Preserving Artist Legacies with Marilyn Carbonell

Marilyn Carbonell (on right) speaking to a local artist. Image courtesy of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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