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Art Archiving, Documentation & Handling

Article: Creating a Living Legacy #1: An Introduction to Career Documentation

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.

Career documentation includes all aspects of your career as an artist. It is a system created to document, detail, and demonstrate the interconnection of your artwork, exhibition history, contacts and archives.

Many artists begin inventorying their work by creating photo documentation of artworks. Photographing and storing your artwork can be a first step in the documentation process, but it should not be confused with the creation of a complete archive. A comprehensive system of career documentation requires an overarching, organizational structure that documents all aspects of your career and catalogues their interconnection, including artwork and archive materials, sales and exhibition history, and contacts.

What is an archive?

An archive is what you will be compiling while you are in the process of career documentation. An archive is comprised of two parts:
    • The physical inventory, which includes the artworks and archived materials documenting your career.
    • The records, which are the means of tracking of everything in the physical inventory, both the artworks and archived materials.

What are the key components of a successful archive?

A comprehensive archive of your work should include both a physical archive and a record-keeping system. The physical inventory includes the actual works of art still in your possession, but could also include catalogues, books, project proposals, correspondence, and other materials related to your career. The record-keeping system includes documentation on each artwork in the physical archive as well as art that you no longer own. This system also contains records of your contacts and information on your career.

Importance of documenting and archiving your work

Why go through this process of documenting both your work and career? The process of documenting your work is fundamentally about caring for your life’s work. On a practical level, the information that you gather can be crucial at any stage of your career. But what does this mean? Consider the following scenarios where career documentation is important at different points of an artist’s career:

The Emerging Artist:
    • You may wish to apply for a grant, fellowship, and/or commission and need to present documentation of prior projects and work.
    • You may be asked to give an artist’s talk.

The Mid-Career Artist:
    • You may have the opportunity to create a book or catalogue of your work that surveys all or some aspect of your career.
    • You may regularly get requests for your images to be used by other people, reproductions in a text book, art historical text, student papers or for educational purposes and lectures. Keeping good records of your images becomes necessary.

The Established Artist:
    • A curator may visit your studio to plan a retrospective of your work.
    • An art historian may ask for documentation of the work that was in a seminal art show many years ago.
    • You may begin to consider what might happen to your work when you are no longer around.