The Three Essential Steps in Preserving an Artist's Legacy

Small Data Industries’ mission is to “support and empower people to safeguard the permanence and integrity of the world’s artistic record.” Although we were founded as a conservation lab focused on time-based media art, we have found an increasing need within the art world for expertise in information science, digital preservation, and the processing and care of archives. Over the course of the last two years as the art market has gained an interest in artist estates, we have been increasingly called upon by artist endowed foundations, estates, and archives.

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We have had the pleasure of working with estates of all shapes and sizes, from small pro-bono projects for important but under-resourced estates, to major initiatives with well established artist endowed foundations serving researchers from all over the world. Broadly speaking, these projects fall into two categories - strategy, where we are helping our client to understand their needs and make a coherent and well architected plan; and implementation, wherein we are actually putting a strategy into action. These collaborations tend to focus on three themes that are at this particular moment in time absolutely critical for artists endowed foundations to be thinking about:


1. Digitization strategy

Talking about digitization in archives can be confusing. Sometimes folks are talking about digitizing paper materials (letters, notes, sketches) for access. Digitization of paper materials in an archive is purely optional, and can be very costly. Media however (film, video, floppy disks, zip disks, hard drives, etc) is different: when dealing with media in an archive, digitization is not optional. If you have media in your archive, and you want to ensure that its contents will survive, you simply must digitize it. You can not rely on storing the media in the correct environmental conditions with the hope that it will not age or deteriorate, or in the hope that the equipment needed to view it will still exist in ten years.

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For analog audiovisual materials, most experts consider there to be a 15-20 year doomsday clock that is running out for digitization. The situation is much worse for digital materials such as floppy disks, zip disks, and such. It was eight years ago that Jason Scott wrote that it may be too late if you haven’t already stabilized floppy disks. We have seen this to be absolutely true in the work we do – we have seen real and tangible data loss in archives, due to lack of action.


All of this being said, digitization is indeed expensive, so before embarking on a large scale project to stabilize media one needs to have a clear and coherent strategy in place. What will be digitized and why? Is there likely to be duplication and redundancy in the archive? Who is your trusted vendor, what will it cost, what are the logistics, and how will you check and verify the quality of their work?


2. Digital Preservation

Again, digitization of analog and obsolete born-digital media is not optional if you want to preserve the content, but it is also not the final answer. Once a piece of media has been digitized or stabilized, you now have the task of ensuring the preservation and authenticity of a digital file. This is not easy, it is not cheap, and it requires continual stewardship. Digital preservation is so complicated that there are international standards. This is something that our team has a great amount of expertise and experience in, and we have implemented practical systems for a variety of clients both large and small.

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What digital preservation looks like practically can vary greatly – it really depends on the scale of the operation – i.e. if we are working with a private art collection, an institution, a working artist studio, or an artist’s estate. The basic most fundamental and essential tenets of digital preservation are: lots of copies in lots of locations, the ability to verify the authenticity of a file, information security, and of course the ability to access a file in the way it is meant to be seen. How these basic principles are accomplished can vary widely. In our consulting work, we learn the capabilities of our client so that we can establish a practical goal state, or implementation, that is not only achievable, but sustainable. If something is financially or logistically sustainable, then it obviously it is not a good plan for long-term preservation.


3. Information management

As we’ve established, digitization, and digital preservation are absolutely critical and non-optional aspects of stewarding an artist’s archive and legacy. These efforts however are useless if we can not effectively find and access the content and any surrounding documentation. While there are incredibly powerful solutions out there for managing, preserving, and providing access to digital assets and information, the unfortunate reality is that much of the art world (outside of major private collections, and institutions) is limping along on outdated database systems that don’t meet the changing needs being faced by artist’s archives and estates coping with digital preservation. Nobody really likes these systems, but they feel kind of stuck with them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Today there are much better options, and so a good deal of the work we are doing with estates includes getting them off of these out-dated information management / cataloging systems that aren’t serving their needs, their researchers needs, or their preservation needs, and migrating them to new systems that do meet these needs.

The late Vito Acconci in his archives.

The late Vito Acconci in his archives.

The research archives of artists are works of art in and of themselves – astoundingly beautiful artifacts in and of their own right, that are direct conveyances of the artist’s practice. The unfortunate reality is that these archives don’t look like the one seen above anymore. Artist’s archives hardly even live on hard drives – they are in the cloud, stuck in proprietary platforms. The fact is if we do not develop better tools for artists studios to be collecting, preserving, and making sense of their digital archives and ephemera – there will be no potential to collect these archives decades later when history has caught up to them. These material will simply be gone, or vastly incomplete – a true digital dark age.

The team at Small Data Industries is working not only to help established, and often post-humous, artist estates and archives, but we are working to ensure that the artists of today have tools to ensure that their archives and ephemera survive the future. We will be sharing these techniques and best practices in a practical workshop on this Saturday at the Art World Conference. Registration is now full for this workshop, but we will be holding another this summer – be sure to sign up for our mailing list for advance notice and RSVP.

This post is an adaptation of a talk given by Founder and Lead Conservator, Ben Fino-Radin at the Hauser and Wirth Instiute’s symposium “The Rapidly Changing Landscape of Archive Stewardship in Contemporary Art” On March 22nd, 2019.

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