Artistate Q & A

Artists' Archives

An archive maintained continuously and systematically, even if rudimentary, will be invaluable.

1. What are artists’ archives? 

Artists’ archives document and provide meaningful context for the artist’s creative practice. Every artist’s archive is different. An archive may include drafts, sketches, drawings, press cuttings, publications or exhibition catalogues documenting the artist’s oeuvre, notebooks, diaries, correspondence, journals, etc.  The archives may also include tools, paints, brushes, in fact anything featuring in the artist’s studio.  During the artist’s lifetime, archives will be managed within the artist’s studio. An artist’s archive can be made publicly available in whole or in part, with the consent of the artist or their estate, for example by being deposited in institutional archives.  

2. Why are archives important?

The archives are essential to understanding the artist’s oeuvre and preserving their legacy. They allow for a better appreciation of the artist’s life and work.  The diligent archiving of documentation such as contracts, gifts, consignments, gallery representation or commissions, as well as financial records documenting sales, all enable an artist and their estate to maintain proof of the provenance of works, their value, as well as proof of the artist’s rights (e.g. their copyright, moral rights, and contractual rights).

Although works of art often speak for themselves, an artist’s archive provides the most accurate information to biographers, scholars, curators, conservators, and researchers, all of whom have a stake in shaping an artist’s career and legacy. Archives can be especially important for artists who work in ephemeral media such as digital art, video art installations, in situ art, or performance art.  The creation of a catalogue raisonné, an invaluable tool for the authentication of works and the preservation of an artist’s legacy, is also directly supported by the maintenance of a strong archive.

3. Can archives be digitised?

Archive materials can be recorded in a variety of digital storage media including clouds, databases, flash drives, or hard drives, although this does not defeat the purpose of the additional preservation of a physical archive. Digitised archives have numerous benefits. They enable artists to maintain their archives in a systemised and practical manner. In addition, they can facilitate access to valuable materials for third parties across the globe, with the artist’s consent and where desirable. Artists can digitise their archives independently or outsource this service to third party specialists.  

4. How should I go about creating or maintaining an archive?

The creation and maintenance of archives requires an investment of time and varying degrees of financial resources. All artists manage their studios differently and this is also true of archives. Artists may choose to archive materials continuously as they progress through their practice, or to create an archive retrospectively. Where possible, it is recommended that artists begin the archiving process early on. A retrospective approach to archiving carries the risk that valuable materials may be lost or forgotten. Artists may choose to appoint qualified studio assistants to maintain their archives or do it themselves. It is essential that artists create archives that third parties can navigate. Accordingly, planning the archive and keeping a record of how the archive was put together, are key.  This will enhance an artist’s legacy after their passing, when their estate or a third party is in charge of managing and preserving the archive. When choosing an approach to archiving, it is most important that artists select a system that is sustainable technologically (e.g. opting for the right software and updating it regularly), safe (e.g. if the archive is kept in a warehouse, the risks of theft, water damage and fire should be addressed) and financially viable in the long term (an endowment might be necessary for the long term maintenance of the archive). An archive which is maintained continuously and systematically, even if rudimentary, will be invaluable.

By Mona Yapova, Constantine Cannon LLP

The law varies from country to country.  In this section of the website, we describe the law as it applies in England and Wales.  Whilst similar principles apply in other European countries, and to a lesser extent, in the USA, please do not assume that the law is the same.  For example, artists have stronger moral rights in countries applying the Napoleonic codes than in England and Wales. The information provided on this page is general and may not apply in a specific situation. In doubt, please seek legal advice. This information is not intended to create, nor does receipt of it constitute, a lawyer-client relationship. The authors accept no responsibility for the content of this page.