Research Reflections: Preservation of New Media Artworks in the Care of the Artist

Over the past couple months, I have been conducting research into how new media and installation artists think about the preservation of their artworks, including those that are in the process of creation, as well as those works that remain in their custody. The preservation of new media artworks is a fascinating and complex research area, and, as with many topics in digital preservation research, this is a quickly moving target. Namely, this is because new media artworks break the mold for art conservation practices for static, physical artworks like paintings or sculptures, meaning that conservators, archivists, and other art information professionals have had to start from scratch to develop innovative preservation and conservation strategies. A number of difficulties that new media artworks pose include: 1) rapidly obsolete hardware and software, rendering portions or all of the artwork inaccessible after just a few years; 2) interactivity and a lack of fixity, making it difficult to separate the ‘work’ from its reception, or to even consistently define what the ‘work’ is; 3) complex combination of analog and digital components, many of which may be site-specific or configured for a certain exhibition space.1

Over the past 15-plus years, leading arts institutions have begun to develop flexible solutions to address some of these challenges, including documentation models attuned to the complexities of new media art,2 tools to help artists and conservators negotiate variable preservation strategies,3 and emulation platforms to re-present work dependent on defunct hardware or software.4 While these developments point towards a potentially viable approach for institutions to preserve new media artworks in their collections, researchers have yet to thoroughly address what happens to these kinds of artworks that never make it into a museum collection. Although contemporary artists increasingly incorporate new media technologies into their creative practices, still relatively few institutions collect or exhibit new media artworks.

As a result, these artworks largely remain in the personal archives of the artist. Without the resources of an institution, how do artists store, maintain, and preserve these artworks? What factors might artists consider in deciding whether or not to commit time and money towards preserving a work? These are some of the questions that have been driving this research project. Currently, I am wrapping up the data collection phase of the research (which has included interviews and studio visits with eight artists in total, as well as collecting artist statements, photos, and other information about artworks off of the artists’ websites), and starting to move into data analysis and writing up my findings. So, this is a perfect time for me to reflect on the research so far and posit some initial thoughts. In the rest of the post, I’ll offer brief sketches of three artists’ preservation practices, and then close by suggesting some broader implications.

Lile Stephens builds sculptures and installations by re-purposing parts from various electronics, which he describes as his “raw materials.” For Stephens, his artistic process is a form of inquiry into issues in science, engineering, and computing, with his artworks more as byproducts of these investigations. For a recent exhibition, Stephens explored flight technology, constructing a sculpture that linked a model plane built out of electronics to a Google Earth flight simulator.


Lile Stephens, Flight Simulator

Works like these are difficult for Stephens to maintain, but a primary reason is that they take up valuable space and there is often little incentive to keep these kinds of sculptures intact once they’ve been exhibited several times. Stephens expressed that it is nearly impossible to sell such complex sculptures, nor would he feel comfortable selling this work to a collector or institution without the resources to preserve it over time. After Stephens has thoroughly explored a particular area of investigation, he also becomes less and less interested in maintaining older work for potential re-exhibition, and would much rather devote time and energy to creating new work that explores new intellectual terrain. Stephens documents all of his work, putting photos and videos on his personal website as well as on countless hard drives, and also often retains schematics, plans, and other archival materials related to previous works, but in many cases the work itself ceases to exist as a physical object. True to his own aesthetics, Stephens will often strip past works for parts, and use these for new projects.

Stacey Kirby is an installation and performance artist (and was our invaluable point person at the NCMA for our first artist archives workshop!). Kirby uses a variety of analog and digital techniques to create installations that engage participants in conversations about where the personal and the political meet. We discussed in great detail how she is currently maintaining a piece called The Power of the Ballot, for which Kirby has created her own voting precinct out of 100 carefully designed cardboard Banker’s boxes.


Stacey Kirby, The Power of the Ballot

While the cardboard makeup of the installation presents one set of physical preservation challenges, a broader concern is how to preserve the performative and interactive aspects of the work. For the full version of the piece, two performers staff the booth: one inside the booth taking ballots and one outside the booth interacting with participants. Ideally, Kirby herself performs the part of the voting officer, discussing voting issues with viewers of the work, but this has not always been possible in the work’s exhibition history, nor would it be possible if the work were to be collected. Kirby has devised strategies for this, including thoroughly documenting past performances, which could be used to inform future installations of the work. Perhaps the most important strategy though, is Kirby’s own flexible attitude towards the work. She doesn’t strictly define what The Power of the Ballot is, but makes room for variability. As Kirby describes, “With my work, I’m showing it over, and over, and over again. It’s typical for hanging a painting on a wall and showing it over again, but this has a new life every time. It’s the same piece, but it keeps growing in a way and evolving in a way that is unique to my work.” Over the course of installations at CAM in Raleigh, the Nasher in Durham, and SECCA in Winston-Salem, Kirby has allowed the piece to grow and has learned valuable lessons about what particular aspects are essential to the work and what aspects can be adapted given the constraints of a particular space. This variability will enable the overall work to be preserved for the long term, even if particular components (like the digital files used to design and print the ballots) need to be replaced or reworked.

Daniel Smith is a sculptor working across digital and analog mediums, creating forms that can be printed out but can also be viewed virtually through venues like Smith’s own VR exhibition space Paper-Thin. As expressed by nearly all of the artists I interviewed, space constraints are a huge challenge for Smith in maintaining his work over time, as Smith has limited room to store physical manifestations of the objects he creates. One strategy for this is to create modular works that collapse down into more manageable shapes.

Daniel Smith, Computer Numerical Control Drawing and Carving Machine: Self Portrait

Daniel Smith, Computer Numerical Control Drawing and Carving Machine: Self Portrait.

For Smith, modularity is also a necessity as the CNC machine he uses to print out his digital objects can only cut out pieces of a particular size, meaning that larger works need to be assembled from these smaller components. Smith expressed several different instances of how he has adapted his creative process to account for these logistical difficulties, such as creating a sculpture that was the exact size and shape of the storage area in his hatchback car. Smith faces many specifically digital preservation issues as well, particularly with his VR work. VR technologies, according to Smith, have such a “high barrier for entry” as to discourage artists from adopting them and exploring their potential for art making. There is a limited community of practice of artists for these technologies, and even this limited community is fragmented, which does not bode well for the long term preservation of these works, which depend on complex software for both creation and access. For Smith, Paper-Thin is the start of a solution to this issue; he hopes that this online space can foster a community of artists using VR for art marking, serving to both raise the profile and importance of VR artists in the art world and to develop a critical mass of users for this technology so as to better address preservation issues as they arise.

These three profiles hopefully demonstrate the wide range of challenges that new media and installation artists face in the ongoing preservation of their artworks. Although I’m still working through the data and have yet to arrive at any well formulated conclusions, one thing that I have noticed again and again is the important role of the artists’ personal archives the preservation of their work. Artists use their archives to store documentation of performative or site-specific artworks, spare parts stripped from previous works, and supplemental documents from the process of a work’s creation or exhibition. Often, the artists don’t make any clear distinction between these materials and their body of stored artworks, all of this falling under the shared heading of the artist’s “archives.” For the preservation of new media artworks, this has some real implications. Perhaps institutions cannot just think about the ongoing maintenance of discrete artworks, but need to more seriously consider the preservation of artworks as more loosely defined groups of archival materials.


[1] For one of the earliest articulations on the challenges of preserving new media art, see: Howard Besser, “Longevity of Electronic Art,” 2001,

[2] DOCAM, “Presentation of the Model,” accessed September 13, 2015,

[3] Alain Depocas et al., Permanence through change: the variable media approach = L’Approche des médias variables : la permanence par le changement (New York; Montreal: Guggenheim Museum ; Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, 2003).

[4] “Seeing Double: Emulation In Theory And Practice,” accessed September 13, 2015,

Crafting a Workflow, Legacy, and Artistic Message with Susan Harbage Page

Susan Harbage Page and Kimberley Henze in Susan's Studio, September 2015

Susan Harbage Page and Kimberley Henze in Susan’s Studio, September 2015

This fall, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Susan Harbage Page at her Chapel Hill studio as part of my fellowship with the Learning from Artists’ Archives project. In conversation with Susan and (our then PI) Heather Gendron, we decided that the most dire need from an archiving perspective was that Susan’s studio inventory be migrated off of a now-defunct software and upgraded to something that could assimilate to her workflow. However, we found that we wanted (and were able) to take on additional projects as the semester moved along. All three projects outlined below are ambitious undertakings and ongoing efforts to facilitate Susan’s business, legacy, and artistic message while also preparing her career for long-term archival preservation.


The first project of the semester, which we had deemed as our highest priority, was the migration of Susan’s old inventory, now out of use, to an updated and more usable interface. Her original inventory was on a system that’s been defunct since 2007. After experimenting and sampling many options for general inventories, business inventories, and art-specific inventories, we finally settled on GYST, a program built “by artists for artists.” GYST is powerful but neither pretty nor intuitive. After much frustration with data finagling, we made peace with the software and peace with the natural imperfection of a working, non-static archival system. Susan’s oeuvre covers several media, including photography, performance, video, and painting, and that work spans several decades, projects, and issues. With the inventory project, our goal was to make sure that information pertaining to these works was searchable, findable, and exportable, so that the business end of gallery and sales management could be expedited and Susan could focus more on her creative process.


Once we had the inventory project underway, we started on priority two: the Anti-Archive, which is simultaneously art archive, performance piece, photography portfolio, and documentation project. Susan has walked along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas once a year, every year since 2007, and collects the objects that she finds that have been left behind. These objects, everything from bras and pants to knife blades and ditched IDs, tell the story of struggle as individuals and families laboriously attempt to journey into the United States and, they hope, a better life. Susan collects these objects, gives them accession numbers for her “Anti-Archive,” and photographs them. She also takes in situ photographs of the objects and landscapes along the way and performs artistic and defiant actions, like lying on the border.

Anti-Archive in Progress, Shared Shelf Commons Backend

Anti-Archive in Progress, Shared Shelf Commons Backend View

The Anti-Archive database project we took up together was an attempt to gather these accessioned images onto a database where the public could see them all at once, download them at large sizes, and have a starting place to learn more and ask questions. We spent some time looking into different options for host platforms, but ultimately ending up going with ARTstor’s Public Collections, which is an academic resource that’s publicly available, can host an unlimited number of very large images, and will include extensive metadata to enable academic and museological study, research, and exploration. There were tradeoffs, however, because originally Susan had hoped that the database could be all the above and also playful, where users could navigate, rearrange randomly, or search by various categories such as color, object type, or year. Unfortunately, we were confined by time, budget, software, and navigability. All in all, though, we felt that SharedShelf is a good archival homebase for the images, providing both scholarly and academic authority, information, and access–and thus a standing monument to Susan’s legacy.

Project Website

Eventually, and perhaps too boldly, we embarked on a third project as well. This was an effort to publish some of the background elements of the U.S.-Mexico Border Project so that users who can see the Anti-Archive objects will have a context and conversation in which to engage. After much experimentation (aesthetics and design being hugely important for an artist’s website), we settled on a minimalist and sophisticated design. We spent time talking about what we wanted out of the site, what kinds of background information and navigability elements are important, and how we would map that out. This third work is still in progress, but the goal is that it will stand as a multimedia space and artistic message for the Border Project. I hope to continue working with Susan as we get more images prepared for publishing and as we have more dialogues and narratives written to publish.

U.S.-Mexico Border Project Site, In Progress Homepage

U.S.-Mexico Border Project Site, In Progress Homepage

In gathering my thoughts for a conclusion, I’ve reflected again on everything I learned during my semester with Susan. Certainly there are the experiences that make the time worthy of an “academic” three-course credit (time and project management, solo troubleshooting, interpersonal environment, etc.), but it was also a powerful reaffirmation of the importance of this kind of archival work: as an artist, activist, and scholar, Susan had her own lessons learned, stories to tell, and artistic narratives over her tenure with the border project and her entire career as an artist. Working at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art this past summer was hugely illuminating in terms of the findability, usability, and institutionalization of art archives, but in working directly with an artist this last semester, I was given a jarringly intimate look at how much value lies in those kind of narratives and evolutions, and it makes my appreciation for artists’ archives so much stronger.

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

Guide to Best Practices in Artists’ Studio Archiving Released

Guide to Best Practices in Artists’ Studio Archiving Now Available

Artists' Studio Archives

Artists’ Studio Archives: Managing Personal Collections & Creative Legacies is a guide for artists, their assistants, and others managing and preserving an artist’s studio archives. The guide is based on real-life scenarios and best practices in archiving and preservation and will aid artists in every career stage, from emerging artists to late-career artists, the yet-to-be-discovered and the well-established. Case studies and direct quotes from artists and their assistants, archivists, and researchers offer glimpses into managing and using artists’ archives. The exercises included in Artists’ Studio Archives help jump-start the documentation and archiving process through goal setting and establishing realistic timetables.

“Artists often tell me that their work ‘speaks for itself,’ but trust me, curators, conservators, and researchers always want more information. Your photographs, records, and recollections are significant to understanding a work of art, its place in history, a movement, and even within your own body of work.” – Carolyn Kastner, Curator, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

The authors wish to thank the following organizations and institutions that provided funding for the research and publication of Artists’ Studio Archives and the resulting Archiving for Artists workshops: The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), The Joan Mitchell Foundation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA). Please consult our website ( for more information about this initiative and to access supporting resources.

Thanks for sharing with colleagues and artist friends and family members!

Artists’ Studio Archives authors:
Neal Ambrose-Smith (Artist, Educator, and Independent Consultant, New Mexico)
Joan E. Beaudoin (Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science, Wayne State University)
Heather Gendron (Director, Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, Yale University)
Eumie Imm-Stroukoff (Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center)

For questions about Artists’ Studio Archives: Managing Personal Collections & Creative Legacies, please contact Heather Gendron (

Heather Gendron
Director, Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library
Yale University
T 203.432.2642

Building a Personal Archive with Cornelio Campos

In early August, I met with the artist Cornelio Campos at a coffee shop on 9th Street in Durham, North Carolina. I had a collaborative project to propose to him: building an archival collection of his personal papers documenting his career as an artist, and in turn donating the materials to the North Carolina Collection at the Durham County Library for long-term preservation and use by the community. Cornelio was immediately intrigued by the idea, but had one big question—what exactly did I mean by “archive”? Like many people, Cornelio had a vague notion that an archive is a corpus of old letters, photos, and newspaper clippings, but did not know much about the specific work that goes into arranging, preserving, and providing access to and archival collection. Throughout the meeting, Cornelio described all of the stuff that he had accumulated over the years, and expressed a deep understanding of how this body of materials spoke to his development as an artist, but was unclear as to how we would go about turning this stuff into an archive.

Cornelio Campos installs "American Dreams/Sueños Americanos" at the Global Fed Ex Center, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

Cornelio Campos installs “American Dreams/Sueños Americanos” exhibition at the Global Fed Ex Center, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

For the rest of the meeting, we talked in more detail about what this project would entail, and for the duration of the project, we have kept a larger conversation going about what an archive is and what Cornelio’s personal archival collection means to him. I explained the steps that we would go through to build his archives: we would sift through all of the papers, photos, and other materials he had saved, appraising them for archival value; using archival storage materials from the North Carolina Collection, we would arrange everything into folders and boxes in an order that made sense to him; we would then describe the collection, creating documents to help future users access specific materials; finally, we would transfer his personal archival collection to the Durham County Library for long-term preservation.

As the project has progressed, we have had extended discussions of both particular archival processes, as well as broader, conceptual questions about archives. We have talked about how to create a finding aid, and the function that this document serves in helping users to understand of the scope of the collection and to access particular folders. These discussions have then led directly into doing: we talked about finding aids, but then Cornelio and I worked together to write the finding aid for his own collection line by line. Cornelio’s active participation in all stages of the process has not only given him agency in the construction of his archival collection and therefore control over the shaping of his legacy, but has also allowed him to develop a rich understanding of archives, serving to address the question Cornelio posed to me at our initial meeting. As archival materials are tightly guarded by archivists and attentively maintained within closed stacks, it is no wonder that archives are a mystery to those without any insight into what goes on behind the scenes. However, this project has equipped Cornelio with new knowledge and skills, helping him to think archivally about his personal materials.

Colin Post and Cornelio Campos working on Cornelio's archival collection.

Colin Post and Cornelio Campos working on Cornelio’s archival collection.

In addition to topics like finding aids and preservation-friendly photo sleeves, Cornelio and I have also had the opportunity to discuss bigger archival issues. On several occasions, Cornelio has expressed to me his excitement about this project and the potential value that his materials will have when they are transferred to the Durham County Library. Many students, peers, and friends of Cornelio have asked him throughout the years if there was any way they could look at fliers and photographs from past exhibitions and any other archival materials he might have. While he has not been able to provide access to these materials in the past, he will now have a single, publicly accessible place to direct individuals interested in researching his career as an artist. Before this project, Cornelio’s personal papers were scattered around his house, making it difficult for even Cornelio to locate a photograph from a particular show or a piece of correspondence with a gallery. Now, these accumulated documents come together to tell a story of Cornelio’s development as an artist—a story that Cornelio himself has had a hand in shaping.

Maintaining this personal archival collection at the Durham County Library will provide many immediate benefits to Cornelio and others interested in his work, but we both hope that this project becomes part of a larger effort to document the Durham arts scene. The North Carolina Collection is committed to preserving archival materials that speak to the political, social, and cultural history of Durham, but before establishing this relationship with Cornelio, the NCC had very few collections from local visual artists. Perhaps many local artists are like Cornelio, accumulating materials over the course of their careers, sensing that these items have lasting value, but not wholly realizing that institutions like the NCC are resources for the community to preserve and share these very kinds of personal archival materials.

"Realidad Norteña" by Cornelio Campos

“Realidad Norteña” by Cornelio Campos

With this internship, I was able to start a conversation between the archivists at the NCC and Cornelio, where both sides were able to see the long-term value of Cornelio’s personal materials. As a result of this relationship, hopefully other artists in Durham will take notice and feel that their own personal archival collections might belong at the Durham County Library as well. Cornelio has thrived as an artist in large part because of a supportive community of other artists, galleries, and arts advocates. With the addition of archival materials from more of these individuals, the NCC could truly document not only Cornelio’s career, but the broader community of Durham artists as well. The relationship that Cornelio established with the archivists at the Durham County Library could serve as a model for other artists to follow, adding to the richness of the documentary heritage of the Durham arts scene for present and future users.

As Kelsey Moen mentioned in the last blog regarding the Archiving for Artists workshop, many artists remarked that thinking and talking about the archival value of their personal materials with archives professionals positively impacted their self-image. Like Cornelio, many of these artists participated largely in local arts scenes, and without the reputation of a nationally or internationally exhibiting artist, did not consider that an institution would prize their personal archival collections as valuable cultural heritage materials. As my project with Cornelio illustrates, establishing lasting and mutually beneficial relationships between an artist and a local archival institution can be as easy as starting a conversation, although both parties need to be ready to listen and to gain an understanding of the expectations and needs of the other side. I believe that my project with Cornelio has been a success because both the NCC and myself have treated Cornelio not just as a donor of significant, archival materials, but as a partner in all stages of the process.

A few final thoughts on the 1st ASA Workshop before we move on…

Reviewing the workshop as a team, we have begun the discussion of what worked well, what didn’t, and what all of this means for next year’s workshop. Before the artists left the NCMA we asked them to fill out a quick survey on how they felt the day went. Their feedback provides much helpful insight.


Artwork Inventories session
photo credit Fannie Ouyang

Several artists observe that participating in the workshop positively impacts their self-image – one artist is pleased to find “Wow, people in the field really care about my work” and another feels the workshop “may be the most important event I have attended as an artist.” In analyzing the recorded responses, Erin and Colin find that 96% of participants feel that the workshop as a whole “exceeded expectations.” In the responses and in personal interactions, the artists are overwhelmingly positive about the experience and many express thanks for all of the hard work that went into making this day happen. Gratifying and encouraging news for the team to hear, particularly as we begin to plan the next workshop. As requested, many artists also provided constructive criticism which we hope will lead to improvements for next year.


Archivists Panel at lunch, pictured: Chaitra Powell, UNC Southern Historical Collection
photo credit Fannie Ouyang

Several participants noted the diverse range of artists present at the workshop: Elizabeth and Erin have introduced some of the artists in previous posts – we have painters, sculptors, photographers, mixed media and fiber artists, and all at different stages in their artistic careers – from just starting out to well-established. Diversity is a stated project goal and something key to its success. It also means we have a wide range in the technological comfort-level of the participants which proves challenging, particularly in the breakout sessions focused on areas where (as Kim noted) we cannot offer standardized best practices, simply because they do not yet exist. For example, one young artist I talked with had first heard about the workshop through Twitter (#artiststudioarchives) and attended the “Web and Social Media” session led by Kim to learn how to manage her online presence – to define the fuzzy line between her professional/artist persona and her personal life, a truly complex and perplexing issue we all face.


Digital Preservation session
photo credit Fannie Ouyang

 Another artist expresses dismay after the “Digital Preservation” session because he assumes we asked him to digitize his entire collection of analog materials, a hugely daunting task. His confusion underscores the need clarifying terms like “born-digital” and the difference between preservation and conservation. Several artists note this same overarching issue in their responses – it’s difficult to make every breakout session applicable and helpful for every attendee because their needs are so varied. We’re already discussing are several ways to address this issue for the next workshop. For example, the “Artwork Inventories” session was attended by 72% of the participants and all of those who attended found it “very applicable,” while the “Archiving Performance Art” session was only attended by one artist (although others did express interest, they ultimately chose other sessions to attend.) This gives us ideas for next year’s sessions – possibly making “Inventories” an introductory session available to all attendees, and adjusting other topics to better meet the attending artists’ specific needs. We have much to consider and synthesize for next year, but in the meantime we are also focused on:


Fellow Erin Dickey with artist Grace Li Wang
photo credit Fannie Ouyang


Another stated goal of the Learning from Artist’s archives project is the hope that it can serve as a model for other institutions to follow. To that end, many of us will present numerous aspects of the project at various professional conferences. In fact, this weekend, three of the first year fellows – Elizabeth, Erin, and I, are excited to present the first ASA workshop at the ARLIS/SE chapter conference in Atlanta. Kim and Heather hope to present at the annual ARLIS/NA conference (Kim with a poster presentation, Heather with a panel) in Seattle this coming March. Meanwhile Colin is considering presenting his current work with Cornelio Campos at the Personal Digital Archiving conference, Ann Arbor in May. (Keep an eye out for his next blog post on this same topic!) We will post in the Public Presentations section of this site as schedules are confirmed. Please also note that many of the handouts from the ASA workshop are now available in “Resources.” The Workbook effort also continues, stay tuned for updates!


What the Archives Student Learned from the Artists: A Reflection on Two Sessions

Artists listen as Heather Gendron shares final remarks at the Archiving for Artists Workshop in the NCMA's Blue Ridge Atrium

Artists listen as Heather Gendron shares final remarks at the Archiving for Artists Workshop in the NCMA’s Blue Ridge Atrium

In the three weeks since the Archiving for Artists Workshop at the North Carolina Museum of Art, I have had time to reflect on the two sessions I taught: Physical Storage and Email, Web, and Social Media Archiving, which were, in a way, the two furthest fields from each other. In theory, human beings have been working through philosophies of organizing physical materials for a long, long time; think of basic survival decisions, like choosing to gather and hide food sources in one place. Over time, we have developed highly sophisticated systems of organization in libraries, museums, and archives. As a general rule, if an object exists, we have standards for cataloguing and placing it in a physical space.

Email, web, and social media, however, proffer a very new problem. The Internet hit wide public use in the 1990s, and the last twenty years or so have seen attempts, failures, and varied successes at tracking, organizing, and saving this kind of information. It’s a brave new world, and we don’t know what the future will hold or what we’ll need, but as a profession, we’re trying our best. The Library of Congress is harvesting tweets (though not doing anything with them yet), and the Internet Archive has archived 439 billion web pages.[1] The era of big data has us in a hustle. We have all this information and all the research and history potential that holds, but we’re not quite sure what to do with it yet (or if we’re really even doing the right thing).

The concerns and approaches of the artists in my physical storage and web archiving sessions at the NCMA earlier this month reflected these differences in analog and digital comfort. Some of the questions posed in the physical storage session were archive-based, and I was able to advise the artists with the standard best practices from the information organization world: for example, if you pile up materials on desks, use boxes to time-date and keep related materials together; if you file materials, keep a standard vocabulary of file folders for each project; if you let things pile and occasionally “spring clean,” then set up regular monthly or bi-monthly times to clear out and label materials. Other queries, however, were best answered by artists consulting other artists in the room: the best way to build a rack for canvases in your studio; the best print shop in the Triangle for scanning artworks; how much interleaving/what kind of material to place between different kinds of works. Book and print artist Lisa Beth Robinson, for example, was consulted more than once on conditions, types, and conservation of paper. I felt that between answers from archives standards and the community of artists, participants left with very solid answers.

The email, web, and social media session was likewise successful, but in a very different way. Again, I could advise on best practices from within the profession: for example, how to export to multiple and safe places; how to folder and archive emails; how to select metadata for naming those saved files. I have to admit that these ideas, however, are conjectural. We can call them “best practices” because they are in fact the best we have at the moment, but we don’t know that they’re certainly going to be the right answer in the future.

Just due to the nature of the media, digital materials, as Colin discussed in his Digital Preservation and Storage session, require a more sustained type of curation than analog items. A letter can rest on a table for ten years, and its script may have faded but will not have shifted to a language that our eyes can no longer read. A digital file, however, waiting patiently in a thumb drive for ten years may be completely inaccessible due to physical degradation of the drive or obsolescence of the storage media — and there may no longer be a digital “eye” capable of reading the corrupted language. Maybe eventually we’ll have highly-sophisticated and intuitive backup systems that we don’t have to blink at, but until then, it sometimes feels like we’re flying a little blind.

This greater sentiment of anxiety manifested in the room and conversation of the web session. Compared to the studio storage discussion, there was less a sharing of tried-and-true advice on organizing studio space and more an environment of airing uncertainties and frustrations. Artists lamented lost information, feelings of unease about what does and doesn’t need to be preserved, and inability to safely recover and protect that data.

Digital information in general, and information on the web specifically, feels more abstract, out of reach, and beyond our capture than the physical papers, canvases, and objects that make up our workspaces. We can only enact the best practices and evolve with them as they adapt to an ever-changing digital network. It likely seems more daunting than deciding which kind of canvas rack will work best for your space.

The most important takeaway, however, was the same for both sessions: empowerment fuels success. You may have to start really small, and you may make some mistakes, but ultimately the important thing is that you put an effort into the preservation and organization of your materials. Consult your community of artists, consult an archivist, and consult Google. A complete, customized, and cared-for archive is not only possible, it’s also worth the effort.

[1] While LOC is a public, governmental body to be open and sustained in perpetuity, IA is semi-private, donation-funded, and not necessarily accountable to extended sustainability. Nonetheless, the existence of both projects proves the impulse for preservation.

Starting the Conversation: Impressions from the First ASA Workshop

Early Saturday morning, Cherryl T. Cooley, a poet, playwright and fiber artist, greeted the Artist Studio Archives team as she entered the large conference room at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), the earliest of the artists selected to participate in the first Artist Studio Archives (ASA) workshop.

The ASA project team.

The ASA project team.

The team for this first session was comprised of Heather Gendron, former UNC Sloane Art Library Director and current Director of the Haas Family Arts Library at Yale University; UNC Music Librarian Philip Vandermeer; NCMA conservation technician Stacey Kirby; UNC Art Department and SILS faculty members Denise Anthony, JJ Bauer, and Carol Magee; Sloane Library Temporary Research Assistant Amelia Holmes; 2nd year Fellows Colin Post and Kimberley Henze; and 1st year Fellows Elizabeth Grab, Kelsey Moen, Fanny Huang Ouyang, and myself. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the workshop was the result of a year’s planning by the 1st year Fellows and UNC team members.

From left: Linda Dallas, Stacey Kirby, Stacy Lynn Waddell, and Cherryl T. Cooley.

From left: Linda Dallas, Stacey Kirby, Stacy Lynn Waddell, and Cherryl T. Cooley.

As I spoke to Cherryl before the session began that morning, she said she felt fortunate to participate in the workshop during a time in her career when her conceptions about her own practice and personal archives are coinciding with her ambition to work with other artists on issues of legacy, estate, and intellectual property. She described being particularly spurred to action by witnessing how the legacies of artists she admires are handled after their deaths. As an example, she expressed dismay at the piecemeal sale of Maya Angelou’s art collection and other estate items. Cherryl’s own work focuses on themes of womanness, Southern culture, myth and folklore, race, family, love, and icon culture. She maintains a WordPress blog as “a chronicle of her evolution as a writer and a human.”

Throughout the day other participating artists raised complex questions of archival practice. Lynn Duryea, a sculptor and Professor of Art at Appalachian State University, was curious about how to document and archive a given community–specifically, the individuals and artworks associated with a Maine artist residency program she participated in and coordinated.

Alia El-Bermani, a painter, wanted advice on how to usefully and creatively archive an emerging art movement that she is involved in. Women Painting Women, founded by El-Bermani, Diane Feissel, and Sadie Valeri, began as a blog focused on conversations about “how contemporary women artists are handling women as subjects.” The site has since launched a number of opportunities for women artists to meet and collaborate, as well as to promote and exhibit their work in the U.S. and overseas.

Fellow Kim Henzy leads a breakout session on email, social media, and web archiving.

Fellow Kim Henze leads a breakout session on email, social media, and web archiving.

One artist shared the gut-wrenching experience of losing three years of creative work after her blog was hacked, saying, “I am here because of the things I lost.” She was “gun-shy” about using her new blog, and wanted input on best practices for archiving web content, a situation with which other participating artists empathized.

Several archivists from local institutions–Lynn Richardson of the North Carolina Collection at the Durham Public Library; Chaitra Powell from UNC’s Southern Historical Collection; Tanya Zanish-Belcher, Director of Special Collections and Archives at Wake Forest University; and Linda Sellars of NCSU Special Collections–joined us for the lunch session, initiating conversations on how the personal archives of regional and local artists add to the richness, depth, and representativeness of institutional archival holdings.

As Steven Silverleaf, a painter currently working on collaborations with choreographers, bookmakers, and printers, noted during the closing session, the workshop provided a chance for sometimes-overlooked local artists to connect with their area archivists and museum communities. And when I caught up with Cherryl again at day’s end, she seemed (like most of us at that point) contemplative, a little tired, but excited to go home and get to work using some of the tools she picked up throughout the day.

Participating artists during the ASA workshop.

Participating artists during the ASA workshop.

This workshop was the opening salvo in what we hope to be a long, fruitful, and ever-evolving conversation between the NC arts and arts information communities about the role of artists’ archives in our cultural heritage. Stay tuned for more reflections from Fellows on this workshop, for details on the next workshop over the course of the year, and for a forthcoming workbook for artists, Artists’ Studio Archives: Managing Personal Collections & Creative Legacies.

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.  

The Initial Spark: Building Archival Donor Relationships at The Mint

So far in the blog posts about our summer internships, Kim and I have been discussing our work with archival collections—processing artists’ materials, constructing finding aids, and organizing papers into acid free folders. Care of collections is a key aspect of the archivist’s job, but just as important is the role that the archivist plays in establishing and sustaining relationships with donors of archival materials. These are the individuals and organizations who donate their personal papers for long term preservation, storage, and access in an institutional archives like The Mint or the Archives of American Art. This role is multi-faceted, including meeting with donors to help them appraise their personal materials, as well as explaining the role and purpose of archives, and what handing over personal materials to an institution actually entails. This relationship is built on trust and mutual understanding of the needs and expectations of both the archives and donor.

In this post, I’ll discuss a series of donor information packets that I’ve been working on at The Mint, which will play a part in initiating this relationship between The Mint Museum Archives and potential donors of archival materials. For this project, I created four information packets, each addressed to the unique needs of a different group of potential donors: Mint staff, affiliate organizations, artists, and a generic packet for individuals or organizations connected to The Mint in any other number of ways. The goal of the information packet is to familiarize donors with archival processes at The Mint and to outline the myriad reasons why a potential donor might consider donating their personal papers or organizational records to the archives.1

Former Mint Exhibition Director, and ceramic artist, Herb Cohen. This image is used to illustrate the Staff information packet.

Former Mint Exhibition Director, and ceramic artist, Herb Cohen. This image is used to illustrate the Staff information packet.

While the packets for the specific groups differ from each other in important ways, all of the packets are organized into the same four sections. In the overview section, the packet discusses the mission of The Mint Museum Archives and how this fits into the overall goals of The Mint Museum. This initial section emphasizes the importance of archival donations from all of these groups in order to build a more complete picture of the institution. In its history and ongoing activities, The Mint is a diverse institution, constituted by the varied activities of these different groups: artists create the work that fill the museum’s galleries; staff members curate exhibitions, lead outreach initiatives into the community, plan education programs, and keep the building itself in operation; and affiliate groups augment the activity of the museum in countless ways, from fundraising to growing collections. Crafting four distinct packets allowed me to emphasize in turn the particular importance of each group to The Mint.

The next section of the packet addresses why an individual or organization might want to donate their materials, laying out the potential benefits to donating your materials to The Mint, such as ensuring professional care for the long term preservation of historically significant documents and enabling access to and use of these materials for future generations. Although the general benefits of donating materials to an archive are similar across the different donor groups, I was able to touch on benefits unique to each donor group as well. Artists can archive their personal materials with the same institution where many of their artworks are held, augmenting the potential for historical insight into both their creative lives and artworks. As the activities of affiliate organizations so often dovetail with those of the museum, housing organizational records at The Mint Archives places these materials in the context of The Mint’s records, allowing for the relationships between affiliates and the museum to be reflected in the archives as well.

The next section covers what kinds of materials each group might donate. Each archival collection is unique, and so no list of materials can be comprehensive, but each packet sets out a broad list of possible items, including many kinds of materials specific to the different donor groups. Artists might donate sketches for artworks or videotapes documenting their artistic processes, while Mint staff might consider donating meeting notes or professional correspondence. This section helps potential donors understand what an archives is looking for, and what might be considered “historically significant.”

The information packet is only the first step in establishing a relationship between the donor and the archivist. The final section of the packet, on how to go about donating materials, urges potential donors to set up a meeting with The Mint archivist to further discuss the specifics of their personal or organization materials and talk through the logistics of appraising and moving their materials for archival ingest. The information packet plays a critical role in spotlighting The Mint Museum Archives and, by speaking directly to different groups of Mint stakeholders, promotes the importance of donating materials to the archives. The information packet may plant the idea of donating to the archives, but after this initial spark, the donor needs the personal interaction with the archivist to truly establish a productive relationship and know that their materials are going to the right place. The archivist can then address concerns and questions unique to the donor’s archival papers, go over deed of gift agreements, and set up arrangements for future acquisitions of materials still in active use. The donor relationship continues long after the initial donation, and hopefully the information packet provides a strong foundation for this relationship.

Working on these donor packets proved to be a significant learning experience for me as well. In the process of researching and drafting the packets, I gained a better understanding of the many stakeholders that have played a part in The Mint’s history. Each of these groups has a unique association with the museum, and as a result each will have a different kind of relationship with the archives. The archivist needs to navigate different kinds of relationships with different kinds of donors, an insight that this project illustrated for me.

As a final takeaway from this project, I also learned how nearly every project in a museum requires collaboration across departments. Once I finish drafting the information packets, I will send these documents to the graphic design team, which is part of the Communications Department. They will take my text, as well as some images that I picked out from the archives, and design the final product: an aesthetically pleasing, print-on-demand information packet to hand out to potential donors. Just as the archives would not be able to create this polished final product without the help of graphic design, no department in The Mint works in isolation. As an intern, this project was a great experience, not only to learn more about the ins and outs of the archival profession, but also to better see how an archive fits into the vibrant and complex work of an art museum.

1 For my research on this project, I looked to existing donor packets created by the Harvard University Archives, the Society of American Archivists, the Simmons College Archives, and the Northwestern University Archives. These examples were extremely helpful as I created the donor packets attuned to the specific needs of The Mint Museum.