Caroline McBride

Archiving for Artists

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Librarian / Archivist Caroline McBride shares tips on archiving your own artistic practice

You may be an art student or a senior artist with a long exhibiting history, but I hope wherever you are in your career you will find some of what I have to say of use. I’m Caroline McBride and I’m an archivist at the E H McCormick Research Library at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. I’d like to share some tips and ideas about how you, the artist, could archive your own practice.

My aim is not to tell you what to do but to motivate you to think about the possibilities, from how you conceive of an archive to how you store it. For example, do you think of your archive as essentially a solitary project or as belonging to a wider group? From a practical point of view, you will see that there are others who are available to help and interested in what you’re attempting to do. I’m just one of those people.

Why archive?

An archive is a record that has been selected for permanent preservation. Below I outline what these ‘records’ might consist of, but let’s consider the benefits of having an archive, for you and for others.

Benefits include:

  • Archive as evidence – for example, that named and dated sketch puts you in a certain place at a certain time
  • Archive as inspiration – you or another artist might like to ‘mine’ your archive for ideas in the future or you might like to return to an earlier preoccupation
  • Archive for its materiality – that paint-spotted, well-loved tee shirt that you always wore in the studio has an inherent value
  • Archive for exhibition – complement or contextualise your art with an item from your archive
  • Archive as legacy – your archive represents you as an artist and means that not only your artwork will live on
  • Archive as knowledge production – your recorded ideas and observations may illuminate your working method, motivations and interests
  • Archive for cultural appreciation – your archive may contribute to a broader understanding of artistic practice at the time you are/ were working

What shall I save? What could I be creating for my archive?

Here are some ideas that researchers and artists have found useful:

  • Digital images or photographic prints of your artworks
  • A record of each of your artworks whether it be a handwritten list or a sophisticated database
  • Significant documents pertaining to your education, travel, influences, reading, research, exhibiting history, sales, commissions, studios and so on
  • Correspondence with fellow artists, curators, institutions, dealers – any communication where you discuss your art
  • Ephemera – whether born-digital or from the era of print, with its interesting typographies, keep exhibition invitations (both yours and to exhibitions you attended), checklists, catalogues, flyers and posters
  • Non-paper items – save ‘stuff’ of interest and import to your practice: clothing, samples, laminated membership cards.

Creative additions:

  • A diary – a record of who you met, exhibitions you attended, study schedules and the like
  • An art journal or log – additional to or as an alternative to a listing or database that provides information and inspiration on completed or unrealised projects
  • A website – provide a link among your records to any website you created that hopefully reflects your current work or has been archived if no longer being maintained
  • Social media – indicate elsewhere where you like to post or whom/what you follow

How do I archive?

Consider how you would like your or your group’s archive to be organised. There is a guiding principle in archiving termed ‘original order’ which means that a future archivist working with your archive will attempt to keep the order evidenced at the time of hand-over (this may or may not be in your long-term plan). There are several ways an art archive can be organised: chronologically, by exhibition, by theme, by medium or series, for example, everything could simply be in pure date order or you could decide to arrange by date within a larger subject area like ‘all my sculptures’ or ‘our exhibitions’. Whatever you decide – and it would be good if this reflected your artistic working method – make available a written statement about it, even if you’ve left it mixed up because that’s how you operate.

Having decided on your ordering principle, and in relation to the list in the section above, here are some ideas:

  • Images – ensure that you have the best possible representation of your artworks. Research how art photographers achieve reproductions that correctly represent works: lighting, composition, colour correction, angle and so on. Learn which types of files have longevity and how to store and migrate. This video (Museums Australia, Victoria) shows you how to set up and achieve successful images with your own diy photographic studio. And for an explanation about image types, this might be a good place to start (University of Michigan Library).
     
  • Constantly review your digital content for accessibility and longevity. For the storage of both hard copy and digital images Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has a useful guide.
     
  • Records of artwork – list (using Excel, for example) or create a database that includes for each work: title, production date, measurement, medium, image (thumbnail in this context is fine as long as you have larger-sized image files stored elsewhere), and where relevant: exhibiting history and sale details.
     
  • You can catalogue and store for free around 200 artworks (or 50MB’s worth) on a web-based database operated by Vernon Systems, e-Hive  If you are managing a group archive you might like to consider the alternative Recollect (Micrographics).
     
  • Documents, correspondence and ephemera – unfold papers, lay them flat and store them in acid-free folders in conservation-standard boxes. Store in a dark, dry place with little variation in temperature. This short video, (David Ashman, Preservation Manager, Auckland Libraries) has useful information on the care and handling of your paper-based material and any CDs or DVDs you may have.
     
  • Here are two NZ suppliers for conservation standard enclosures (such as envelopes and boxes): Conservation Supplies and Port Nicholson Packaging.
     
  • Create a listing or ‘finding aid’ for your archive –it’s helpful to list and continue to list your collection. You could use Excel and create a simple numbering system, for example: Your name: Box One: Folder One, Folder Two and so on (‘Jane Doe/1/1’ for the first folder in box one and ‘Jane Doe/1/2’ for the second folder). If you choose you can list the individual items in each folder, adding a further number to the chain (an invitation within folder one of box one would have Jane Doe/1/1/1 written carefully on the back of the object and would be listed in your spreadsheet with the number and a description). Label your boxes, folders and items with conservation standard equipment. 
     
  • Tips for your finding aid: use online examples; get others to look it over; use spellcheck; describe the contents, using dates and names really well to aid discovery using a keyword; publish it online if you wish to share your archive with others.
     
  • Website archiving – New Zealand’s National Library runs the NZ Web Archive and they actively seek websites to archive supplying a nomination form on their site. Digital deposits need to fit in with their collection policy but they may be interested in your offering.

Where shall I deposit my archive?

You may find that you can no longer maintain your archive or you have no further use for it. To whom should you consider donating it? In New Zealand the following three institutions have art archives: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Each institution adheres to a collection acquisition policy and you could contact the relevant archivist to see find out more about this.

Large institutions provide security, access and excellent climatic conditions, however there may be other places that are better suited for your particular archive. For example, your local library or museum might be where your community is based and could be where your material would be most valuably held for the information and enjoyment of others. Wherever you choose, your archive is more likely to be accepted if it’s already well-organised.

Further considerations

  • Decide and provide a written statement on how you conceive your archive and how you’d like it used: what’s okay to share and what’s off-limits. For example, given the Copyright Act 1994, are you happy to allow reproductions of your content for personal study by others (termed ‘Fair Use’)? Do you require access restrictions for some of the material because of fragility, or matters of privacy or sensitivity? Considering your output as a whole, what do you consider art and what archive, or do you not want to distinguish?
     
  • Do you have the resources you need? Archiving can be a cooperative activity and there are others from whom you can seek help: fellow artists, your community or peers, teachers, librarians, funders, collectors, curators, dealers and archivists. Lean on them, share your discoveries, get advice and if it all seems too much put all your ‘stuff’ in year-labelled boxes, store them well and hang on to them because one day you might just be grateful you did.

Article written by Caroline McBride, Librarian/ Archivist, E H McCormick Research Library Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki  

I should like to acknowledge Auckland Art Gallery and ARLIS/ANZ for providing support to attend The Rapidly Changing Landscape of Archive Stewardship in Contemporary Art, a symposium funded and organised by Hauser & Wirth (New York, March 2019), which was a tremendous source of ideas and inspiration. © Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and author, 2020