culminating symposium in 2017.  Those archivists will return to their home institutions better prepared to communicate with artists both as potential clients in need of preservation or archival consultation and as potential donors.  In terms of receiving artists’ archives, the institution capable of speaking the same language as its artists can improve the way it presents those artists to scholars and the public through their archives—the story an artist intentioned maintains a better chance of retention and broader communication when both parties use the same vocabulary and understand one another’s needs.

Idea 3: Cultivating archival perspectives early and often supports individual and community benefits.  

Keanna introduced Idea 3 best when she wrote that “[b]efore this workshop, creating an archive was something [she] hadn’t even considered.  The fact that [she is] young with a smaller body of work than someone further along in their career affected how [she] viewed [her] work, which [she] felt was not ready for archiving.  However, the workshop made [her] realize that this is actually a great time to establish and start maintaining one.”  The pressing need for a studio archive gained further clarity after returning home to finish a series of paintings for an exhibition.  As Keanna approaches the series’ completion, the more her “space for them is dwindling!”  Once a critical mass is reached, a lack of archival storage and tracking will actually hinder her workflow, early-career artist or not.

On the other hand, with an archive established and maintained, Keanna could create a workflow that would allow her to “quickly and easily locate work without the added stress of figuring out where it’s stored or exhibited.”  In fact, all three artists commented on this virtue of documentation paired with storage and location.  Alberto also requires “a system to track the location(s) of [his] work,” though he focuses more on “once they have left the studio, exhibition records for each piece, etc.”  Eric faces this documentation struggle from a legacy frame of mind, noting the purpose of maintaining an artwork inventory to “keep record of works for provenance purposes, serving both my personal collection as well as public and private collectors of [his] work.”

Alberto drove home Eric’s suggestion of the dual individual and community value of archives when he wrote that “[m]aintaining a studio archive brings [his] work process into broader focus.  It adds perspective to the life of [his] paintings and…ultimately has an effect on productivity and creativity.”  Couching his work in the broader context of his archive, Alberto benefits from elevated productivity and creativity.  This creativity paired with organization could potentially translate to more grants and residencies, more exhibitions and sales.  From the community perspective, other artists, scholars and archivists can benefit from the broader, organized and curated perspective the archive provides.

By hosting another Archiving for Artists workshop, we hope to reinforce the benefits of cultivating an archival perspective around an artist’s work and papers.  We provide the skills and tools to act on that archival drive to 25 North Carolina artists per workshop.  The ripples of this program spread much wider than just those attendees, however.  Many of them held their own artist-led workshops or have passed their knowledge along to friends all over the world.  Others are planning to institute similar efforts in their undergraduate and graduate studio programs to ensure that artists are learning the virtue of studio archives early.  The Learning from Artists’ Archives team continues to present the Archiving for Artists workshop model at conferences for art information professionals, which has led some archivists and librarians to investigate conducting workshops at their own in institutions all over the U.S.  Our 2017 culminating symposium will focus in depth on how to go beyond what we have done, encouraging archivists to delve deeper into the possibilities of working in tandem with artists and their archives.  By strengthening the connection between artists and archivists around artists’ archives, both the scholarly and the general public benefit from a deeper understanding of who artists are, what goes into their works, and the connections those materials have to the larger world.

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Artists Archives and Digital Art History: Imagining the Possibilities

With the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” project, students, artists, museum, library, and arts information professionals, and art historians are collaborating on ways for North Carolina artists to preserve their materials, with an end goal of strengthening the historical record of NC artists’ materials. In this project, we’re all stakeholders. In the past few posts, my colleagues Colin, Kim, and Fannie have focused, respectively, on how artists might preserve their own materials in genres which have traditionally resisted preservation, on one artist’s design and planning process for her current archiving project, and on one librarian’s efforts to create archival files documenting the careers of artists in her community. In all of these projects, the roles of the artists and arts information professionals involved are explicit. The impact of these archiving projects on the final set of stakeholders I listed above, art historians (and with them, other scholars, students, and arts enthusiasts), is less immediately tangible. As we gear up the planning  for our next Artist Studio Archives workshop at The Mint Museum in Charlotte this October, I wanted to explore the ways in which people are learning through artists’ archival materials presented online. In order to broach the scholarly impact that efforts to archive artists’ materials makes and has the potential to make, I’ve been looking at the use of artists’ archival materials in the larger context of Digital Art History research.

Digital Art History, like its parent field, Digital Humanities, means different things to different people, precisely because it can encompass widely divergent sets of data and ways of exploring that data.  In one of the texts working towards defining Digital Art History as a method, “Is There a ‘Digital’ Art History?”, Joanna Drucker distinguishes between a “digitized” art history as one built on the use of online resources (repositories and image collections) and a “digital” art history which uses analytic techniques enabled by digital technology in order to think (or rethink, as the case may be) art historically using digital processes.[1] This might entail collaborative image and artifact viewing and annotating; map, timeline, and network building; or other tools and processes incorporating digital materials.  Though useful as a conceptual framework for classifying various modes of digital humanities research, not all digital art history tools fit neatly within this dichotomy. Given that this field is still emergent, how are art historians, archivists, and librarians using digital tools to present and study artists’ archival materials? What might these new uses and ways of conducting art historical research mean for the choices artists make about archiving their materials?

Both Colin and Kim have given examples of how artists use their digital archives as a means of either structuring the narrative about their materials, or working against the imposition of any single explanatory narrative on their work. Susan Harbage Page’s envisioned “Anti-Archive” of her U.S. Mexico-border project is characterized as an art archive, performance piece, photography portfolio, and documentation project” (despite the ultimate time and budget-based restrictions in realizing the originally conceived open navigability and playfulness in its online manifestation). As described by Colin, John Latham’s archive pushes visitors to mediate their experiences with his materials by choosing among portals leading to different arrangements of the information, provoking reflection on how information arrangement might determine historical narrative creation. These examples demonstrate how artists are using digital tools to present their archival materials, but what are other ways in which art historians and information professionals, perhaps in collaboration with the artists themselves, are using artists’ archival materials online to generate further study?

http://www.anthonyreynolds.com/breakwell/diary/diaries/projects/walking_man/image_1975.12.16

Ian Breakwell, from The Walking Man Diary, December 16, 1975

The Diary Re-invented, a 2007 project with artist Ian Breakwell and  Jane Gibb and Felicity Sparrow at the University of the Arts, London, presents a visual diary of Breakwell’s images and texts from the 1960s-2000s, browsable via a timeline. Breakwell’s full oeuvre includes visual texts, drawings, photo-collage, events, theatre performances, film, film performances and expanded-cinema events, installations, environments, video, audio works, slide-tape sequences, digital imaging,  and readings of prose texts. Breakwell explains that his diaries “record the side events of daily life: by turns mundane, curious, bleak, erotic, tender, vicious, cunning, stupid, ambiguous, absurd, as observed by a personal witness.” He identifies his own themes as the  “investigation of the relationship between word and image…the concept of personal time, and the surreality of mundane ‘reality’.”  The use of a digital timeline to organize these archival works encourages the user to explore the emergence of these and other themes over time. Some entries are annotated, while the users must explore others without a guide. The website, part of Breakwell’s Arts and Humanities Research Council fellowship project at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, is not an online artist’s archive per se, but instead takes a form of work or works that would traditionally be considered a part of an artist’s archival holdings, the diary, and reconceives it in digital form.

A digital project of a different scale, Digital Kirchner, a Getty Research Institute initiative, centers on a 1917 series of illustrations of the apocalypse created on the back of cigarette boxes by German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). The project involved digitizing the drawings, which were kept in a sketch album preserved in the Research Institute’s special collections. Team members Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Anja Foerschner wrote a scholarly essay about the works, examining the historical and biographical context in which they were created and comparing them to Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcut series.[2] Though this project may appear at first to be a “digitized” rather than “digital” art history project, to use Drucker’s dichotomy, the digitized album was used to develop a beta version of the Getty’s online collaborative platform, the Getty Scholar’s Workspace, released late last year. The Workspace provides a research environment and set of tools (bibliography builder; image comparison, editing, and annotation tools; text editing and annotation tool; correspondence forum; archival material/manuscript presentation tool; and timeline builder) to facilitate communication for research teams examining digital surrogates of artworks and primary source materials. Though this particular project resulted in a research paper, other Workspace collaborations might result in exhibitions, conferences, or other types of publications. In this instance, one artist’s archival materials were used to help build a new way of conducting research within the still-nascent discipline of Digital Art History.

http://primo.getty.edu/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=GRI&afterPDS=true&institution=01GRI&docId=GETTY_ROSETTAIE489108

Drawing 3 from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s sketchbook, 1917

Drawing 3 from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's sketchbook, 1917

Drawing 3 verso from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s sketchbook, 1917

The gulf in style and institutional scope between the Breakwell and Kirchner projects demonstrates the openness of the field of possibilities for Digital Art History projects using artists archives. Though many current digital art history projects draw widely on different artists’ archival materials held by a number of repositories, the number of digital humanities projects, other than databases and digitization projects, that focus within a single artist’s collection is still quite small. Because digital humanities methods allow scholars to organize and present larger quantities of data than traditional methods, the temptation has been to examine larger quantities of materials than a single artist’s output. The projects listed above demonstrate the value of focusing the digital humanities lens on a single artist or set of works. While the work we’re doing in the “Learning from Artist’s Archives” program will help to build a larger and richer set of NC artists’ materials for future art historians and students to draw upon, I hope that strengthening artists’ agency in actively planning, building, and maintaining their own archives will help to shape the future of digital art history and facilitate scholars’ closer examination of the contexts surrounding a single work, set or works, or legacy.

NOTES

[1] Joanna Drucker (2013). Is There a “Digital” Art History? Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 29:1-2, 5-13, DOI: 10.1080/01973762.2013.761106

[2] T. W.Gaehtgens  & A. Foerschner (2014). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Drawings of the Apocalypse. Getty Research Journal, (6), 83–102. http://doi.org/10.1086/675792

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Research Reflections: Preservation of New Media Artworks in the Care of the Artist

Over the past couple months, I have been conducting research into how new media and installation artists think about the preservation of their artworks, including those that are in the process of creation, as well as those works that remain in their custody. The preservation of new media artworks is a fascinating and complex research area, and, as with many topics in digital preservation research, this is a quickly moving target. Namely, this is because new media artworks break the mold for art conservation practices for static, physical artworks like paintings or sculptures, meaning that conservators, archivists, and other art information professionals have had to start from scratch to develop innovative preservation and conservation strategies. A number of difficulties that new media artworks pose include: 1) rapidly obsolete hardware and software, rendering portions or all of the artwork inaccessible after just a few years; 2) interactivity and a lack of fixity, making it difficult to separate the ‘work’ from its reception, or to even consistently define what the ‘work’ is; 3) complex combination of analog and digital components, many of which may be site-specific or configured for a certain exhibition space.1

Over the past 15-plus years, leading arts institutions have begun to develop flexible solutions to address some of these challenges, including documentation models attuned to the complexities of new media art,2 tools to help artists and conservators negotiate variable preservation strategies,3 and emulation platforms to re-present work dependent on defunct hardware or software.4 While these developments point towards a potentially viable approach for institutions to preserve new media artworks in their collections, researchers have yet to thoroughly address what happens to these kinds of artworks that never make it into a museum collection. Although contemporary artists increasingly incorporate new media technologies into their creative practices, still relatively few institutions collect or exhibit new media artworks.

As a result, these artworks largely remain in the personal archives of the artist. Without the resources of an institution, how do artists store, maintain, and preserve these artworks? What factors might artists consider in deciding whether or not to commit time and money towards preserving a work? These are some of the questions that have been driving this research project. Currently, I am wrapping up the data collection phase of the research (which has included interviews and studio visits with eight artists in total, as well as collecting artist statements, photos, and other information about artworks off of the artists’ websites), and starting to move into data analysis and writing up my findings. So, this is a perfect time for me to reflect on the research so far and posit some initial thoughts. In the rest of the post, I’ll offer brief sketches of three artists’ preservation practices, and then close by suggesting some broader implications.

Lile Stephens builds sculptures and installations by re-purposing parts from various electronics, which he describes as his “raw materials.” For Stephens, his artistic process is a form of inquiry into issues in science, engineering, and computing, with his artworks more as byproducts of these investigations. For a recent exhibition, Stephens explored flight technology, constructing a sculpture that linked a model plane built out of electronics to a Google Earth flight simulator.

flight-simulator-stephens

Lile Stephens, Flight Simulator

Works like these are difficult for Stephens to maintain, but a primary reason is that they take up valuable space and there is often little incentive to keep these kinds of sculptures intact once they’ve been exhibited several times. Stephens expressed that it is nearly impossible to sell such complex sculptures, nor would he feel comfortable selling this work to a collector or institution without the resources to preserve it over time. After Stephens has thoroughly explored a particular area of investigation, he also becomes less and less interested in maintaining older work for potential re-exhibition, and would much rather devote time and energy to creating new work that explores new intellectual terrain. Stephens documents all of his work, putting photos and videos on his personal website as well as on countless hard drives, and also often retains schematics, plans, and other archival materials related to previous works, but in many cases the work itself ceases to exist as a physical object. True to his own aesthetics, Stephens will often strip past works for parts, and use these for new projects.

Stacey Kirby is an installation and performance artist (and was our invaluable point person at the NCMA for our first artist archives workshop!). Kirby uses a variety of analog and digital techniques to create installations that engage participants in conversations about where the personal and the political meet. We discussed in great detail how she is currently maintaining a piece called The Power of the Ballot, for which Kirby has created her own voting precinct out of 100 carefully designed cardboard Banker’s boxes.

The-Power-of-the-Ballot-Togethersmler_1000

Stacey Kirby, The Power of the Ballot

While the cardboard makeup of the installation presents one set of physical preservation challenges, a broader concern is how to preserve the performative and interactive aspects of the work. For the full version of the piece, two performers staff the booth: one inside the booth taking ballots and one outside the booth interacting with participants. Ideally, Kirby herself performs the part of the voting officer, discussing voting issues with viewers of the work, but this has not always been possible in the work’s exhibition history, nor would it be possible if the work were to be collected. Kirby has devised strategies for this, including thoroughly documenting past performances, which could be used to inform future installations of the work. Perhaps the most important strategy though, is Kirby’s own flexible attitude towards the work. She doesn’t strictly define what The Power of the Ballot is, but makes room for variability. As Kirby describes, “With my work, I’m showing it over, and over, and over again. It’s typical for hanging a painting on a wall and showing it over again, but this has a new life every time. It’s the same piece, but it keeps growing in a way and evolving in a way that is unique to my work.” Over the course of installations at CAM in Raleigh, the Nasher in Durham, and SECCA in Winston-Salem, Kirby has allowed the piece to grow and has learned valuable lessons about what particular aspects are essential to the work and what aspects can be adapted given the constraints of a particular space. This variability will enable the overall work to be preserved for the long term, even if particular components (like the digital files used to design and print the ballots) need to be replaced or reworked.

Daniel Smith is a sculptor working across digital and analog mediums, creating forms that can be printed out but can also be viewed virtually through venues like Smith’s own VR exhibition space Paper-Thin. As expressed by nearly all of the artists I interviewed, space constraints are a huge challenge for Smith in maintaining his work over time, as Smith has limited room to store physical manifestations of the objects he creates. One strategy for this is to create modular works that collapse down into more manageable shapes.

Daniel Smith, Computer Numerical Control Drawing and Carving Machine: Self Portrait

Daniel Smith, Computer Numerical Control Drawing and Carving Machine: Self Portrait.

For Smith, modularity is also a necessity as the CNC machine he uses to print out his digital objects can only cut out pieces of a particular size, meaning that larger works need to be assembled from these smaller components. Smith expressed several different instances of how he has adapted his creative process to account for these logistical difficulties, such as creating a sculpture that was the exact size and shape of the storage area in his hatchback car. Smith faces many specifically digital preservation issues as well, particularly with his VR work. VR technologies, according to Smith, have such a “high barrier for entry” as to discourage artists from adopting them and exploring their potential for art making. There is a limited community of practice of artists for these technologies, and even this limited community is fragmented, which does not bode well for the long term preservation of these works, which depend on complex software for both creation and access. For Smith, Paper-Thin is the start of a solution to this issue; he hopes that this online space can foster a community of artists using VR for art marking, serving to both raise the profile and importance of VR artists in the art world and to develop a critical mass of users for this technology so as to better address preservation issues as they arise.

These three profiles hopefully demonstrate the wide range of challenges that new media and installation artists face in the ongoing preservation of their artworks. Although I’m still working through the data and have yet to arrive at any well formulated conclusions, one thing that I have noticed again and again is the important role of the artists’ personal archives the preservation of their work. Artists use their archives to store documentation of performative or site-specific artworks, spare parts stripped from previous works, and supplemental documents from the process of a work’s creation or exhibition. Often, the artists don’t make any clear distinction between these materials and their body of stored artworks, all of this falling under the shared heading of the artist’s “archives.” For the preservation of new media artworks, this has some real implications. Perhaps institutions cannot just think about the ongoing maintenance of discrete artworks, but need to more seriously consider the preservation of artworks as more loosely defined groups of archival materials.

NOTES

[1] For one of the earliest articulations on the challenges of preserving new media art, see: Howard Besser, “Longevity of Electronic Art,” 2001, http://besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/howard/Papers/elect-art-longevity.html.

[2] DOCAM, “Presentation of the Model,” accessed September 13, 2015, http://www.docam.ca/en/documentation-model.html.

[3] Alain Depocas et al., Permanence through change: the variable media approach = L’Approche des médias variables : la permanence par le changement (New York; Montreal: Guggenheim Museum ; Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, 2003).

[4] “Seeing Double: Emulation In Theory And Practice,” accessed September 13, 2015, http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/press-room/releases/press-release-archive/2004/643-march-3-seeing-double-emulation-in-theory-and-practice.

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Crafting a Workflow, Legacy, and Artistic Message with Susan Harbage Page

Susan Harbage Page and Kimberley Henze in Susan's Studio, September 2015

Susan Harbage Page and Kimberley Henze in Susan’s Studio, September 2015

This fall, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Susan Harbage Page at her Chapel Hill studio as part of my fellowship with the Learning from Artists’ Archives project. In conversation with Susan and (our then PI) Heather Gendron, we decided that the most dire need from an archiving perspective was that Susan’s studio inventory be migrated off of a now-defunct software and upgraded to something that could assimilate to her workflow. However, we found that we wanted (and were able) to take on additional projects as the semester moved along. All three projects outlined below are ambitious undertakings and ongoing efforts to facilitate Susan’s business, legacy, and artistic message while also preparing her career for long-term archival preservation.

Inventory

The first project of the semester, which we had deemed as our highest priority, was the migration of Susan’s old inventory, now out of use, to an updated and more usable interface. Her original inventory was on a system that’s been defunct since 2007. After experimenting and sampling many options for general inventories, business inventories, and art-specific inventories, we finally settled on GYST, a program built “by artists for artists.” GYST is powerful but neither pretty nor intuitive. After much frustration with data finagling, we made peace with the software and peace with the natural imperfection of a working, non-static archival system. Susan’s oeuvre covers several media, including photography, performance, video, and painting, and that work spans several decades, projects, and issues. With the inventory project, our goal was to make sure that information pertaining to these works was searchable, findable, and exportable, so that the business end of gallery and sales management could be expedited and Susan could focus more on her creative process.

Anti-Archive

Once we had the inventory project underway, we started on priority two: the Anti-Archive, which is simultaneously art archive, performance piece, photography portfolio, and documentation project. Susan has walked along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas once a year, every year since 2007, and collects the objects that she finds that have been left behind. These objects, everything from bras and pants to knife blades and ditched IDs, tell the story of struggle as individuals and families laboriously attempt to journey into the United States and, they hope, a better life. Susan collects these objects, gives them accession numbers for her “Anti-Archive,” and photographs them. She also takes in situ photographs of the objects and landscapes along the way and performs artistic and defiant actions, like lying on the border.

Anti-Archive in Progress, Shared Shelf Commons Backend

Anti-Archive in Progress, Shared Shelf Commons Backend View

The Anti-Archive database project we took up together was an attempt to gather these accessioned images onto a database where the public could see them all at once, download them at large sizes, and have a starting place to learn more and ask questions. We spent some time looking into different options for host platforms, but ultimately ending up going with ARTstor’s SharedShelf Commons, which is an academic resource that’s publicly available, can host an unlimited number of very large images, and will include extensive metadata to enable academic and museological study, research, and exploration. There were tradeoffs, however, because originally Susan had hoped that the database could be all the above and also playful, where users could navigate, rearrange randomly, or search by various categories such as color, object type, or year. Unfortunately, we were confined by time, budget, software, and navigability. All in all, though, we felt that SharedShelf is a good archival homebase for the images, providing both scholarly and academic authority, information, and access–and thus a standing monument to Susan’s legacy.

Project Website

Eventually, and perhaps too boldly, we embarked on a third project as well. This was an effort to publish some of the background elements of the U.S.-Mexico Border Project so that users who can see the Anti-Archive objects will have a context and conversation in which to engage. After much experimentation (aesthetics and design being hugely important for an artist’s website), we settled on a minimalist and sophisticated design. We spent time talking about what we wanted out of the site, what kinds of background information and navigability elements are important, and how we would map that out. This third work is still in progress, but the goal is that it will stand as a multimedia space and artistic message for the Border Project. I hope to continue working with Susan as we get more images prepared for publishing and as we have more dialogues and narratives written to publish.

U.S.-Mexico Border Project Site, In Progress Homepage

U.S.-Mexico Border Project Site, In Progress Homepage

In gathering my thoughts for a conclusion, I’ve reflected again on everything I learned during my semester with Susan. Certainly there are the experiences that make the time worthy of an “academic” three-course credit (time and project management, solo troubleshooting, interpersonal environment, etc.), but it was also a powerful reaffirmation of the importance of this kind of archival work: as an artist, activist, and scholar, Susan had her own lessons learned, stories to tell, and artistic narratives over her tenure with the border project and her entire career as an artist. Working at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art this past summer was hugely illuminating in terms of the findability, usability, and institutionalization of art archives, but in working directly with an artist this last semester, I was given a jarringly intimate look at how much value lies in those kind of narratives and evolutions, and it makes my appreciation for artists’ archives so much stronger.

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Preserving Artist Legacies with Marilyn Carbonell

Marilyn Carbonell (on right) speaking to a local artist. Image courtesy of http://www.nelson-atkins.org/research/library/local-artists/

This past week, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Marilyn Carbonell about her almost two-year old project: The Artists’ File Initiative – a project that strives to create archival files documenting the careers of artists in the Kansas City region. She is the head of library services at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, which includes the Spencer Art Reference Library, the Museum Archives, and the Visual Resources Library. Among many other duties, she teaches library instruction sessions, works as a line librarian, and most recently is acting archivist. She is also a current Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After briefly talking about the weather, we quickly got down to business and she divulged how her brainchild came to fruition. Her motivations were twofold: she wanted to provide access to patrons who requested information on local artists, and give all artists the opportunity to preserve their legacy. As she puts it, “Not every artist is going to be a Pablo Picasso or an Ai Weiwei but this doesn’t mean that their work and memory should be forgotten or lost to history.” She first proposed her idea to artists and garnered positive responses. Once the artists were on board, she spoke to commercial galleries that quickly introduced her to gallery owners until eventually receiving the blessings from various museum directors, trustees, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum Business Council. With their support, the Artists’ File Initiative project was born.

With the museum being right on the border of Missouri and Kansas, artists from both states participate in the Artists’ File Initiative. The project is quite similar to how other organizations create artist files by collecting announcements and other miscellaneous material, but this project is different because it takes a more active role in collaborating with the artists to create in-depth archival files by welcoming input and providing deep-level cataloging. For a file to be considered complete, it must contain the following minimum documents: an artist statement, a resume, a gallery or museum exhibition announcement, published reviews, annotated exhibition checklists, annotated exhibition gallery shots, as well as any other additional supporting material. The project’s goals are quite similar to ours in that they also want to help artists preserve their legacy.

The Artists’ File Initiative (comprised of a 5-member team, 3 employees and 2 volunteers)1 has been able to complete approximately 80 files with many other artists in the process of completing their files. Once the files are ready, they’re searchable both through Worldcat and the Nelson-Atkins’ local OPAC (Artists’ File Initiative). The documents are only usable in the library but by listing exactly what the contents are in the digital files, patrons can very easily determine whether the information will be useful. I asked Carbonell whether she’s been keeping statistics on the number of patrons who access the information either online or physically. Since this project is still relatively young, the focus has been more on building up the collection than pushing for file use. She said that even though there was no specific count on the number of users in general, there is active usage. For example, students from a class were assigned to select an artist from the Artists’ File Initiative to write about. This provided them with the unique opportunity to access primary sources by communicating with the artists.

Currently, they are actively reaching out to artists who are older in hopes of ensuring that their documents are taken care of for posterity. So this means that their current demographic is primarily older with age ranges from 30-90 with clustering in the 50s and 60s. Many of these artists are in their mid-career to late-career stages so the Nelson-Atkins hopes to also expand to those in their early-career. I asked Carbonell whether they accepted students, but the project is particular about the types of artists it takes. They don’t take students unless they have shown a viable career as an artist and potential success. They are taken into consideration if they are curator-recommended and have juried exhibition reviews.

Carbonell addressed the need for diversity in age, stage of career, and media and plans to give more talks and set up more workshops for artists to learn about how to preserve their legacies by partnering with regional artist groups such as the Kansas City Artists Coalition and local galleries. She has already spoken about the Artists’ File Initiative at conferences such as CAA (College Art Association) but plans on introducing the project at more upcoming events. With the continuing interest in the project, a regional art magazine will be doing a profile on the project that will allow the Artists’ File Initiative to become further publicized. This will undoubtedly pique the interest of many more artists but in the meantime Carbonell continues to make studio visits for must-have artists.

As for some upcoming projects, Carbonell has several in mind that have emerged from the Artists’ File Initiative. Firstly, she hopes to create short video interviews with the artists that will allow future users to see and hear the artists and secondly she wants to index free local art periodicals that would otherwise be forgotten.

Carbonell shows great passion for her project and I’m glad that there are other institutions around that are just as dedicated to helping artists preserve their legacy as Artists’ Studio Archives is.


1 Total time expended is .33FTE or less than 13 hours/weekly

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