Last fall, I attended an exciting two-day symposium in New York City titled “Artists’ Records in the Archives.” Presented on October 11-12, 2011 by the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, the symposium highlighted something I knew little about: the presence of works of art in many archival collections. Simply put, the dualism between art and its archival traces is no longer valid. The goal of this conference was to start a dialogue that can address the ways in which archival concepts and practices must be updated and refined in light of this change.
Much that was discussed was relevant for conservators. Choosing the appropriate category (library, archives, art, special collections) for a work has implications for its accessibility, preservation, resource allocation, and value for insurance purposes. As such, transparent methods and principles for this categorization must be developed. Archiving and preservation strategies for works created in multimedia and emerging media must also be explored. Archivists are interested in establishing best practices and guidelines for categorizing works, and establishing some objective criteria. They are agreed that archivists must work more closely with curators and conservators over time to periodically examine the institution’s holdings to ensure that works are properly categorized and cared for. The lesson for scholars engaged in research is that art collections, archives, and libraries do not have tidy boundaries.
Speakers included Ann Butler (Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard) who spoke about the blurring line between “art” and “archives,” and how some objects that were once considered documentation are now exhibited as art. She went on to discuss how this presented challenges for categorizing objects. Marvin Taylor (Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU) chose specific items from the Downtown collection (post-1975 New York) to illustrate the same problem – what is “art” and what is “document”? Examples included street art documentation, and artists’ notes and drawings on correspondence in the archives. Chrissie Iles (Whitney Museum of American Art) discussed how, as time passes, archival materials may migrate toward status as art objects. She pointed out that recent art movements make definitions of art objecthood elusive. In the absence of an object, such as in the case of performance art/time-based works, photo documentation stands in for the art event, so these kinds of documents are often collected and exhibited as art objects themselves.
Other topics covered by this symposium included how to preserve, process, manage, and make artists’ records accessible to researchers. Digitization of archives and preservation and accessibility of born-digital materials were also explored. There were many wonderful speakers on these topics, but in particular, Sally Brazil (The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library), Julia Feldman (MoMA), and Erin Murphy (Harvard Art Museums) all gave very exciting talks about their experiences with processing and managing artists’ records in their archives. Ms. Brazil spoke about the Frick family archive, Ms. Feldman about the Fluxus archive, and Ms. Murphy described the processing of the Alfonso Ossorio archive.
Erin Kinhart described the massive digitization project of 118 collections in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Charles Duncan highlighted several important collections of artists’ records that have already been digitized, including the Louise Nevelson papers, papers of the Photorealists (Audrey Flack, et al), the Jack Stewart graffiti archive, Jimmy Ernst’s papers (son of Max Ernst), letters pertaining to the Armory show, etc. Megan McShea spoke about artists’ audiovisual records, which are at particular risk for irreparable damage if not conserved, due to the inherent fragility of the media.
It was interesting to hear about the many different kinds of archives, from public to private, large to small, and everything in between. Andrew Martinez (Rhode Island School of Design) shared some examples from the RISD archive, an institutional and teaching archive that contains many original student art works, such as the student work of noted photographer Francesca Woodman. Her transcripts, application materials, artist statements, essays, and exhibition documentation can help scholars establish a timeline for her work and better understand her developing vision. By contrast, Allison Hemler (The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation) works at an archive devoted to one artist, Felix Gonzales-Torres, and generally speaking there are no discrete art objects in collections. Owners of installation work by Gonzalez-Torres receive a Certificate of Authenticity and a guidelines sheet. Every installation is unique, thereby resisting monumentalization of the art object.
The symposium concluded with a session on the subject of born-digital archive materials and art works, and a discussion of how to ensure access to artists’ records created today with emerging technologies. Social media and web archiving was discussed, and Dennis Moser (University of Wyoming) showed examples of the far fringe of digital arts – performance works done solely online, in virtual worlds – which perhaps illustrate best of all the particular challenges of preserving digital art.
This overview can but scratch the surface of what was discussed. For me, I gained a new appreciation for the field of archives and preservation, and I am excited by the new directions for collaboration between archivists and conservators.