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.


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.

[2] “Research Center.” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2016.; Elizabeth Ehrnst in discussion with Elizabeth Grab, May 10, 2016.

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.

Archiving for Artists Workshop 2015: The Event Approaches

The first weekend in October looms just over the horizon.  The Archiving for Artists signs are being printed, the worksheets edited, and the workbook compiled.  Our final preparation is to refamiliarize ourselves with our upcoming audience.  To do so, we examined the applications of those who will be attending the workshop.

The group is diverse in their mediums, backgrounds and archival needs.  They have various expectations for what they will learn, from how to archive without a computer to how to archive their Web presence.

Alberto Ortega Rodas, for example, is a mid-career painter particularly interested in the documentation of artistic process.  While his finished work is painting, a large part of his process involves multiple media: photography, digital image processing and digital sketching.  These media allow him to “explore lighting situations and to envision paintings and to spark ideas.”  The resulting digital images form an archive of their own, separate from the paintings, to which he refers frequently.  The difficulty Alberto Ortega Rodas finds in researching other artists’ inspirations and holistic practices inspires his interest in ensuring documentation of his own to assist other artists or researchers.

Beyond his interest in documenting process, Alberto Ortega Rodas also hopes to learn more about image, storage and sale inventories for his paintings, as well as appraisal and disposition of his documentation and materials.

You can find more about his work on his website:

Jina Valentine, also a mid-career artist, works in paper, text and found objects, basing them within her own “system of poetics”.  She has been involved with projects archiving the narratives of artists and taught a graduate seminar on The Archive.  She now seeks to further her knowledge of personal studio archives

Like Alberto Ortega Rodas, Jina Valentine is interested in databases to document her work and sales.  She also wishes to learn more about archiving both her digital and physical presence, from email correspondence, social media and digital records of her work to her physical records and artworks.

You can find more about her work on her website:

Maria Epes is a late-career printmaker, as well as an installation- and book-artist that operates out of both solo and communal studios across the country.  She already established an archive, but seeks to update it, in keeping with current technological advances.  While some of the archive is digitized, Maria Epes wonders how best to approach the process, hoping to locate a studio archives assistant to facilitate the shift.

Like both Jina Valentine and Alberto Ortega Rodas, Maria Epes hopes to gain knowledge in how to archive her digital records and artwork, but she also expects to learn how to archive the entirety of her online presence and to reorganize her physical work and records based on current best practice.

You can find more about her work on her website:

Blog posts reflecting on the results of the Archiving for Artists Workshop on 3 October at the North Carolina Museum of Art  will be posted shortly after the event, so stay tuned for more.