Art in the Archives for the 21st Century

Last weekend, I got the opportunity to attend my first MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference) event in Philadelphia. The theme was “Art and Advocacy along the Delaware,” and as such, many of the conference sessions dealt with preserving and advocating for art in the archives. Two of the most interesting sessions I attended dealt with the unique situation of artists’ records and complex digital artworks.

The first session, “Artists’ Records in the Archives,” dealt with the types of art- and artist-related material in archives that are not designated as artwork. The panelists included Janine St. Germaine, and independent archivist from New York City, Chritiana Dobrzynski Grippe, an archivist with MoMA, Beth Levitt from the National Archives in Philadelphia, and Susan K. Anderson, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The list of what is considered artists’ archival material, it turns out, is quite large. It includes (but is not limited to):

  • Artists’ correspondences
  • Photographs
  • Documentation of artists’ careers
  • Artists’ and collectors’ business records
  • Supplies, tools, and other realia
  • Items used by artists for inspiration
  • Documentation for performance art (this one especially brings up an interesting debate about what is really archival material and what is really the artwork…)

The list is quite large, and growing, now that we can include digital files into the archive of today’s artists. However, one of the most thought-provoking questions raised during this session was, “How do you decide what is considered archival and what is considered a work of art?” This question really boiled down to the essence of the object, and where it would serve its function best: will it be used more for research or criticism? Does it need the special care that would be given to it if it were classified as a piece of art? This also points to increased collaboration between archivists and curators at institutions.


< boundry music > : Instructions for a performance art piece by Mieko Shiomi. Does this belong in the archives or with the curatorial staff?
© 2013 Mieko Shiomi, 1963. From the Museum of Modern Art. Statement of Use: This material is included under the fair use exemption and are restricted from further use.

The second interesting session I attended at MARAC was “Archiving, Preservation, and Access of Complex Artworks,” which included panelists from MoMA, AVPreserve, and Cornell University’s Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. This session focused on how we as archivists can preserve very complex (usually digital) artwork for future generations, and how we can make these artworks interoperable over time. There has been a huge boom in digital artwork over the past few years, which makes archives and archivists rethink how they work with these very complex pieces. Integral to this process are the ideas of significant properties, and by default, emulation technology. The significant properties of any work can be defined as its identity: what makes a piece of art what it is. According to JISC, significant properties can entail “content, context (metadata), appearance (e.g. layout, colour), behaviour (e.g. interaction, functionality) and structure (e.g. pagination, sections).”

After these properties have been defined, the next step is emulation. An entire blog post could be written about emulation in and of itself, but here is the watered down version: emulation is when you can operate a machine’s (computer’s) operating system within a different (usually newer) machine. It’s like taking a game or program that can only operate on Windows 95, writing a program that completely emulates Windows 95, running that program on your Windows 8 platform, and playing that once thought lost computer game. It’s pretty cool when you think about it, but it’s also extremely difficult and expensive. Here are two giants in the world of emulation (both of which work in collaboration with MoMA):



It’s safe to say that I came away from MARAC 2013 with a newfound appreciation of art archives in the 21st century. Like in many other places: collaboration, technology, and cooperation will be the road map for the future of art in the archives.


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