Last fall, as part of our year-long Carolina Seminar series centered around issues of artists’ archives, the Learning from Artists’ Archives team was joined by Nigerian photographer and Director of the Nlele Institute, Uche Okpa-Iroha. The Nlele Institute is a photography training program and resource center in Lagos, Nigeria.
Left to right: JJ Bauer, Denise Anthony, Carol Magee, Uche Okpa-Iroha
Okpa-Iroha shared with us an issue his team at Nlele was working on: how to use archival materials as teaching tools and resources for the Institute’s student photographers, and how to incorporate an archival component into the Institute’s mission.
In 2015, Okpa-Iroha, with photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi and the former director of the Goethe Institut Nigeria, Marc-Andre Schmachtel, discovered a large stock of photographic negatives in a darkroom of a building formerly occupied by Nigeria’s federal press agency, before the agency moved to Abuja from Lagos. Okpa-Iroha and his colleagues were able to recover the boxes of materials, which include decades worth of documentation of Nigeria’s political history and cultural heritage. Volunteers and staff at Nlele are currently in the process of inventorying the negatives. These materials are, to Okpa-Iroha’s knowledge, unavailable in any form anywhere else in Nigeria. They have the potential to play a crucial role in the cultural memory of the country.
By fostering aspiring photographers’ artistic, intellectual, and professional development, Nlele addresses a lack of institutional support and professional photographic training in Nigeria. Nlele’s immediate goals in preserving these materials are to: (1) Provide a readily accessible resource collection for training young photographers on documentary photographic method and style, and to (2) Educate them about Nigerian history and culture in order to more critically engage them in the documentation of its present and future. In addition to preserving the photographic material of the students trained there, Nlele has a long-term goal of identifying, acquiring, and properly preserving other Nigerian photographic collections for use as training materials and eventually for public access and research. This will entail developing the resources and infrastructure to maintain the archive over time.
In order to facilitate this initiative, Carol Magee (one of the Learning from Artists’ Archives Primary Investigators, Chair of UNC’s Department of Art and Art History, and specialist in contemporary African art history) and I will be traveling to Lagos this month to conduct a condition assessment of the negatives. The goal of this project is to assess the Nlele Institute’s collection of former Nigerian press agency photographic negatives in terms of its scope, research value, current condition, and preservation needs. The assessment will be used by the Nlele Institute as a guide for future collections assessments, as a roadmap to completing its in-progress inventory project, and as an evidentiary component of requests to fund the preservation, digitization, and archival management of the negatives.
In the Learning from Artists’ Archives program, we’ve amassed a body of experience and resources to share with NC artists, collaborating with them to “think archivally” and tailor archiving habits and practices that meet their needs. We’re excited to go global with this preparation and openness to collaboration and exchange. I’ll be reporting back here about this project and our journey, including information about our assessment methodology, so stay tuned!
Digital Preservation Issues for Artists’ Materials
This seminar is a series of meetings bringing together experts in Digital Preservation, Artists’ Archives, Art History and Art to discuss and propose guidelines for the digital preservation of artists’ materials that can be utilized by artists, archivists, museum professionals, special collections libraries and historians to provide better access to documentation of artists’ processes and works.
Our first meeting will feature Nigerian digital photographer Uche Okpa-Iroha. Okpa-Iroha is founder/director of photography platforms The Nlele Institute (TNI) and Lagos OPEN RANGE. He is also the curator of GT Bank ART 635 Gallery. Our discussion will focus on the practical concerns of preservation, namely storage, budget, rights issues, and accessibility. Moving beyond the practical to the more theoretical, we will discuss photography as both an archival and documentary practice, and how these topics relate to Okpa-Iroha’s work as artist, director, and curator.
This first meeting is not open the public, but we welcome suggestions and thoughts for our future meetings. Please contact JJ Bauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the culmination of my Learning from Artists’ Archives field experience, a studio archiving project with Asheville, NC artist Connie Bostic–which included digitization of slides and ephemera, creation of a detailed artwork inventory, and the recording of oral histories with and about Connie–ephemera, recordings, and digitized items from Bostic’s studio will be preserved as a collection of the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library. Pack Library is Asheville’s central library branch, located downtown. The North Carolina Room houses special collections focusing on local history in Asheville.
Though the NC Room has many large photographic collections, this is the first living, individual artist collection at Pack–testament to Bostic’s living legacy within the community.
Bostic’s collection in the North Carolina Room will be celebrated and formally announced with a small exhibition at Pack Library, tentatively planned for early spring.
The collection will contain video oral histories, physical clippings, posters, and other ephemera, and an inventory with thumbnail images and metadata documenting 670 of Bostic’s paintings, drawings, prints, and mixed media works. Researchers will be able to access higher resolution digital images of items in the inventory upon request.
Digitized slide from Bostic’s “In the Chicken Yard” installation
These items join the North Carolina Collection’s already existing collection of ephemera documenting Bostic’s work at World and Zone One Contemporary art galleries, linchpins of Asheville’s burgeoning downtown art scene from the mid-eighties to the early aughts.
This partnership could not have come to fruition without the dedicated effort of Zoe Rhine and Ione Whitlock of the North Carolina Room, as well as Connie Bostic herself.
Congratulations to Colin Post on the publication of “Ensuring the Legacy of Self-Taught and Local Artists: A Collaborative Framework for Preserving Artists’ Archives” in the Spring 2017 issue of Art Documentation! Colin’s article provides another great resource for anyone working with artists’ archives or library special collections. Abstract and link are below (full article access requires a subscription to Art Documentation).
Many institutions collect the papers of prominent artists, but similar efforts have rarely extended to the archives of self-taught artists and artists of local renown. The author recommends that institutions establish collaborative relationships with local artists, supporting these artists’ personal archiving efforts with guidance and resources, and providing an archival repository for long-term community access to these materials. This article presents a case study of such a relationship between Durham-based painter Cornelio Campos and the Durham County Library. The author analyzes this effort to articulate a general framework for establishing strong relationships between local artists and cultural heritage institutions.
(This post is adapted from a talk I gave at this year’s College Art Association conference, as part of the “Supporting Creative Legacies in Local Communities: Lessons Learned from the Artists Studio Archives Project” panel session with project Co-PI’s JJ Bauer and Carol Magee and Advisory Board Member Heather Gendron.)
Connie Bostic and collaborator David Dawson with Snakemobile. According to Connie, the kids “belonged to the house next to the church, they just ran out of the house to see the car.” Digitized from slide c. 2000s
Connie Bostic with Recognition of Death Digitized from slide c. 1989
It was a couple of months after the Asheville, North Carolina artist Connie Bostic had agreed to let me intern with her for a studio archiving project that I learned from a mutual friend what Connie had once shared about (joked about?) her hopes for her legacy. Connie had told her, “When I’m gone, I just want them to take all my stuff out in the yard and burn it in a bonfire.” As unsettling as this was for a nascent archivist to hear at the time, I later came to an understanding of this statement within the context of Connie’s life and work. Indeed, it was through the process of working with Connie’s materials as a student and proto-archivist, seeing them through the lenses of the different roles the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” internship was designed to cultivate, that I came to a fuller understanding of this seemingly tongue-in-cheek attitude towards legacy.
My project with Connie (as touched on in my last post) comprises the digitization of selected slides and ephemera, the creation of an artwork inventory, the establishment of a documentation trail for certain of her works sold or donated to private and public collections, the collection of a limited set of oral histories with and about Connie, and outreach to Asheville’s central library branch to gauge their interest in adding to their collection additional materials pertaining to Connie’s career.
Flyer – Once and For All, 1992
To plan the project, I initially reached out to Connie in February of last year in order to assess her studio needs. Most of the work took place last fall. Initially, we discussed synthesizing and updating her studio inventory, but her old inventory had been physical, and was out of date. I created a new inventory of all the artworks in her studio, as well as those in the collections that I was able to track down from her notes and advice, about 670 paintings, drawings, prints, and mixed media works thus far. While my initial project plan called for a database, the inventory in its current form is in an Excel spreadsheet. Non-archival quality snapshots of most of the works in Connie’s studio are included with each record to make the inventory more legible and usable for her. I digitized selections of Connie’s ephemera, as well as 183 of her slides, numbered to match with inventory entries.
Screenshot of inventory portion
Performing the “archivist” role in this project meant that I needed to develop my working knowledge of what an archivist was, and what sort of archivist I would be in managing this project. In 1970, Howard Zinn’s address to the Society of American Archivists represented a change in the conception of perceived “passive” archiving practices. Instead, he encouraged the development of archival practices geared towards actively seeking records that will help to document the lives of people and communities traditionally underrepresented in archives. I went into this project with an understanding that my choices, even as a student working in a limited way on a collection, are political.
File structure for management of project’s digital assets
In the case of Connie’s artworks, due to the scale of her collection, I chose to focus on the intellectual rather than physical arrangement of inventory items. Arranging a collection intellectually is like making a map. And of course, “map is not territory.” Early on in the process, answering questions about work titles and dates required sessions with the two of us going through images together to determine approximate dates and titles, if applicable. But in doing so, I also learned about Connie’s practice as an artist–for some works, the titles were vital and the works were timely, tied to specific events and easily dated, such as her Katrina series, her “Day at the Fair” Series, painted on Sept. 11, 2001, or her Mark of the Goddess series, part of her MFA thesis exhibition, the reception of which was tied to a political climate informed by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms’ attempts in the late 1980s to legislate against so-called “indecent” art. Other of her works could be dated according to her slide library, newspaper clippings, and exhibition materials. At this point, the role of archivist began to shade into that of art historian.
Katrina series: 6 (2005) Oil on canvas 14.75” x 12.75”
From Day at the Fair series (2001) Oil on mat board 13.5” x 10”
Connie began studying art in earnest in the 1970s, eventually receiving her MFA at Western Carolina University. Later, Connie and Bob Godfrey, the Head of the Art Department there, would run a gallery, The World, together in downtown Asheville, under the umbrella of Western Carolina University. WCU pulled its funding from that gallery a year later in 1987, due to controversy over some of Mapplethorpe’s works being shown in an exhibition there, a small battle in the culture wars. In 1991, Connie opened another art space in the same building, Zone One Contemporary, the first dedicated contemporary art gallery in downtown Asheville. It closed in 2000.
clipping, Collection of Connie Bostic
From A Thorn of Memory (c. 1996) Oil on mat board 17” x 11”
A series of her works, as well as a commissioned mural, focus on the writer Thomas Wolfe, himself a native Ashevillian. As I catalogued these works, I discovered one of her consistent interests, the tension between artistic legacy and physical oblivion. This phrase that she had used among friends to subtly deride her lasting legacy–“burn it in a bonfire”–was drawn from one of her foundational influences, Thomas Wolfe. In citing the fire that she may or may not want to consume her work after her death, she makes veiled, perhaps unconscious, reference to a foundational moment of awakening at the beginning of her life, her discovery of Wolfe’s oeuvre at age 15. At the same time, her remark evinces a rejection of traditional assignations of value to the art object, just as the content of her work undermines comfort with the norms on which those assignations of value rely, especially within her local art scene. Reflecting on this discovery, I realized that my responsibility as an archivist to think about a potential donor’s legacy is nuanced by my training as an art historian, and helps me to understand the complex way that the artist I’m working for conceives of endings and beginnings.
“God! I’d like to go up all at once in one good blaze – just like a bonfire.” The Good Child’s River
The role of documentarian provides one name for the overlap that exists between archivist and art historian. I conducted four oral histories with and about Connie, to be kept with her collection. Participants include friends, colleagues, and students. In an interview with Connie and Linda Larsen, Connie’s friend, fellow artist, and longtime collaborator, I was particularly interested in documenting the story behind Connie’s controversial MFA thesis exhibition, which was covered in the local press and which I initially learned about while digitizing her clippings and ephemera.
Despite changes in the profession over the last 40 years that have helped us to dispense with the illusion of the ostensibly “neutral” archivist who collects passively, there is still a sense that an archivist should not be too invested in what she chooses to or not to collect and preserve. In general, this is for good reason, in order to avoid conflicts of interest. The valorization of a vague archival neutrality has given way to cultivation of our profession’s diplomatic skills, balancing the interests of stakeholders in a professional and informed manner, while also acknowledging our own interests. All of the roles I’ve discussed are themselves interventions, affecting the archive as it is intellectually and physically organized, the narratives pulled from it, and how it can affect the artist’s career–or perceptions thereof. With my choice of an artist to work with, I was also making a choice about my own understanding of the value of artists’ archives. I chose someone intrinsically local, whose story and work is tied to her community, but who intervenes within larger narratives and movements.
In thinking about the pedagogical effectiveness of this part of the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” program, and about how this internship has better prepared me for my career, I’ve discovered that the experience has generated a recognition that is both practical and political–that my choices are interventions, and therefore I need to be conscious, careful, and accountable for each choice that I make, prepared to base justifications for those choices within an established practical literature. I can’t help but parallel the roles I’ve explored in this project with both the exploration and confrontation of given roles and narratives that Connie deploys in her artwork, as well as with the various roles Connie has performed throughout her life–as artist, gallerist, owner of an Asheville gay bar in the late 80s, dog trainer, art teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother. She wears them lightly, not worrying too much about whether they conflict or fail to hang together in a legible way, confident that they make sense taken singly or together within the context of her life and practice. And so, even as I acknowledge the value in strengthening through specific efforts my performance in the roles I’ve discussed, I strive to do the same.
 Zinn, H. (1971). Secrecy, archives, and the public interest. Boston University Journal, 19(3), 37.
 Wicker, T. (July 28, 1989.) In the nation: Art and Indecency.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/28/opinion/in-the-nation-art-and-indecency.html
For everyone who missed out on the Unconference or its livestreams on March 11th, we have posted video captures on the program page here. Four of our five Facebook live videos uploaded correctly, but unfortunately the video for the Legacies session did not appear on Facebook as uploaded.
Many thanks to fellows Fannie Ouyang, Kelsey Moen, and Kim Henze for recording the Facebook videos, and to Aaron Brubaker at SILS for recording the Livestream.com videos.
The ASA project is delighted to be able to offer small travel grants ($400) to a limited number of attendees of the unconference this Saturday! If you are coming from long-distance, please write ASAP to JJ Bauer at email@example.com with a brief paragraph explaining why this event is of critical importance to you so that the ASA team may evaluate requests and allocate grants as equitably as possible. Because these grants were only approved in this last week before the unconference is taking place, we will need to reimburse participants after attending, so please include with your request the name of the possible payee as well as a mailing address where we can send a check later.
“I can’t even look at it, it’s so bad!” Holding the innocent sketch in my hand I have to laugh at her recoiling. It’s so relatable – that cringe when we look back at the earliest efforts of a passion that we have since progressed in. Yet as an archivist – my response is to pick it back up after she moves it aside, to examine it closer, to try and understand this sketch’s place in the narrative of Alia El-Bermani. It has a place, it has meaning, it gives context, it is significant.
Alia is the artist who I am working with this semester for my artist fellowship. A figurative painter, Alia’s work has been exhibited all over the U.S. and the MEAM in Barcelona recently acquired her piece Paper Wishes for their permanent collection. Alia is also a teacher, at the college and workshop level, currently based out of her studio in Raleigh. She is a curator, her show SIGHT UNSEEN just opened last weekend at Abend Gallery in Denver. She is a champion for women artists, co-founder of the important blog Women Painting Women. She is a wife. She is a mother.
Sorting through teaching materials
She is very many things and to capture all of that in an archive seems impossible to me. In the past, archives have come to me as is. The materials as the creator left them (hopefully), and as I talked about in my previous post on Kimowan Metchewais, I come to know the artist through their materials. Now I have both. The materials are here in my hands, and the artist is sitting next to me – the stories and memories of the pieces pouring out so quickly I feel at a loss to capture them. The anxiety of missing something, of losing an important part of the narrative is always there when archiving, but I find it increases tenfold when working directly with the originator. When working with the archives of creators whose lives I came across only once they were gone, I was haunted by the many questions I wished I could have asked them. Now, with the chance to ask those questions – I find myself overwhelmed by the richness of the answers.
What a wonderful problem to have. It is thrilling to know that the system we are developing, the inventory we are creating, will actually work for Alia. Despite her protests to contrary, Alia is an organized person, and moreover she has a clear sense of her workflow and process.
Working with catalogs
For example, working on her catalogs last week was fairly straightforward: deciding to categorize them into solo shows, group shows, and shows she curated, with a copy of each easily accessible and the rest in storage, made sense to both of us. A few weeks ago she came across a “mini-archive,” a childhood project on ancestor Clara Barton. To my delight, she immediately saw the value in preserving it, and another piece of her narrative was added to the puzzle. Right now we are still in the midst of detail work, the data-entry one piece at a time, and the big picture is still coming together.
Clara Barton “mini-archive”
Yet looking ahead to what this archive can accomplish once it is brought together is exciting. I was admittedly nervous going into this project – I had only known my creators as research subjects, slightly abstracted, always distanced in time and space. I never would have predicted that Alia would be the one teaching me. Working with her, artist as an actuality, not as subject, has me re-thinking, re-learning my role as archivist.
I will provide updates on my work with Alia as the internship progresses. In the meantime, the entire team is looking forward to our symposium this weekend. Be sure to catch the livestream if you can’t attend in person! All the video and materials from the day will also be made available afterwards through this site, and the fellows will recap through blog posts.
Artists’ Archives in the South, an unconference-style symposium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on March 11, 2017, will create a focused and productive atmosphere for participants to discuss, work through, and explore the latest methods, tools, and issues related to the archiving of artists’ records. Convening archivists, artists, art historians, librarians, digital humanities specialists, museum specialists, and other practitioners and scholars interested in working with artists’ records in the South, the symposium aims to amplify and build on efforts established in Learning from Artists’ Archives, a program for developing practical strategies for all stakeholders to preserve artists’ archives in North Carolina.
The Learning from Artists’ Archives program, launched in 2014 and funded by an Institute of Museums and Library Services grant, supports six Fellows, dual degree students in Art History and Library/Information Science at UNC Chapel Hill. Providing a model for similar educational initiatives hosted in other locations around the country, the program empowers artists to develop best practices for personal and studio archiving via hands-on skill development workshops, while also engaging current and future arts information professionals in an ongoing conversation about the representation of artists’ records in our cultural institutions.
When: 9:30am – 4pm on March 11, 2017
Where: Pleasants Family Room in the Louis Round Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill
Why: The unconference will amplify and build on efforts established in the Learning from Artists’ Archives program to develop practical strategies for artists, archivists, librarians, and curators to build, maintain, and use artists’ archives. In order to share lessons learned and methods honed in that program, as well as to ensure multidisciplinary input, we invite attendees to submit proposals for talk, work, make, and play sessions in all areas relating to artists’ archives.
Potential topic areas could include:
The future of artists’ archives
Creating your own “Archiving for Artists” workshop
Providing access to artists’ records
Using artists’ archives in exhibitions
Archive donation and legacy planning
How do artists use their own archives?
Some benefits of artists’ archives to art historians
How much: Registration is free but limited—we expect spaces to fill quickly.
What is an “unconference”?
An unconference is a participant-driven meeting in which the agenda is proposed and set by attendees at the outset. Interdisciplinary, interprofessional, and informal, the unconference eschews the lecture format of the traditional conference in order to foster collaborative discussion, making, and experimentation sessions among equally involved attendees. The ideal unconference is non-hierarchical, focused, and geared towards problem-solving. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on unconferences.
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.
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.
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.
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.