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.