Written by Alexandra M. Wilder, archival processor
I recently processed the Etta Winigrad papers, 1968-2016, a collection of slides and photographs of artwork, correspondence, and exhibition records belonging to Philadelphia-based sculptor, and University of Pennsylvania graduate, Etta Winigrad.
In addition to her amazing art (see above), I was struck by how many things Etta Winigrad did right in terms of organizing and collecting her papers. I mentioned this to a couple of my friends who are visual artists and they immediately asked me about best practices for storage of their own papers. While a short blog post absolutely cannot replace a proper workshop, class, or consultation with an experienced archivist, I thought it might be helpful to outline a few basic tips for artists organizing their archives. Please note that these tips are intended for straightforward archival collections such as loose papers and notebooks, and not for complex artworks in various mediums and materials which are better preserved in museum settings by art conservators and archivists. This blog post only addresses paper files and not born-digital files or files on media such as DVDs, CDs, VHS, etc. (See the end of the post for additional resources.)
First off, you may be thinking to yourself: I’m an active artist, but I don’t think that I’m going to be famous enough for anyone to want to collect my archives! Without going too deeply into this issue, I will say that there may be an interest in your archives for their historical/research value, even if you’re not the next Andy Warhol. For instance, the university you attended may be interested in acquiring your archives for your connection to their school. And, at the very least, you may want to leave your archives to a member of your family as a piece of family history.
Archiving for Artists: A Few Basic Tips
Keep your papers out of direct sunlight and in an area of relatively low temperature and humidity. Basements, garages, and hot attics are not good locations for your papers. Dust, moisture, and bugs/pests will damage your papers, so you’ll want to store them in containers of some sort (see next item).
If you prefer to pile your papers, use storage boxes to organize them. If you prefer to file your papers, a filing cabinet may be best for you. Whatever container you use—whether it’s a metal file cabinet, a cardboard Banker’s box, or a plastic tub, to offer a few examples—make sure that your files are protected from dust, moisture, and bugs/pests. You may have heard about acid-free folders and boxes, which archivists use for storage, but these boxes are pricey and only necessary for long-term storage. If you donate/sell your archives to an institution, the archivist who processes your collection will transfer everything into acid-free housing, so you shouldn’t worry about this for short-term storage. As most artists already know (hello, flat files!) it’s best to store paper flat, rather than rolled, and never folded, as the folds will damage the paper and, over time, the paper will begin to tear at the folds.
Dates and Labels
Whether you place your papers in folders or boxes, do make a habit of dating the folders, boxes, or pieces of paper themselves. Etta Winigrad, as an example, was very diligent about dating the files containing her exhibition records, which was immensely helpful in processing her papers. Remember also to date your sketchbooks and notebooks (not necessarily for every sketch or note, but intermittently throughout the book is helpful, especially since they usually cover a large span of time). Labels that identify your artwork or the exhibition that the artwork was shown in are also very helpful for your future archivist. Etta Winigrad has many slides in her collection, for instance, and the slide boxes are labeled with the titles of the artworks shown on the slides (see above).
Adhesive tape is the enemy. Over time, the glue on the tape will become yellow and gummy, marking the papers, and the tape itself will become brittle. Paper clips and staples are also problematic, as they damage papers both mechanically and by rusting over time. Processing archivists are usually working with backlogs and do not have time to remove staples and paper clips from every collection and, even if they do, the staples and paper clips will have already damaged the papers to some extent. Plastic paperclips, while they avoid the rust issue, can also damage the papers they fasten. Rubber bands rot over time and may attach to the papers as they disintegrate. The solution? There is no simple one. If you can go without a fastener, you should, especially if the papers are already grouped together in a folder. And fasteners should never go on top of original artworks like photographs or drawings.
You may have heard of LOCKSS, or Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. If your work appears in an exhibition, keep more than one copy of the exhibition flyer or program, as Etta Winigrad did. Keeping more than one copy ensures that, if something happens to one of the copies, another is available as back-up. As another great example from the Etta Winigrad collection, one of Winigrad’s essays appears in an issue of Ceramics Monthly. One copy of the magazine, while still legible, has water damage, but she kept another copy of the same magazine issue, as well as a printout of the article. (Keeping multiple copies is especially important for digital files which, again, we won’t go into here.)
For more in-depth information, see the resources below. You may also inquire at a local archives, historical association, or library with archives and special collections holdings to see if an archivist, librarian, or curator can meet with you to answer your questions.
Thanks for your great example, Etta Winigrad! This collection is now open to researchers.
Resources for Collection and Preservation
Library of Congress – Audio-Visual Preservation:
Library of Congress – Care, Handling, and Storage of Works on Paper:
Library of Congress – Digital Preservation:
National Archives – How to Preserve Family Papers and Artifacts:
Northeast Document Conservation Center – Preservation:
Smithsonian Institution Archives – Preservation: