Article: Creating a Living Legacy #3: Getting Assistance

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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.

You are encouraged to get assistance in your efforts to archive and document an entire career. Many artists have not organized or archived their work simply because they require help or are lacking the necessary computer skills. Hiring an assistant can answer these needs, but you do have other options based on the type of assistance you require and what you can afford. Think broadly about ways you can get help.

Consider what skills you need your assistant to have. Do you need someone with good computer skills? Do you need someone who can help you with photography or scanning? Do you need someone who can build shelves in your storage space?

When archiving, keep in mind that it is in your best interest to be working alongside your assistant, actively participating in the process. You need to be present for two reasons: first, you should be available to answer questions on your work. Second, you will want to make sure you understand how to use the organizational system being created and that it works for you. Consider compiling a team of assistants that would encompass paid employees, contract laborers, as well as family or friends.

Types of Assistants

The assistant: Assistants can work part-time or full-time; either way they should be paid by you as an employee. What this means is that they should be on your payroll, and you will be required to deduct state and federal taxes from their paycheck. They will have a set schedule and expected to accomplish the tasks that you outline.

The independent contractor: An independent contractor differs from an assistant as you will be hiring them for specific projects and frequently for a specific skill set—as a photographer for example. An independent contractor should outline in a proposal for you what their project phases and timeline. When paying an independent contractor, you do not have to remove any money from their paycheck for taxes or unemployment. However, you will need to provide both the IRS and the independent contractor with a 1099 form if the cost of the contractor’s services is more than $600. The independent contractor is responsible for his or her taxes on these earnings.

Legal issues in hiring an assistant versus an independent contractor:

Please note: artists frequently hire assistants and pay them as if they are independent contractors, as a means of avoiding paying taxes on the employee. This practice is illegal if the assistant is really an assistant working for you versus an independent contractor. If you do get caught, you are liable for back taxes and penalties. Plus contract labor is part time work and 20 hours a week or less. Before hiring an assistant or an independent contractor, please consult an accountant.

The intern: Interns are usually unpaid or may receive a modest stipend for their time or traveling expenses. An intern can provide temporary or short-term help however keep in mind that legally an intern should not be working the way an assistant or independent contractor does. The purpose of an internship is to provide an educational opportunity. With an intern, it is necessary to define specific projects and learning goals for the duration of the intern’s time with you. The best way to find interns is through a local college or university, especially those that offer credit for internships, or require internships in the completion of a degree. Consider approaching a local university’s fine arts, art history, or arts management department to locate potential applicants. Make sure to write up a description of what the intern might learn working with you or the type of experience they can expect to have.

Getting family and loved ones involved: It is very important that you engage the people whom you are close to in any archiving project. In particular, as you get older, you will want to make sure you have selected one or two people to be knowledgeable about your archive: how it is structured, how your work is stored, and what you value. Getting a son or daughter, partner or close friend involved in the archiving process is a wonderful way to ensure they understand your work and your wishes.

Involving your community: Many artists are teachers or leaders in their communities. They have engaged a range of people over the years to give them a hand on their work and their archives. By choosing to involve more people, these artists in turn found their communities more invested in them and their work.

Involving your gallery: Your gallery will most likely respond with enthusiasm to your organizational efforts. A gallery that you have worked with for any length of time will have information about your work useful to your archive, but as discussed in Chapter 3, some galleries can be averse to sharing contacts and collector information. When working with a gallery, approach the topic early on in your relationship.

Additional Ideas for Support

Find an archiving partner or start an archiving group: A group of artists regularly brought together to share their archiving processes can be extremely beneficial for all. Archiving can be an intensely emotional and tedious task. Getting support and advice, and sharing goals out loud can make the process more bearable. Build that support system by choosing to start the process with a buddy or a group of friends.

Organize a team to work with you: If you are an artist starting this process late in your career and you have a lot of work to archive, consider the team approach. A team utilizes a range of assistants, independent contractors and interns in conjunction with a committed team player who is a family member or a close friend. This individual could also be the person who handles your estate. The tasks are divided between the team; while the person responsible for your estate is intimately informed about your archiving system.

Advice for Independent Contractors and Assistants Working with Artists: It takes a great deal of skill, patience, and servitude to complete this sort of long term process. It’s a commitment that can be taxing on both the relationships of the artist and the assistant, as well as their families. A contract worker can simply stop whenever they want, as they have no further legal obligation and there is simply nothing the artist can do or say about it. This is where commitment significantly weighs beyond legal obligation and doing what’s necessary to finish the job and build relationships.

In the beginning of contract work between the artist and the independent contractor/assistant there is a lot of catching up to do: Telling stories, discussing how coffee should be made and when to have tea and so on. Sharing ideas and learning something about each other and building a foundation of trust and understanding. What matters most is what you share, not what you know.

Be prepared to spend some time in dialogue: These talks will inform an independent contractor/assistant with details never imagined about the artist and their work. Given the artist’s permission, these conversations could be recorded as well for the archive. The more information collected, the better the understanding that will be shared about the artist and their work.

Establish work schedules and habits early on: In an artist’s studio everyone is a stranger, except for the dogs, and this applies to spouses and family. Strangers are difficult to work around and make it difficult for the artist to work. With a little time and dialogue a schedule can make it easier for everybody. Habits can include music, coffee, walking the dogs, and talking on the phone. Open communication between the artist and the independent contractor/assistant is vital to the relationship and the archive.