Developing a Repertoire of Roles: Students’ Interventions in Artists’ Archives

(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 with Snakemobile and family Digitized from slide c. 2000s

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

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

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

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.[1] 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

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.[2] 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”

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”

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

clipping, Collection of Connie Bostic

From A Thorn of Memory (c. 1996) Oil on mat board 17” x 11”

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

“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.

[1] Zinn, H. (1971). Secrecy, archives, and the public interest. Boston University Journal, 19(3), 37.

[2] Wicker, T. (July 28, 1989.) In the nation: Art and Indecency.” The New York Times. Retrieved from

Artists’ Archives and Local History: Working with Connie Bostic in Western NC

In August, I started working on a semester-long studio archiving project with Connie Bostic, western NC-based painter, teacher, and woman-about-town. I first got to know Bostic in her role as a board member at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, where I worked before starting my graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill. In the museum’s nomadic early days, Bostic’s Zone one contemporary gallery provided downtown exhibition space for the small nonprofit. Zone one, which closed in 2000, was also the first contemporary art gallery in downtown Asheville (known in its first incarnation as World Gallery).[1] This semester, my project includes inventorying the artworks and ephemera in Bostic’s studio, a renovated barn in the bucolic Fairview community outside of Asheville. I’m also doing a bit of detective work–hunting down and inventorying other works in private collections–as well as photographing a selection of the works.

from Bostic's "Mark of the Goddess" series

from Bostic’s “Mark of the Goddess” series

Before the start of this project, I digitized a set of Bostic’s clippings from early in her career. Prominent within the collection are materials pertaining to Bostic’s 1990 MFA thesis exhibition, a set of paintings in her Mark of the Goddess series combined with quotations about women from history’s “great men”. The paintings–abstract oil on paper works–were to be exhibited in the Walker Arts Center of the Asheville School from Aug. 8 – Sept. 10, 1990. Instead, the headmaster John Tyrer

called for them to be removed almost immediately, saying “Female genitalia have no place on the walls of a school building.”  Bostic’s work, intended to evoke reflection on the loss of women’s cultural heritage within history, was itself covered over and symbolically silenced, an absurdity that advocates of the exhibition’s censorship appeared to miss. The materials documenting this event include exhibition photographs, flyers and postcards, and newspaper clippings regarding the censorship and community protests and response.  As I think about the role of art and its reception within a community, I find these materials to present a compelling argument for inclusion of local artists’ archives within local repositories.

Photo from Bostic's archive depicting the covered wall of her MFA thesis exhibition

Photo from Bostic’s archive depicting the covered wall of her MFA thesis exhibition

Artists’ archives provide important insight not just into artists’ careers and artwork, but into histories of their communities–how they have shaped and been shaped by their homes. To explore this a bit more, my project also includes the collection of a limited set of oral histories in order to more fully document how her history and local history intertwine, as well as planning for possible institutional donation of some of her archival materials. As I’ve been exploring Bostic’s materials and hearing stories from her and the folks she’s worked with over the years, it has become clear to me that you cannot tell the history of the arts scene in Asheville, the revitalization of the downtown area, and the often fraught identity of places marketed as “arts destinations” without spotting Bostic as a key figure. Indeed, in a program series at Asheville’s Pack Library this summer, “Asheville in the 80’s,” Bostic discussed bringing works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring to Asheville, as well as the impact of other influential figures in the arts community.

Connie and I at the recent opening of her exhibition, "RED."

Connie and I at the recent opening of her exhibition, “RED.”

After the semester ends, I’ll post an update on my project with some lessons learned. Currently, the major quandary I face is, “How do I account for interaction?” Artists don’t work in a vacuum, and certainly not Connie. Friday mornings are a rush of activity in her studio, as Connie directs a circle of students while taking calls and answering questions and sharing gossip and preparing for the next exhibition (which opened recently as RED and is comprised mostly of large oil on canvas works demonstrating her career-long exploration of themes of womanhood and sexuality).[2] I’m finding that, in addition to her artwork and studio materials, that atmosphere is something I’d like to preserve.

And finally, the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” team has a big weekend coming up: This Saturday, October 8, we will be holding our second daylong Archiving for Artists workshop at the Mint Museum Randolph location in Charlotte, NC. This year, we’ve added sessions on intellectual property issues related to legacy planning, as well as optimizing studio archives to facilitate grantwriting, exhibition planning, and marketing. View our schedule here and stay tuned for future posts recapping the event.



[1] Bailey, Patricia. “The End of an Era.” The Mountain Express. December 20, 2000. Accessed October 2, 2016.\.

[2] “Flood Gallery Reopens at New Location with RED.” September 14, 2016. Accessed October 2, 2016.

From Oral History to Art History: Inside the Oral History Program at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Paul Ramirez Jonas with Josh T. Franco. Photo courtesy of Mary Savig.

Paul Ramirez Jonas with Josh T. Franco. Photo courtesy of Mary Savig.

“It’s something I wouldn’t give you, or I would double check,” artist Paul Ramirez Jonas said to Archives of American Art (AAA) Curator Josh T. Franco, referring to an item found in a box of studio materials recently donated to the Archives.


“Um, it’s already here, Paul,” Franco replied, as the crowd in AAA’s gallery within the Smithsonian American Art Museum laughed.

Examining donated archival materials is not something usually performed in front of a crowd, but this event—with the AAA’s current exhibition, “Finding Source Material in the Archives of American Art,” as a backdrop—encapsulated the process of archiving an artist’s materials, while also demonstrating the value of those materials in context. The curator examined the artist’s donated materials, observing organizational structure and how that box fit in with the rest of the artist’s collection. In once instance, Franco came across an empty but labeled folder in the box, joking, “This folder would have to go in another folder as an archival document.” The artist provided contextual details about individual items, recalling memories they evoked, telling the story behind a piece, and in some cases noting that a photo or a slide was the only remaining record of an artwork. Included in Ramirez Jonas’ materials are plans for kinetic sculptures either never completed or no longer functioning. Of those plans, Ramirez Jonas said, “The work can never be as good as the notes,” identifying the division between imagination and reality, intention and the completed work—one of the fulcrums along which archival work, art historical research, and artistic practice pivot.

This summer at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, I’ve been focusing on this pivot point as it appears in the processing of artists’ oral history interviews within the AAA’s Oral History Program. My colleague Kim Henze interned in Collections Processing at the AAA last summer–where she worked with physical materials like diaries, sketchbooks, and correspondence, my focus has been mostly on digital and digitized audio files, as well as their corresponding transcripts.

The program began in 1958, at a time when larger institutions were just beginning to incorporate oral history archiving in a systematic way. The Columbia Center for Oral History had begun just ten years earlier. In the AAA’s Oral History Program, staff contracts art historians, critics, and writers to interview working artists about their lives and careers, documenting not just individual works and voices, but also of specific moments within American art history. Through artists’ immediate description and living memory, the over 2200 oral histories build context and complication for researchers weaving art historical narratives.

The first interviews collected in the program are with artists who had participated in the 1913 Armory Show, widely considered to be the first significant exhibition of modern art in the U.S. Since the 1963 launch of the Oral History Program’s first large-scale collecting project, an oral history of the New Deal art programs, interviews have typically been collected under the auspices of specific initiatives, such as the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and the Decorative Arts in America, which documents prominent craft artists; and Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, which examines the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the New York art world of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.[1]

The AAA records about 20-30 interviews a year, depending on collecting initiatives and funding. In 2010, the AAA received a Save America’s Treasures grant to digitize its remaining analog oral histories. In addition to my work with the Oral History Program this summer, part of my job has been to upload these digitized files to the AAA’s Digital Asset Management System.

At the same time, I’ve been researching the history of the program in order to create project pages for the AAA’s launch of its newly redesigned website. I’ve spent the majority of my time, however, moving bottlenecked interviews through the Oral History Program’s lengthy transcript review process.

Untranscribed and unindexed audio is not the most easily navigable format. Because of this, the AAA makes its oral history interviews more accessible to researchers by transcribing them. Alas, this transcription process presents another set of issues for the archivist. First, it’s very time consuming, as well as costly. The AAA transcribes its interviews through third party vendors, but these initial transcriptions must still be checked against the audio upon their return to the AAA, through a process called auditing. Second, the editing of these transcripts can pose questions of institutional policy, ethical practices, and archival theory. During the review and editing of the audited transcripts, artists’ individual preferences regarding their representation within the archive and archival documentation can sometimes collide.

Jennifer Snyder addresses an a GWU class on Oral History.

Jennifer Snyder addresses a GWU class on Oral History.

According to the Oral History Program’s currently established workflow, the AAA sends the audited transcript to the interviewer and interviewee (called “narrator”) for the correction of factual errors. The spoken word, however, is very different from the written word—occasionally artists want to make editorial changes or wholesale revisions to the transcription. As mediators within this process, the question that oral history archivists must ask themselves (and the question that has come up in many of my conversations this summer with Oral History Archivist Jennifer Snyder) is:  At what point is the transcript an existentially different record than the audio? This is a more important and potentially complex question than it appears to be at first glance.

Transcripts that differ markedly from the audio of oral history interviews can confuse researchers wishing to check the audio against its transcript, as well as institutions seeking audio excerpts of interviews for exhibitions and programs. These texts purport to be that which they are not, i.e. verbatim transcripts of a specific conversation that took place on a specific day. On the other hand, oral history archivists must balance the need for accurate transcripts with the wishes and intentions of the artists recorded. At the AAA, artists sign a “Consent & Gift” form for both the audio and the transcript at the time of the interview—occasionally the material is restricted, but often not. Despite unrestricted donation of this material, however, it is understandable that artists may wish to omit sensitive material, or alternately, material that they deem unimportant to the interview. The very accessibility that makes a transcript more navigable for researchers may be more access than an artist wishes to give. The AAA must balance the legal status of the interview and ease of accessibility for researchers with their ethical obligations to a living interview subject. This is especially true as more and more word-searchable transcripts are added and accessed online.

Within the AAA’s process, narrator and interviewer transcript reviews are received and input into separate electronic documents, those changes are accepted within a transcript, the document is archived physically and electronically, the catalogue record is updated, and the transcript is put online. The AAA currently has about half of its transcribed interviews online, with more going up every day.

The summer's tasks.

The summer’s tasks.

These complications in making an interview publicly accessible represent a microcosm of the issues artists and archivists face together. I’m ending my summer at the AAA with a stronger inclination that archivists must work with artists to clarify the control they can take in not just organizing their materials, but managing their legacies. This includes informing artists of their rights over their materials and options for restriction, making sure that what they have agreed to donate to a collection is what they actually want to donate, explaining how accessioning and processing work, and supplying scenarios for how their materials will be accessed and used–tasks made even more difficult when an archives is not the primary contact for an artist, such as when an interviewer or contractor without the same knowledge or commitment provides most of the information and facilitates the signing of any restriction forms for an oral history interview. I’m also leaving the AAA with a concrete understanding of the the very real and constant uncertainty that archivists work through in managing the materials of living artists, as well as the limitations that restrictions in time and resources pose.

For all these complications, though, the oral history represents a chance for the artist to respond to their art historical moment, and, perhaps more importantly, to how they may have already been narrativized by critics and historians. For instance, in a 1965 AAA oral history interview by Dorothy Seckler, Robert Rauschenberg responded to the contemporary critical reaction to his Black Paintings (1951-1953), saying:

“…they [critics] couldn’t see black as color or as pigment, but they immediately moved into associations and the associations were always of destroyed newspapers, of burned newspapers. And that began to bother me. Because I think that I’m never sure of what the impulse is psychologically. I don’t mess around with my subconscious. I mean I try to keep wide awake. And if I see in the superficial subconscious relationships that I’m familiar with, clichés of association, I change the picture…Very quickly a painting is turned into a facsimile of itself when one becomes so familiar with it that one recognizes it without looking at it…So if you do work with known quantities, making puns or dealing symbolically with your materials, I think you’re shortening the life of the work even before it’s had a chance to be exposed. I mean, it hasn’t had a life of its own. It’s already leading someone else’s life.”[2]

In this explanation, Rauschenberg militates against the attribution of intention, speaking to critics who might ascribe a subconscious meaning to his work.

In a different vein, Agnes Martin, in her 1989 interview, responded to the common labeling of her work as Minimalist, something she disagreed with on both practical and theoretical grounds, but chose not to protest. Of an early show in New York with nine other artists, she said:

“They were all Minimalists, and they asked me to show with them. But that was before the word was invented. And I liked all their work, so I showed with them. And then when they started calling them Minimalists they called me a Minimalist, too…Well, I let it go, but—I didn’t protest, but I consider myself an Abstract Expressionist.”[3]

And just this summer, in the course of the review process for the interview of Chicago painter Vera Klement, Klement objected to her interviewer’s characterization of her work as “abstract”, and requested a postscript be appended, clarifying:

“I spend much effort making the images…recognizable and believable as three-dimensional objects…They are icons from a common source, images that are in the collective consciousness, described by Aby Warburg as Urformen in the early 20th century. The unusual presentation of these objects doesn’t render my paintings ‘abstract’…”[4]

These clarifying voices are vital precisely because they can both complicate and sharpen overarching narratives, easy definitions, and overly obscure labels. This is the value of oral history—that people, when questioned, don’t always say what they are expected to say.

During the gallery event I described at the beginning of this post, the artist, the curator, the public, and the archival box were in one room. What a luxury! It was a rare, if limited chance to clarify issues that are often so muddled in archival work. What does a record represent, and what is its physical and meaningful relationship to other items within a specific location or collection? How does an artist represent her/himself, and how might s/he want to be represented? What should an archivist, a curator, or an art historian make of the daylight between the “does” and the “want”?

AAA collections storage.

A glimpse at AAA collections storage.

At the end of the session, Ramirez-Jonas, whose work often explores the relationships between the artist, artwork, and audience, responded with a metaphor to a question about when and why he began organizing his materials.[5] He said that he started early in his career and advises young artists to start now, because “Archiving is like brushing your teeth, you need to do a little every day, so you don’t get gum disease.” And what’s the archival equivalent of gum disease? Not just disorganization, but a loss of control over your own materials. Referring to studio archiving practices, Ramirez Jonas noted, “We don’t train artists to do this.” It’s true, and one of the cultural preservation issues that my colleagues and I are hoping to address in the “Learning from Artists Archives” Program.


[1] In an interesting piece of serendipitous archival trivia, Kim Henze, during her internship at the AAA in summer 2015, catalogued the first interview that would eventually start the oral history program, a 1956 interview with Atta Medora McMullin, wife of Alson Skinner Clark, donated as part of Clark’s papers. The interview is only existent now in a transcript. Seven years later, in 1963, the AAA began actively collecting oral histories.

[2] Rauschenberg, Robert. Interview with Dorothy Seckler. December 21, 1965. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Martin, Agnes. Interview with Suzan Campbell. May 15, 1989. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[4] Klement, Vera. Interview with Lanny Silverman. June 12-14, 2015. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[5] Ramirez Jonas, Paul. “Statement.” Accessed on July 30, 2016.