The Second Artists’ Studio Archives Workshop: New Lessons and New Challenges

Has it already been a year since our first Artist Studio Archives workshop? Believe it or not, our second workshop, held at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, has come and gone. The experience was different this time around because a team, we’ve learned so much in the past year. Through our experiences at institutional archives and the time spent working closely with individual artists, I think we’ve all gained greater insight into the complexities and intricacies surrounding artists’ studio archives. We’ve  attended conferences and discussed the project with professionals in varied fields, gathering valuable perspectives on the project and the workshops. All this new knowledge and deeper understanding was reflected in the content and format of our second workshop, presented to an entirely new set of artists, all with their own unique needs and interests.

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Colin’s session on digital preservation. Photo: Erin Dickey

This year we added two new sessions to the program. “Copyright: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” dealt with issues of copyright and fair use. Elizabeth, Denise, and I discussed topics such as fair use and licensing. Elizabeth’s experience with how the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation handles the use of her art provided valuable insight into legal methods of legacy protection. Erin, Carol, and Fannie held a session titled “Optimizing Archives: Grants, Exhibitions, and Marketing.” This session was popular and well attended, addressing topics that everyone could benefit from.

During lunch, several of our archivists had been unable to make it due to the weather, so Colin joined the panel along with Denise, and Joyce Weaver, current archivist at the Mint. They addressed questions on topics such as how an artist might approach an institution and what happens to collections once they are accepted. Colin’s project with artist Cornelio Campos sparked a lot of interest as an example of how this relationship can be mutually beneficial.

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Kim talks with artist Stacy Bottoms about his website. Photo: Erin Dickey

Another new addition to the workshop schedule this year was scheduled one-on-one discussions between the team and the artists. This proved as fruitful as we hoped. Because we cover a lot of information in a short amount of time in the breakout sessions it’s hard to fully address individual concerns. The one-on-one sessions allowed time to have those in-depth conversations. For example, artist Stacy C. Bottoms (website) talked with our resident preservation-of-social-media expert, Kim, about the best way to back up his website and blog. My conversation with artist Mi-Sook Hur (website) challenged me to think about a new problem. We were discussing the benefits of social media platforms for artists, (she mentioned the increased traffic her website received after an image of her work became popular Pinterest) and she noted that while she is intrigued by the possibilities, the time it would take to skillfully manage these types of self-promotion must be balanced with time spent with more traditional formats. She pointed out that museums often ask her to send images of her work on CD and simply directing them to her online portfolio or sending a digital file is not acceptable. She feels stuck between two worlds, wanting to spend her time on learning innovative ways to reach new audiences, but constrained by the traditional, perhaps outdated, practices of the museum world. While I didn’t have any easy answers for her, it started me thinking about the artists’ sometimes awkward position and what we could offer them.

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Phil, Colin, and Elizabeth prepare for the artists to arrive. Photo: Kelsey Moen

There is much to mull over and still much to learn as we move toward the next step of the initiative. We’ll continue to work with our individual artists, present at various conferences and play with new ideas. These workshops have been successful enough that many other institutions and individuals have shown interest in hosting similar events for their local artists. The time we spend with both the information and artist communities bring us clarity of purpose, reveals the significance of this work, and encourages us to continue bringing energy and enthusiasm to this initiative.

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Path of Least Resistance: Mirroring Organizational Patterns in Artists’ Archives


Prior to becoming 2nd year fellows of the Artists’ Archives initiative, our application of knowledge was largely general.  We led workshop sessions for groups of artists and presented at library conferences, but rarely did we provide in depth, tailored consultations with individual artists who had particular needs.  Starting this year, however, my class of fellows has filled that gap by digging into the second internship required by the initiative: consulting with a North Carolina artist to establish their studio archive.

Tailoring the artists’ archives knowledge to a specific artist’s needs has clarified my understanding of the power of organization on an artist’s practice.  It has also brought to the fore what is required of an artist-archivist team before even touching the materials to start the archive.  First, we have to get at the underlying psychology behind why and how someone naturally organizes.  For my artist, Durham letterpress artist Brian Allen, this meant digging down to (1) how he prioritises, categorises and uses his materials currently, (2) how he intends to use them in the future and (3) how he naturally arranges this materials.

Establishing existing priorities, categories and uses for studio materials is an essential first step for two main reasons, one being the archival principal of ‘original order’ and the other the long term viability of maintaining the archive.  Archivists prioritise keeping materials or a collection in original order where it makes sense for the collection’s internal logic and intended audience.  The principle of original order becomes particularly vital when an archive will be actively used by the original creator of the collection.  To drive the point home, here’s a more mundane example of the impact of original order on making a grouping of items searchable.  Have you ever had a family member or friend who decided to  ‘help’ you by reorganising your kitchen, closet or desk?  Remember how you couldn’t find anything for days (possibly weeks) after?  That’s because the priorities and categories they assigned to your materials didn’t align with yours or your patterns of use. In archival terms, they abandoned the original order – the internal logic – of your materials. Like with home organization, the usefulness of an archive only stretches as far as it is navigable from a user standpoint.  Understanding current use and workflows regarding studio materials allows archivists to replicate them as appropriate going forward.  That way the archive work for and with the artist for which it was constructed.

The appropriateness of maintaining original order is determined, in part, by intended future use of the materials, as well.  For Brian, his intended future use of his artistic production as a legacy collection for donation takes a backseat to just having it arranged now so that he’s aware of and can find all that he has and so that he can identify where projects overlap and relate.  However, his extensive reference library is another story.  Brian expressed an interest in having husband extensive catalogue updated, but not for his current, personal use.  Instead, he envisions his library as a community resource that would be just one aspect of opening his studio up to the community as a gallery and learning space.  These attitudes towards use of his studio materials and reference collection drive the decisions we made regarding arrangement and how much to alter or maintain his current arrangement, priorities and categories.

Determining natural organisation practices represents the final step in pre-action preparation for establishing a studio archive. As our physical storage handout outlines, most people fall into three categories: (1) piler, (2) filer and (3) spring cleaner (see image below).  Brian, like myself, tends to be a combination of piler and spring cleaner.  To make any organisational strategy functional in th long run, the structure needs to follow the path of least resistance.  As anyone with failed New Year’s resolutions can attest, maintaining new behaviours that don’t work with natural inclinations or ingrained patterns requires too much effort and too many habit alterations to be sustainable.  For Brian’s studio archive, this meant maintaining the categories he’d already assigned his materials, both consciously and unconsciously, in clear plastic boxes that allow him to see both the label and the contents.  The boxes are also highly portable and maintained on shelves that also move.  His space tends to fluctuate in purpose, so ensuring that his storage accommodated this was essential.  Even his oversized materials that require flat file storage are in units with casters and labelled according to their categorised contents.  By working with Brian’s natural inclinations and making maintaining the organisation at simple as possible, the hope is that maintenance will feel intuitive and thus not require Brian to employ someone to manage his materials after I finish up my work.

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Meet artist Cornelio Campos and ASA former fellow Colin Post

The Durham County Library Main Library is holding a Meet the Artist event for Cornelio Campos on Sunday, October 30, 2016, from 3:00-5:00 pm. This Day of the Dead-themed event will feature Cornelio Campos, a prominent Mexican-American painter who has been active in the North Carolina arts community for over 15 years. In conversation with UNC doctoral student in Library Science, Colin Post, Campos will discuss his life and work as an artist and the process of building a personal archive to document his career. North Carolina Collection librarian Lynn Richardson will build on this conversation by discussing the importance of archives in capturing the vital history of Durham’s Hispanic community.

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Artists’ Archives and Local History: Working with Connie Bostic in Western NC

In August, I started working on a semester-long studio archiving project with Connie Bostic, western NC-based painter, teacher, and woman-about-town. I first got to know Bostic in her role as a board member at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, where I worked before starting my graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill. In the museum’s nomadic early days, Bostic’s Zone one contemporary gallery provided downtown exhibition space for the small nonprofit. Zone one, which closed in 2000, was also the first contemporary art gallery in downtown Asheville (known in its first incarnation as World Gallery).[1] This semester, my project includes inventorying the artworks and ephemera in Bostic’s studio, a renovated barn in the bucolic Fairview community outside of Asheville. I’m also doing a bit of detective work–hunting down and inventorying other works in private collections–as well as photographing a selection of the works.

from Bostic's "Mark of the Goddess" series

from Bostic’s “Mark of the Goddess” series

Before the start of this project, I digitized a set of Bostic’s clippings from early in her career. Prominent within the collection are materials pertaining to Bostic’s 1990 MFA thesis exhibition, a set of paintings in her Mark of the Goddess series combined with quotations about women from history’s “great men”. The paintings–abstract oil on paper works–were to be exhibited in the Walker Arts Center of the Asheville School from Aug. 8 – Sept. 10, 1990. Instead, the headmaster John Tyrer

called for them to be removed almost immediately, saying “Female genitalia have no place on the walls of a school building.”  Bostic’s work, intended to evoke reflection on the loss of women’s cultural heritage within history, was itself covered over and symbolically silenced, an absurdity that advocates of the exhibition’s censorship appeared to miss. The materials documenting this event include exhibition photographs, flyers and postcards, and newspaper clippings regarding the censorship and community protests and response.  As I think about the role of art and its reception within a community, I find these materials to present a compelling argument for inclusion of local artists’ archives within local repositories.

Photo from Bostic's archive depicting the covered wall of her MFA thesis exhibition

Photo from Bostic’s archive depicting the covered wall of her MFA thesis exhibition

Artists’ archives provide important insight not just into artists’ careers and artwork, but into histories of their communities–how they have shaped and been shaped by their homes. To explore this a bit more, my project also includes the collection of a limited set of oral histories in order to more fully document how her history and local history intertwine, as well as planning for possible institutional donation of some of her archival materials. As I’ve been exploring Bostic’s materials and hearing stories from her and the folks she’s worked with over the years, it has become clear to me that you cannot tell the history of the arts scene in Asheville, the revitalization of the downtown area, and the often fraught identity of places marketed as “arts destinations” without spotting Bostic as a key figure. Indeed, in a program series at Asheville’s Pack Library this summer, “Asheville in the 80’s,” Bostic discussed bringing works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring to Asheville, as well as the impact of other influential figures in the arts community.

Connie and I at the recent opening of her exhibition, "RED."

Connie and I at the recent opening of her exhibition, “RED.”

After the semester ends, I’ll post an update on my project with some lessons learned. Currently, the major quandary I face is, “How do I account for interaction?” Artists don’t work in a vacuum, and certainly not Connie. Friday mornings are a rush of activity in her studio, as Connie directs a circle of students while taking calls and answering questions and sharing gossip and preparing for the next exhibition (which opened recently as RED and is comprised mostly of large oil on canvas works demonstrating her career-long exploration of themes of womanhood and sexuality).[2] I’m finding that, in addition to her artwork and studio materials, that atmosphere is something I’d like to preserve.

And finally, the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” team has a big weekend coming up: This Saturday, October 8, we will be holding our second daylong Archiving for Artists workshop at the Mint Museum Randolph location in Charlotte, NC. This year, we’ve added sessions on intellectual property issues related to legacy planning, as well as optimizing studio archives to facilitate grantwriting, exhibition planning, and marketing. View our schedule here and stay tuned for future posts recapping the event.

 

Notes:

[1] Bailey, Patricia. “The End of an Era.” The Mountain Express. December 20, 2000. Accessed October 2, 2016. https://mountainx.com/arts/art-news/1220zoneone-php/\.

[2] “Flood Gallery Reopens at New Location with RED.” September 14, 2016. Accessed October 2, 2016. http://www.citizen-times.com/story/entertainment/arts/2016/09/14/flood-gallery-reopens-new-location-red/90263792/.

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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.

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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:

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

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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.”

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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:

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

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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.

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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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