Archives for Visual Artists: FAQs by the Joan Mitchell Foundation

County: All

Topic: Art Archiving, Documentation & Handling


The life of a work of art continues far beyond the life of an artist—but only if it can be accessed in some way. Works of art can reach beyond the time and the geographic place of their creation, though this eternal life depends on many factors. Artists often wrestle with how best to ensure that their artistic legacies are accessible. This legacy can be physical works of art, digital documentation, evidence of artistic practice or records tracing accomplishments, hurdles and other facets of an artist’s life. Artist Trust seeks to provide Washington State artists with information to assist them in documenting and sharing their artistic legacy.

As one step in this process Artist Trust has gathered information on archives relevant to visual artists. This research is supported by an initiative of the Joan Mitchell Foundation titled Creating a Living Legacy (CALL). Artist Trust has assembled answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) on archives and related repositories for visual arts, a well as snapshot information on a selection of archives. The archives have been chosen for their relevance to Washington State artists: the featured archives currently include, or have the potential to include, material on visual artists from Washington State.


What is an archive?
An archive collects and preserves primary source material for researchers for years to come. Preservation of historical materials is the highest priority. Archives, sometimes called repositories, contain original written, visual and audible material. Each archive defines parameters for what is included based on its mission, the enduring value of the material, and the archive’s capacity to manage and preserve the material gathered. Archives are often connected to libraries, universities, historical societies and museums. Archives today may contain both material (physical) and digital records. Digital technology is shifting the capacity and nature of what is included in an archive.

Do archives include original works of visual art?
Historically, archives have not included original works of visual art. Original works of art are usually housed within collections of museums or other collecting institutions. Today archives are exploring ways that digital reproductions of works of art can find their place alongside other documentation, but to date, this is not the standard. New archives made up solely of digital material are emerging and these digital archives often include digital images of works of art in addition to digital records of written or other material on artists.

What about digital archives?
Some archives have digitized access to parts or all of their collections of materials while also storing and caring for the original physical object. A newer form of archive is the fully digital archive that brings together only digital records. This is a rapidly emerging form of archive. One of the greatest challenges of such digital archives is to ensure long-term care, preservation and access to the digital material. Unlike physical archives, digital archives are relatively unconstrained by physical storage space. Yet digital archives require substantial resources to maintain the technology and the expertise to build, maintain and provide access to their material. There have been a number of bold digital archive efforts that have suspended operation or online access, due to the challenges faced in maintaining such archives.

Digital-only archives are emerging as an important way to preserve the legacy of many visual artists, especially those whose careers have not included significant exposure in traditional museum venues. There are, however, limited opportunities to have your work housed in a digital archive that can promise permanence and professional standards. Digital archives affiliated with established institutions have had the greatest success to date and are likely to continue to be at the forefront of this effort.

What materials related to visual artists can be found in archives?
Archives can include a broad array of materials and documents related to an artist’s career and life. Letters, diaries, speeches, sketchbooks, business records, press coverage, catalogues, photographs, audio or video recordings, oral history transcripts, and other materials can all be part of an archive about a visual artist in addition to digital images of artwork or, in some cases, original works of art. The defining criteria are the mission and purpose of that particular archive.

What about museum archives?
Museums keep careful records of the art in their permanent collection, as well as their temporary exhibitions. This includes both visual documentation as well as information on the artists whose work is in the collection. In most cases, museums only archive information on the art and the artists directly connected to their institution. Once a work of art is accessioned into a museum’s collection, whether by purchase or donation, it is permanently documented. A museum may accept additional material relating to the life and career of an artist whose work is in their collection, but many museums do not maintain such archives.

It seems like there are not many options for a Washington State artist to place their work in an archive. Is this true?
Yes, this is true. In researching archives for Washington State artists we have found that the opportunities are limited, though Washington artists continue to be included in many archives locally, regionally and nationally. Historical societies, university and public libraries, as well as museums all include archives and records on Washington State artists to varying degrees, depending on their mission, focus and capacities. We also see growing opportunities and possibilities for digital archiving of visual art.

How does an archive choose to include material about an artist?
Each archive sets its own criteria for what material they will accept. The mission of the archive will shape the focus of what is included, and the physical space, as well as staff and financial resources will have an impact on what the archive can responsibly collect, preserve and present. It is important to research an archive to understand if it is an appropriate match for your artwork and other materials.

What should I be doing to help ensure that my art can be archived at some point?
Artists who have documented and organized their artwork and related materials are in the best position to have their work archived. Digitizing your work and materials will permit you, or your heirs, to explore and participate in new digital archive opportunities more easily.

I’m an artist. How can I start to explore relevant archives?
Review the information provided here on national and Washington State archives. Think about existing and past relationships you may have to institutions or organizations that may provide a connection to an archive. Clarify what materials you hope to have archived and what form and condition they are in. Develop and maintain records and materials. There is value in researching and starting conversations with various archives that may be relevant to you and your work.

I’m a family member, friend or executor handling an artist’s estate and I’m trying to determine what options there are for placing the physical art work and related materials so that the artist’s legacy can continue. Where should I start?
Review the information provided here on national and Washington State archives. Consider past relationships that the artist had with institutions or organizations, especially those entities that may have the artist’s work in their permanent collections. It may be worthwhile to consult with galleries that have represented the artist and to consider museums, historical societies and libraries in places the artist has lived and worked. Clarify what materials you hope to have archived and what form and condition they are in before approaching an archive.

What about legal issues related to archives?
The transfer of physical material and the online posting of digital material bring up many legal issues related to donations, copyright and access. The Society of American Archivists provides some guidelines related to Personal Papers and Organizational Records. There are many copyright issues specific to the visual arts including the copyright owner’s exclusive rights to control all copying, distribution, public performance and public display of a work, as well as the creation and exploitation of derivative works. Additionally, visual artists have additional rights to attribution and integrity under the terms of the Visual Artists Rights Act. Note that the copyright owner typically (but not always) is the creator of the work, not the owner of the original (or a copy) of the work. Some archives and repositories provide clear information on how they handle such issues, while others do not. It is important that you fully understand and are in agreement on any legal aspects of placing your artwork or related materials in a physical or digital collection, archive or repository.

The information provided here should not be considered legal advice and you should consult with an attorney regarding your specific situation. Information on legal resources for artists can be found at Artists Trust’s Advocacy and Legal Assistance Resources online and the Washington Lawyers for the Arts.