Archiving for Artists: Tips from the Etta Winigrad Papers, 1968-2016

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.

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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

Location
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).

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Storage containers
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).

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Fasteners

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.

LOCKSS
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.)

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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:
https://www.loc.gov/avconservation/

Library of Congress – Care, Handling, and Storage of Works on Paper:
https://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/paper.html

Library of Congress – Digital Preservation:
https://www.loc.gov/preservation/digital/

National Archives – How to Preserve Family Papers and Artifacts:
https://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives

Northeast Document Conservation Center – Preservation:
https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/overview

Smithsonian Institution Archives – Preservation:
https://siarchives.si.edu/services/preservation

“I felt more than a little used” – Don Stacy’s Correspondence with Vilém Flusser, 1973-1976

Donald L. Stacy (1925-2008), known primarily as Don Stacy, was an artist and art teacher born in New Jersey, who lived and worked for most of his life in New York City. Vilém Flusser (1920-1991), pictured below– a Czech-born philosopher who lived for a long period in Sao Paulo, and later in France– wrote on media and technology, and on communication and artistic production, among other concepts. Flusser’s writings are extremely influential and are still being enthusiastically taken up today.

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The correspondence between Don Stacy and Vilém Flusser in this collection takes place primarily between 1973 and 1976 (Don Stacy correspondence with Vilém Flusser, Ms. Coll. 1261).


Though Stacy and Flusser discuss many fascinating concepts surrounding philosophy, art, and creativity, I found myself most compelled by an exchange early on in their correspondence in 1974. Stacy wrote to Flusser to express his displeasure at their first in-person encounter; Flusser had asked Stacy to set up contacts for him in New York City so that he could give lectures, and Stacy revealed in his letter dated May 1, 1974, that he felt used by Flusser as a result of Flusser’s time in New York City.

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Ms. Coll. 1261, Box 1, Folder 2

The two men work through this disagreement, with Stacy appealing to Flusser on an emotional level and Flusser maintaining an intellectual stance—one wonders if their different approaches are as a result of their respective cultures—and go on to share further ideas regarding art and philosophy and develop their friendship over the years to come.

Another aspect of the collection that struck me was the self-conscious nature of the correspondence, in that the two men were clearly aware that their letters would be collected one day. The letters from Stacy in this collection are unsent draft copies and, in his last letter to Flusser (dated March 7, 1983), Stacy notes “You could publish a book – letter to an unknown artist!” (For additional resources relating to the correspondence between Don Stacy and Vilém Flusser, please see the Berlin Flusser Archives and the Brazil Flusser Archives.)

Though Stacy avoided the spotlight and expressed to Flusser his disdain at networking, it’s a shame that he’s not more well-known today. It’s telling of his good nature, for instance, that Stacy never corrected Flusser, who persisted on calling him “Dan” instead of “Don” throughout their correspondence. The dynamic, playful, and curious mind of this “unknown artist” lives on in these letters.

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Woodcut by Don Stacy, printed in Main Currents in Modern Thought, 1966 (Box 1, Folder 7)

This collection is now open to researchers.