Thursday, January 5, 2012

Archivist’s Top Ten Tips

I recently visited the the Norman Rockwell Museum and met Venus Van Ness, the museums’s archivist.

We put on cotton gloves, and she showed me the acid-free folders in which each of Norman Rockwell’s tearsheets, letters, and drawings are carefully preserved. The air was perfectly climate controlled to an ideal humidity and temperature.

“My studio doesn’t look like this,” I admitted to her, a little sheepishly. 

This was a meeting of two different worlds. One was the World of the Artist, a fear-zone of gummy tape, dog-eared pages, blazing sun, coffee spills, marauding cats and birds, and slumping portfolios.

The other was the World of the Archivist, a temperate safety realm, where a piece of paper has a shot at immortality. 

Can these two worlds meet halfway? I wondered. Most artists will never take such care with their own work, but maybe there are some basic, reasonable things we can do to save a lot of grief for future conservators (assuming hopefully that our work might end up in such a place).

I asked her: Can you give us a list of ten things working artists can do to make the life of future archivists and conservators a little happier?

1. Get art and books out of the basement and attic.
2. Store things flat and unfolded.
3. If you must use commercial tape, remove it as soon as you can.
4. Put paper works in acid-free folders.
5. Photocopy thermal faxes.
6. Sign and date each piece, even sketches.
7. Use pencil rather than pen or marker.
8. Keep art out of direct sun.
9. Shoot your art and store the shots elsewhere.
10. Back up your computer work.


Making A Mark said...

Great summary - please covey my thanks to Venus - I'm putting this in "who's made a mark this week?" on Sunday

Making A Mark said...

No small flocks of birds around here..... ;)

That was meant to be "convey"!

Gene Snyder said...


Great post! When I worked with the U.S. Army Art Collection as both an Army artist, and later as an archivist and photographer, I got to experience the two sides, artist and archivist, that you are talking about.

In the field as an artist, especially in a military zone, there wasn't time for me to think about marking sketches with dates, locations, or other information about what the sketches were all about. Get the drawing down and move on. It all depended on what was happening around me at the time if I could get additional info. (NOTE: The curators of the collection would ALWAYS ask that we collect as much info as we could.)

Later as a archivist and photographer in the same collection, I got to see how important recording that information was. It was a real treat to open a draw full of acid-free folders and open one to see a World War II drawing and flip it over to see several paragraphs written BY THE ARTIST about what was happening at the moment the sketch was drawn. It adds to the story and places the drawing into a bigger story.

Story is what normally drives most museum exhibits. Without a story, it's just a collection of stuff.

Thanks again!

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Katherine. For anyone who hasn't seen it, the "Making a Mark" blog is one of the Go-To sites for practical information for artists.

Gene, what a vivid point you make, and I'm sure future museum curators will thank you. I'm not too good at remembering to write notes on the back of works, but when I have dont that, I've been glad later. On an outdoor sketch, a signature, date, place, weather, and relevent quotes really helps if you're writing about it later.

And on a studio painting, I've tried to remember to jot down when I started and finished the painting, what materials I used, what were the sources of reference. I also try to remember to write the title of the piece on the back, and [very guilty here] not make up three new titles later.

Keith Parker said...

Cool stuff. Odd that pencil keeps better than ink though. Some of my dad's old drawings are kinda faded come to think of it.

Deborah said...

I'm also curious about using pencil and would appreciate some clarification. In context, does she mean it's best not to SIGN a piece with pencil (as #6 is about signing and dating)? Or should I now resist the urge to use pen or markers and grab my pencils instead, assuming the conservators will ever care?

And I, too, appreciate Gene's comments. Words and pictures enhance one another.

Gabriel Hunt said...

I frame alot of older pictures here in Sweden. Some of them being 100 year old Anders Zorn etchings. Speaking as a framer I would like to make a few suggestionss.

Using a pencil instead of ink, or ballpoint pen is favorable because it does not fade, smear(permanently) and can be erased easily. Pen/marker ink can leave a ghost image on other artwork, images, paper that it comes in contact with, or stored with for a long time. Even through multiple sheets or layers. Ink will also bleed or smear if it gets wet or come in contact with wet oily fingers, and or moisture. Pencil/lead will not. Its more archival. Some inks contain acid or chemicals that will eat away at the support, or discolor it.

I recommend using acid free archival matting, even the backing should be acid free. I've seen alot of discolored, browned old mats, and backing that has discolored the artwork, or the acid in the matting has burnt the paper/artwork making it brittle in some cases.

Matting will also protect the artwork. Anything that touches glass in a frame will absorb moisture. It will also protect the artwork incase the frame gets wet. The matting will take the damage instead. I've framed a few pictures that were spared destruction because of the mat and a few that were damaged without a mat.

Store artwork flat, even paintings. Due not keep them stored for a long time rolled up. They will crack.

laurie norton moffatt said...

Thanks for this post, James.

Wonderful tips by Venus. To clarify the question about pencil vs. ink, ink will generally fade over time, even permanent inks will fade in light. (Think of the Declaration of Independence, now almost illegible.) Pencil (though seemingly impermanent because it can be erased,) will not fade, so will last longer than ink. It also will not bleed or damage a photo or document if you are annotating with a date or names or notes. Plus it CAN be removed at a later date if desired. Don't press hard though, and indent your document.

Love your blog!

Best regards,

Laurie Norton Moffatt
Norman Rockwell Museum

Anonymous said...

I've been looking at Google maps and I really envy that you are close to so much fascinating stuff: NYC Museums, Olana, Rockwell Museum, etc, yet apparently not too crowded. I notice that Kingston is right across the Hudson from Rhinebeck; ever visit Michael Shamansky's Artbooks warehouse?

David Apatoff said...

James, I am shocked that Venus overlooked the single best way for artists to protect their work, which is to sell it to adoring fans who frame it and preserve it and give it the daily love and attention it never gets when it is gathering dust while stacked against the walls in your studios. That way, if a meteor ever falls on your studio, your paintings will be decentralized and many will survive.

I am surprised at how many illustrators haven't stumbled across this simple truth yet.

Russell Dickerson said...

Those are great, thanks to you and Venus for them! In the last few years, I've been pretty good about writing the dates on things (and titles on the back of the art, I know what you mean about "three titles"). Most of my art is flat, though some of it is flat because it's in a big pile in my cabinet. I do buy clear plastic, archival "bags", which have worked great not only for sales at cons so they are protected, but protected well from the elements here at home as well.

It's always a great reminder to backup digital copies as well. I would combine that with #9 some as well, and have a different backup of your digital files offsite. I use my local backup as an every day or every week backup, and then I save a complete backup to have outside of my studio in case of disaster. I haven't used online backups much (like Dropbox, even Amazon's cloud), but that's increasingly becoming popular in the art world as well.

Marion Boddy-Evans said...

Amongst the fine-art printmaking conventions is to sign in pencil. One of the various reasons I've heard is that it does indent the paper, thus proving it was done by hand not reproduction and while the graphite can be erased the signature can't be completely removed.

youngstudios said...

i just saw the "Rosie the Riveter" at the new crystal bridges museum in nearby Bentonvill Arkansas last week. Must have been fantasitc to actually be able to touch (and carefully look at) some of Rockwells sketches and notes though

thanks for the post!

Beth said...

Thanks for this post. When I'm developing a painting, the only nod to preservation I usually manage is to be sure that my support is of archival quality and that I use high quality paints. Sigh. I can see that there is obviously more to it than that. I'm glad you shared this with us.

Anonymous said...

Handy list. Thanks.

Brad Teare said...

I have a file cabinet full of faxed correspondence. I had no idea it wouldn't last. I'll photocopy it as soon as possible. Gotta preserve those old fashioned exchanges.