For Artists / Resources

Art Archiving, Documentation & Handling

ARTICLE: Creating a Living Legacy #8: The Record-Keeping System

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.

Artists keep track of their careers in a range of ways: with an inventory list of artworks, a detailed CV with exhibition information, an e-mail list of contacts, a bibliography of publications. Each of these examples represents an important record-keeping category within an archiving system: artworks, exhibition information, contacts, and archive materials. This section provides an overview of record-keeping systems, the different options you have and the equipment you may need for each, and the type of information you should be collecting for the record fields.

Three Examples of Record-Keeping Systems

Below are three different examples of record-keeping systems. The first system involves handwritten information on a card or in a notebook and does not require a computer. The second two inventory systems both require use of a computer. We recommend people use a computer and in particular a database software system; however, we want to emphasize that it is important to find the system you are most comfortable with.

1. Handwritten notecards or notebooks

Keeping an inventory list in a notebook or creating an index-card system is a simple starting point. When keeping handwritten records, make sure to pair an image with each entry. If you are uncomfortable with digital cameras, simply sketch the artwork for each record. In addition, make sure to photocopy all records and keep a copy in a secure location off-site.

2. Word document or spreadsheet on the computer

A computerized record-keeping system has many advantages. It allows you to easily back-up your records, share the information with others, and even develop a system in which Legacy Specialists can do the inputting. A simple way to begin is to create an inventory list in a Word document or create a spreadsheet in Excel. The advantage of spreadsheets is organizing related information and group different categories of information (such as artwork, contacts, etc.) in separate columns or lists.

3. Database program on a computer—the most comprehensive system

A database is the best system for managing your records. Databases allow you to connect different types of information to each record without a need for repetition. They allow you to store a range of information—records for work, contacts, and press—all within the same system.

Looking at the database example you will see that the “General Information” tab is open. There are multiple tabs for editions, images, copyrights, and more. This information can be linked in multiple locations. The potential for error is greater with the spreadsheet records-keeping method as changes to entries are not automatically replicated across worksheets; you must manually update the information in each location to keep your records up-to-date.

A database, on the other hand, allows data fields to be linked across the system. You can enter the collector’s name and link it to all related areas within the database; any changes you make to entries are automatically replicated in multiple locations. You can also perform searches that allow you to pull up all instances of a collector’s name or the name of an artwork that was included in a particular show. It is this linking of information that makes a database the most dynamic records-keeping system.

A final note on databases:

With databases, you have two options. You can purchase the software, such as Filemaker Pro, and build it out according to your needs, or you can purchase software customized for the needs of visual artists. Ask fellow artists what they are using. Use caution when buying a program that has been designed for a gallery. It is designed for a gallery and not an artist. Galleries frequently purchase complex database programs that have monthly or yearly service fees.

Filemaker Pro is one of the software programs in which many databases are designed. You can purchase pre-made databases or simply purchase the software to design something to your needs. If you are comfortable with computers and confident in your ability to learn a new program, you can design your own database system. For the beginning user it is not recommended.

Basic equipment to consider:

(Notebook or note cards if you are choosing not to use a computer)

If using a computer you will need:
    • Computer and external hard drive for back-up
    • Printer
    • Scanner and/or digital camera

Software you might need:
    • For images: Picasso, iPhoto, Aperture, Adobe: Photoshop, Lightroom, or Elements
    • For documents: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, or Adobe Acrobat
    • For spreadsheets: Microsoft Excel or Apple Numbers
    • For a database: Filemaker Pro or a program designed for artists

Additional materials:

Filing cabinet or filing boxes for paperwork and/or a fire-safe.

Information Your Records Should Contain:

Now that we have outlined three types of systems, we will review the type of information to collect. Records should be kept for the following categories:
    • Artwork
    • Contacts
    • Exhibitions
    • Archives

1. Artwork Record

You will be compiling records for all of the artwork in your studio and storage space, as well as for artwork you have sold or donated. From these records, you will create an inventory list.

Following is a list of fields that should be included in an artwork record:
    • Inventory number
    • Title
    • Date
    • Medium
    • Size
    • Images
    • Locations (Current/Home)
    • Value/Price
    • Exhibitions
    • People/Institutions
    • Notes

Unique inventory number: A unique numbering system allows you to identify and track each work you have made. The number should be listed both on the artwork (or packaging) and on the record. When creating an inventory numbering system, you should take into account the way you work. Inventory numbers are critical for artists who make many untitled works, prints, or work in multiples. This number should have meaning for you.
A standard example includes your initials, the year the work was completed, the category of work (for example drawing versus painting), and a number for that individual work. The numbers given to individual pieces are usually chronological within the year or category of work.

Examples:
    JD2009DW27 or JD09DW27
    This is the 27th drawing Jane Doe made in 2009
    (i.e., Jane Doe, 2009, Drawing, #27)

    JD09DWO27
    This is the 27th drawing from the oceans series that Jane Doe made in 2009

    JD09DW0311
    Jane Doe made this drawing on March 11, 2009

Account for multiples: Consider any prints or multiples you have done.
    JD09PR0122
    JD09PR0222
    Jane Doe’s 2009 prints 1 and 2 from edition 22.
   
    JD09IN1A or JD09IN101
    Jane Doe’s 2009 installation. In these examples either “A” or ”01” serve as an indicator of components.

If you are using a database system you won’t need special numbers for editions. The database can manage this special category.

Unknown year of creation: For some artists, there is a lot of undated work. If you cannot remember the year, choose a number to signify the year is unknown. This number should correspond to a year that you will never be creating artwork, such as your year of birth. You want to keep track of the work that has an unknown year.
    JDXXDW42
    Jane Doe’s 42nd drawing from an unknown year
    (“unknown” is represented by the letters “XX”)

How to use your inventory number:
    • An inventory number should exist both on the artwork itself and in the artwork record.
    • The number should also be listed on sales receipts, consignment forms, and exhibition loan records.
    • Inventory numbers should never be altered, especially once the work has “entered the world.”
    • Consider making inventory numbers for work that has been sold, given away, or perhaps even destroyed.

Final note: Keeping your numbering system simple is best. This number is designed to track your work and not necessarily contain more information than “artist” (JD), “year” (09), “category” (PG), and “number made that year” (001). Using two place holders or digits for artist, year, and type are more than adequate. Three digits for the “painting number” made that year is, in most cases more than adequate as well, giving you 999 paintings for that given year. Using this system “JD09PG001” is easy to read and computer friendly. Alternating two letters with two numbers is easier to read as well.

Periods, dashes, and other symbols in the numbering of artwork are not likely to make your job any easier and may confuse computers. Two digits for the year will allow for a century of “art tracking” information. A simple code for “type of work” is best. For instance: DW for drawing, PG for painting, PU for public art, SC for sculpture, and so on. Print edition numbers can be managed in a database or spreadsheet, further reducing confusing inventory numbers.

In essence, every work of art leaving your studio should have a number on it, paintings, sculptures, and every print in an edition. Each editioned print should be considered an independent work of art. Pick a numbering system that has meaning for you and is easy to read. Changing it later on can be costly and difficult.

Previous numbering systems:

Galleries also create and assign inventory numbers to your work. Keep in mind that these numbers reflect a system designed for their organization, not for you. They should not to take the place of your inventory numbers. You should list the gallery number alongside your own inventory number in your archive record for that piece, connecting your inventory number to theirs.

Title: Full title of the artwork should be listed.

Date: This is the year the artwork was completed. If you are uncertain of the date, make a note of that. Dating is essential to determining an artwork’s value, as well as to understanding the chronology of an artist’s career.

Medium: List all of your materials, which will aid in the future care of your work as well as provide necessary information for historians and archivists.

Size: Include information on whether the work is framed or mounted and what those measurements are in the order of height x width x depth.

Images of your work: An image (photograph, slide, or digital image) should be paired with the record and inventory number of each artwork in your system. The photograph does not need to be professional. Just a snapshot meant solely for the purpose of identifying the work. This process can also help you to identify pieces that need to be documented professionally at a later date.

Location of your artwork: Consider creating at least two fields for location: one for the “home” of the artwork and one for its current location (for work that is out for a show or on loan). Locations may include your home, studio, gallery, or storage. Also document the location for artworks owned by collectors, gifts, donated, or even work that has been destroyed. Although sold work can be hard to locate, you will want to consider tracking it, especially if you are planning a retrospective or catalogue at some point, for which this information will be needed.

Artwork values according to date: Always note the selling price of each piece and its value (the value may be higher than the selling price if it was discounted), along with the date and who made the sale. If you donate works to benefit auctions or gift pieces to friends, note the estimated value (usually determined for shipping or consignment purposes) and date as well.

All estimated values should correspond to a verifiable sales history. If you are an emerging artist and do not yet have a sales history for your work, ask around and take a look at what comparable artwork by artists at your career point is selling for.

Determining an appraisal value for your work, although an uncomfortable process, is very important when thinking to the future, and is vital for artists who are working on estate planning and taxes. If you don’t place a value on the artwork, someone might be forced to value it for you, if anything were to happen to you. There are some resources on estate planning at the end of this chapter.

People or institutions affiliated with that artwork: This field includes owners, curators, collectors, gallery directors, writers, etc. In addition you should list any collaborators, fabricators, or others who contributed to making the artwork.

Notes Section: You should include a notes field in which to document any related information about the artwork. In addition if you do not have an image of the artwork you can use this area for a short description or drawing.

Installation and proper care instructions: How is your work meant to be shown? Include hanging or floor instructions. If you make installations or sculptures with many components, document the parts, and include assembly and breakdown instructions. If you use unique materials that people may be unfamiliar with, include instructions on how best to care for the work.

2. Contact Record

For each individual and institutional contact your records should include the following fields.
    • First Name
    • Last Name
    • Institution
    • Address
    • E-mail
    • Website
    • Phone number
    • Notes

Contacts should include anyone who has shown interest in your work:fellow artists, curators, galleries, dealers, collectors, staff at support foundations, and “art fans.” These are people who may be able to help you as you undertake the process of documentation. In addition, you should;

    • Keep your contacts list up-to-date with names, mail and e-mail addresses, websites, and other relevant information.
    • Link your contacts to the related artwork or exhibitions in your archive system.
    • Keep a record of where your artwork goes if you work independent of a gallery and/or sell directly from your studio.
    • Create an agreement with your gallery regarding contacts. Often times galleries and dealers selling your work may not automatically divulge their clients’ and collectors’ information. When requesting client information from your gallery, you may consider working out an agreement that ensures you will respect the relationship the gallery has with their clients by not approaching these clients directly for sales. In ten or twenty years, around the time you may be planning a mid-career retrospective, you will want to follow-up with these collectors to find out if they have kept the work, sold it, or donated it to an institution.

3. Exhibition Records

Your exhibition records expand on your CV, provide an in-depth look at your career, and help to map the network of connections between your works, exhibitions, and reviews.

Exhibition records should include information in the following fields:
    • Exhibition title
    • Exhibition dates
    • Opening date
    • Location
    • Institution
    • Curator(s)
    • Images
    • Artwork
    • Exhibition materials
    • Catalogue/Writer
    • Press
    • Notes

In addition to listing exhibitions, an exhibition record contains information on the pieces that were in each show (the artwork record should also cross-reference the exhibition), who the curators were, and, in the case of group exhibitions, who the accompanying artists were. Include all shows you participated in, regardless of their size, as you want to create a complete picture of your career development. You should also maintain an official CV that lists all your exhibitions, no matter how small a show may feel in retrospect. This comprehensive CV will be in addition to your working CV that has been edited down for length.

Exhibition images and materials: If you are able to, take an installation shot for each show or ask the gallery or venue to supply you with one. Retain the original press release, cards or flyers, and any other material related to each show.

Press reviews and listings, books, catalogues, etc: In addition to keeping copies of any press reviews and listings of you and your work, you will want to keep a record of which pieces and exhibitions were featured in each review. (This information should also be in your artwork record—note where the piece was reviewed, whether an image of the work was reproduced, and who wrote the review.)

4. Archive Records

Materials in your archives can provide other artists, future historians, and curators with information about your career development and how you conceptualize your work. In addition, many artists have found it useful to review copies of projects, proposals, and artist statements, later in their career. Archived material can include:

    • Artist statements and project statements
    • This written material should include artist statements by date and/or body of work as well as any project statements

Applications, show and project proposals:

File all of your grant or residency applications, and your show and project proposals even if you are not awarded them. They provide valuable information about your ideas and ambitions. When re-applying, access to past proposals can be useful in tracking development between applications and weeding out repetition.

List of all awards, fellowships, and residencies:

List these, and in addition, the body of work or project related to each, if applicable.

Other Materials:

Sketchbooks, project sketches, correspondence, personal photographs, and other related material.

Records for archived material should contain information in the following fields:

In the beginning this list might be small and simple, but leaving room to grow for future information is advised. For instance, many artists may only have titles and dates. Focus on available information.
    • Name/Title
    • Type of Archived Material
    • Date
    • Location
    • Individual/Institution
    • Related Artwork
    • Exhibition
    • Notes