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Art Archiving, Documentation & Handling

Article: Creating a Living Legacy #6: The Physical Inventory

Artist Trust is working to expand the awareness, discussion and management related to archiving and documenting artwork through the support of Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) program. The following information is excerpted from the CALL program’s support materials and provided as a resource for visual artists seeking legacy planning and archiving information.

A critical element to creating an archiving system, as well as caring for your artwork, is developing a method for physically organizing your studio and additional storage. Any records you keep will be more useful if they include information on the physical location of the artwork. As with many organizational tasks, making the decision and then setting up the system is the hardest part.

The following information will orient you to some of the larger concerns about safely storing your artwork and related material. Keep in mind it is important to care for your work, but don’t feel like you have to become a museum.

Steps for Organizing and Taking Care of Your Physical Inventory

1. Evaluate your current storage methods and storage space based on the following suggestions.
    • Keep the temperature consistent. Extreme temperature and temperature fluctuations are harmful to all types of artwork. The temperature fluctuations in uninsulated areas, such as an attic or basement, can cause many types of materials to expand and crack.
    • Keep the humidity low. Ideally all artwork should be stored at humidity levels between 40% and 60%. Photographs, especially negatives or color prints, must be kept in a cool and dry location.
    • Consider building a climate-controlled space if you work with very fragile materials or live in a warm climate. There are also storage services that provide climate-controlled spaces for artwork. However these can be expensive options, as an alternative we have seen artists use AC units to keep the storage space a consistent temperature.
    • Try to control air quality. Dust, pollen, pollution, sand, all of these can be harmful to work. Evaluate which environmental factors you can control or eliminate.
    • Avoid direct sunlight. Keep all stored artwork out of direct sunlight which can cause long-term damage to artwork.
    • Avoid cement floors, which can retain moisture. Build shelves or racks to raise the artwork off the floor.
    • Assess the likelihood of insect or rodent problems.
    • Consider the types of natural disasters that could happen to your storage space, particularly flooding. If you live in an area prone to flooding, consider building a sealed space for your storage. Consider the sprinkler system. Though it is essential to have a sprinkler system for fire safety, if this system does go off it could result in unexpected water damage. We recommend you anticipate this potential damage by covering shelving units with plastic or tarps.
    • Insurance. Getting insurance to cover the retail value of your artwork can be difficult and expensive. If renting, you can consider renters insurance which can cover tools and computer. Insurers will require proof of value of artwork through an outside assessment, usually provided by a gallery or paid consultant/art appraiser.

2. Make sure you are properly preparing your artwork for storage.
Strategies for packaging and storing depend on the specific materials of the artwork. Below is a general list.

2D Artwork

    • Label and sign all works on paper, signature, year, inventory number.
    • Keep unmatted, small, or loose work in drawers, boxes, or ideally metal flat files. Flat files reduce the possibility of damage from rodents and other animals and often insects.
    • Store similar materials together and be aware of what materials cannot be stored together. For example, separate all newspaper and other highly acidic paper from other types of paper.
    • Place glassine between each work or at least on the top of each drawer.
    • When storing work in plastic sleeves, be sure it is an acid-free plastic.
    • Store large canvases or framed work vertically on shelves with acid-free cardboard between each to protect the surface.
    • To prevent warping and damage to large paintings attach a reinforcement directly to the stretchers on the back of the canvas. This reinforcing board can be made of Coroplast, foam core, or cardboard.
    • Be careful when using foam core for long-term storage of your artwork. Foam core can be harmful to the surface of artwork.
    • If you run out of space, consider rolling paintings and be sure the work is dry and the surface is not too delicate. Roll the canvas around a cardboard or plastic tube with the painted surface to the outside.

3D Artwork

Consider the materials of the artwork, what you can wrap around the object to protect it. Some artists will build crates, use large bins and boxes with blankets or plastic. Get several plastic bins to help with the sorting process. Label each bin by date span (a set of years) or by category (such as exhibition materials). You will then be able to sort broadly into the bins; returning to fine-tune the sorting process one bin at a time.

    • Be sure to label the packaged work to easily identify it. Include handling and/or assembly instructions.
    • Larger pieces frequently have to be disassembled, and then boxed up.
    • When wrapping objects use an acid-free plastic.
    • Be sure to carefully support objects that are boxed.

Sketchbooks
    • Store sketchbooks vertically on a bookshelf. Even a slight angle puts tension on the binding.
    • If a sketchbook’s binding is already in a vulnerable state, store it horizontally without any weight on top.

Photographs
    • Store in boxes or flat files.
    • Keep in a consistent, cool environment with low humidity.
    • Consider the materials you will store them in, and make sure that any paper or cardboard has limited acidity.

Videotapes
    • Keep all videotapes in spaces that are climate controlled and dust free.
    • Videotapes should be stored vertically, versus horizontally.

Ephemera
    • Archived career materials including documents, exhibition materials, books, photographs, etc.
    • Store all papers in filing cabinets, bins, or boxes; books should be stored on shelves.

3. Conservation and damaged works

Start keeping a record of all damaged work. When looking for a conservator check with your gallery, a local museum, or framing shop to see whom they recommend.

4. Space to sort

For many artists, once an artwork is finished, it is packed and put into storage. To access what you have, you will need to define a space in your studio or storage to be used for unpacking and sorting.

    • Set up folding tables to work on, creating enough surface area to sort.
    • Get an extra flat file or a series of bins, labeled with year or category, to sort materials.

5. Make a studio/ storage map

The storage map will provide you and others with what archivists call a finding aid. The map will identify each area of storage that you have artwork or archive materials in. Each flat file, drawer, or section of shelving should be named and labeled and the corresponding label written on the map. When you create the record for each artwork, its physical location will also be documented. This is one of the ways to create a clear connection between your physical inventory and your record-keeping system.

6. To purge or not to purge

Some works are simply tossed in the trash, some need to be hauled to the dump and others can be reused, finished or repaired. Consider a two-step process for purging. First create a pile or drawer for questionable or unfinished artworks. Materials can be reclaimed or recycled from this pile and this gives you time to revisit these works later. Step two is where you truly decide to purge or not to purge. The most important thing to remember is destroying any works beyond recognition prior to their disposal.

7. Keep a grocery list of supplies you need to buy or to build in order to store your artwork and archived career materials, such as:

    • Shelving systems or painting racks
    • Cardboard, storage bins, boxes, or files
    • Flat files for works on paper and photographs
    • Glassine or other archival materials
    • Archival plastics (acid-free plastics) made from polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene
    • Tape, scissors, box cutter, sharpies