Art libraries are often found in museums, galleries and higher-education institutions where they support the research of art history and development of art practice. Among the various resources a library might hold, information is often collected into files, usually by subject, exhibition or artist.
Alongside the extensive published and archival collections held in the E H McCormick Research Library sit our New Zealand Artist Files. We have files for around 4000 artists, with the majority of artists’ names being searchable on Find New Zealand Artists and the Auckland Libraries catalogue.
Our files hold a range of material, including exhibition invitations and checklists, articles, photographic reproductions of artworks, small catalogues and, if lucky, items created and annotated by the artist themselves. These items may often be too small to sit on a library shelf, or risk being lost or discarded due to their ephemeral nature. In other words, it’s the special ‘small stuff’, which can reveal so much about an artist’s career, collated into files for a researcher to browse through. All types of researchers consult them, from our Gallery staff, students, writers and auction house employees to family historians and the very artist themselves. The content is filed chronologically, which aids searching for information on a particular artwork or exhibition.
‘Artist files are often among the most valued and heavily used resources in art research facilities because they can provide critical documentation not found in other conventional resources.’ 
This is certainly true for us. The E H McCormick Research Library has been maintaining artist files since we opened in 1956 and our individual files range greatly in their content. From one artist’s file containing just one newspaper clipping from the 1970s, to the 78 files (and counting) we hold on Colin McCahon, and everything in between. Do not underestimate the value of a more minimal file! We receive many queries on such files, often in relation to family history research, purchases of artworks, or from writers looking to highlight lesser-known New Zealand artists.
Print and Digital
Our artist files are stored in vertical file cabinets. They are easily accessible by staff in the Research Library and heavily used by our Gallery colleagues. But this is not just a historical collection, and after all, this is the 21st century. As the majority of communication and media is created electronically, our traditional hardcopy print files have been complemented with digital e-file equivalents for the past decade. We still receive print material to add to our files, mainly from dealer galleries, and we welcome contributions for existing files. However, we no longer open new print artist files and actively collect digital content, through emails and newsletters sent by galleries, as well as from online media and a media clippings service. This means our artist e-files are growing in size each week as we capture content and save it in pdf format. Much like our print files, these are only accessible to the public onsite, in the Research Library.
All of our hardcopy artist file holdings have a searchable record on Find New Zealand Artists and the Auckland Libraries catalogue, and we now also add our significant artist e-files (in size, by number of pdfs). This helps to represent newer and prolific artists who we might not have a hardcopy file for, such as Ayesha Green, Nikau Hindin and Pati Solomona Tyrell.
The files in a way fall between a published collection and an archive, but we treat them more as an archival collection. In selecting and preserving content that follows an artist’s practice and their exhibiting history, we are creating a unique resource which may well have differing content to similar files found in other New Zealand art libraries. There will always be ephemeral content we will miss. As a result, this content may not be preserved. While we do subscribe to many public platforms, there will be social media posts, exhibition ephemera, unarchived webpages, articles, et cetera. that might not be captured. However, we are active and curious in our approach, and aim to collect and preserve what we can. And although these items are not catalogued individually or widely digitised, the content is gold for a researcher with a little time to browse.
Complementing this are our files about Auckland Art Gallery exhibitions, as well as a small collection of international artist files and files on some earlier dealer galleries and artist run spaces, such as Ikon Gallery, the Barry Lett Gallery, Artspace, the Feminist Art Archive, Teststrip and Real Pictures Gallery.
Beyond the files
The Research Library team regularly use our artist files to inspire or enrich our displays. Outside the Library’s reading room we have a dedicated space for exhibitions, which are usually archive focused and often complement an exhibition currently on at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
The 2019 Research Library display Louise Henderson: A Life in the Archive, incorporated artist file material such as pristine invitations to her exhibitions. These complimented items from her archive, on loan to us from the Dame Louise Henderson Trust.
Our most recent exhibition looks at the history of Māori art survey exhibitions, providing some context and narrative to the exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art. Ephemera from our Auckland Art Gallery exhibition files was widely used, as well as published catalogues. We have also been using another smaller display cabinet in the Library to revisit the Auckland Art Gallery’s Five Māori Painters exhibition, held in 2014. Throughout the course of Toi Tū Toi Ora, we are highlighting per month one of the five artists featured in Five Māori Painters with an array of material from their artist file.
Our Research Library exhibitions have branched out further into Auckland Art Gallery exhibition spaces, including the 2019 exhibition From the Archive: Colin McCahon in Auckland co-curated by Caroline McBride (Librarian/Archivist) and guest curator Finn McCahon Jones. This exhibition displayed numerous items from our extensive artist files on McCahon, including his time as an employee at Auckland City Art Gallery and as a teacher at Elam School of Fine Arts. Material included photographs, letters and exhibition ephemera from the files, alongside posters, artworks, a video and objects from McCahon’s studio.
Our artist file material also features more widely in Auckland Art Gallery touring exhibitions and in publications on New Zealand art, including Auckland Art Gallery exhibition catalogues and Art Toi magazine, and external publications such as Peter Simpson’s recent volumes on Colin McCahon.
Promoting and sharing artists files, and looking further afield
As mentioned, many libraries hold such files, and the wide range of holdings at various libraries in New Zealand are captured on the website Find New Zealand Artists. This is a portal for information on New Zealand artists, and directs the curious to where they can find more information. This is regularly updated as new files get created for established and exhibiting contemporary artists. Iwi affiliations have recently been added to artists profiles to add a little more to the basic biographical details already found on the site.
Artists files are held in many libraries worldwide. In North America for example, major museum, university and special libraries hold significant collections of files. Examples of these can be seen at the Smithsonian Museum, the Guggenheim, the Heard Museum and the New York Public Library.
The ARLIS/NA (Art Libraries Society of North America) Artist Files Special Interest Group offers a professional forum for the managing and accessibility of artist files. They also have numerous fun and informative blog posts on collections: http://artistfiles.arlisna.org/ This group also created an online resource called the Artist File Directory pointing to artist files held across their region.
State libraries in Australia also hold significant collections, as do others including the National Gallery of Singapore’s Rotunda Library.
There are also some fascinating collections based around a private collector, such as The Native American Artists Resource Collection held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. It is part of their Billie Jane Baguley Library and Archives and includes over 25,000 artist files, and is searchable on their online database NAARCO: https://5019.sydneyplus.com/Heard_Museum_ArgusNET_Final/Portal.aspx
Call for content!
We are actively adding to our artist files. If we hold a file and you would like to contribute to it, please get in touch via, firstname.lastname@example.org
Using the E H McCormick Research Library artist files
Our artist files are available to view without an appointment, Monday-Friday, 1–5pm. If you have any questions or live outside of Auckland, please get in touch with us at email@example.com
References for further reading and thanks to the following authors for ideas:
Catherine Hammond, ‘Escaping the Digital Black Hole: E-Ephemera at Two Auckland Art Libraries’, Art Libraries Journal, 2016, vol 41, no 2, pp 107–114.
Samantha Deutch, Sally McKay, ‘The Future of Artist Files: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’, Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Spring 2016, vol 35, no 1, pp 27–42.
Joan M Benedetti (ed), Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2007.
 Samantha Deutch, Sally McKay, ‘The Future of Artist Files: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’, Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Spring 2016, volume 35, no 1, pp 27–42