Artist Victoria Johns doing crucial diary planning, catching up with emails and social media. Photography by Kirsteen Hogg Photography.
How with your artwork be remembered by future generations?
No one would’ve known the name Vivian Maier if it wasn’t for the thrift store auction of her belongings in 2007 on Chicago’s Northside.
At the time, the locker full of photography negatives was seen as forgotten junk. Maier had stopped paying the storage space fees and couldn’t be reached. A man named John Maloof bought a box of negatives from her lot, sight unseen, to potentially include in his book about the history of the neighborhood. After he reviewed the negatives, his life became devoted to celebrating the unknown photographer behind them. Sadly, she passed away before she could see the reception to her work.
Now there’s an award-winning movie about her work, her photographs are included in major museum collections, and she is included in the canon of important street photographers.
Maier was known to have said, “I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.”
Maier didn’t get off the wheel when her life ended. In her lifetime, she was a nanny with no friends or family; she kept to herself and took hundreds of thousands of pictures she rarely showed to anyone. She even printed some of the photographs with very specific instructions to the labs, but seemingly only for herself. Now that she’s no longer alive, her photographs are widely remembered.
Is this a happy story? This artist is finally getting recognition for her unique perspective. But, is this what she would’ve wanted? Probably. A random person (Maloof) found the negatives of her work, recognized its artistic value, and took it upon himself to archive and protect her entire collection, making it possible for her photographs to travel the world and become a major part of photographic history.
Unfortunately, we don't all have John Maloofs to voluntarily do that work for us. On top of that, her story is a strange example of an artist having no control over their own legacy.
But this didn't have to be the case. With a platform like Artwork Archive, Maier could've taken her legacy into her own hands, recording the details of her artworks and sharing how she wished they would be remembered for decades.
Artist Victoria Johns catching up on the administrative part of her art career. Photography by Kirsteen Hogg Photography
How can you build your own artistic legacy—and ensure that you are in charge of your own narrative?
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to controlling your legacy as an artist, there are a few steps you can take to start building your legacy. You can shape your artistic legacy by recording your artwork, details and provenance records in a system like Artwork Archive.
Artwork Archive gives artists the tools and power to record their artwork and shape how they are remembered through their artwork. (You can try it free for 14 days to see how to start cataloging and building your legacy.)
As an artist, you hope your work is collected by people and institutions who will protect and honor it. With an archiving system, you can track where your art ends up and who owns it, so that future generations can understand the life of your artwork.
Your work can continue to provide a message after you are gone. Perhaps you hope your art will shed light on a misrepresentation of history. Perhaps you hope your art will encourage change for a better future. Maybe you just hope your art will appreciate in economic value.
Artists are in the business of hoping—legacy can be the outcome of this hope.
What is the role of language in shaping your artistic legacy?
There are visual artists who actually enjoy the process of describing their work in words. However, they are in the minority!
Most artists will do everything they can to avoid verbally explaining their art. So many artists throughout time have stood by the claim to let the art speak for itself.
We see evidence of this disdain for words in the indefatigable persistence of the title “Untitled.” Historically, artists avoided titles because they didn’t want them to influence how people experienced their work. O,r because they didn’t want to bother thinking about their own work in a wordy way.
There are exceptions to the "untitled' fad. The conceptual artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, would use “untitled,” but often include a poetic, intimate title within parenthesis. These parentheticals helped to shape and give meaning to each of his works.
Perhaps more than at any other time in history, the language that accompanies an artwork is crucial.
When an artist applies for a grant, you have to provide an artist statement. The health of an art exhibition is determined by press coverage. Often artists are asked to do a public Q&A when their work is being shown. It is very rare that an artist doesn’t have to provide language in relation to their work.
The language an artist chooses plays a big part in how their work will be remembered beyond their lifetime. Perhaps this fact is the righteous cause for verbal paralysis amongst visual artists.
Instead of hiding from language and only using it when it is absolutely required, get ahead of the situation by trying to have a more regular relationship with words.
Like with anything that isn’t automatically fun to do, the first step involves a shifting of mindset. Instead of saying "ugh," I have to go write an annoying artist statement, try thinking about the writing as a continuation of creativity. Richard Artschwager looked at the text he used to describe his art as “another layer of painting.”
Archiving your artwork can help protect your artistic legacy
Since Giorgio Vasari published The Lives of Artists in the 16th century, artists have come a long way to tell their own stories and gain proper representation. One can only imagine the artists and artworks he left out of this foundational art history text due to his exalted role in society.
Contemporary historians do exhaustive research to uncover missing pieces of history that represent, for example, BIPOC narratives and artworks. This year, the writer Zaria Ware released her book BLK ART: The Audacious Legacy of Black Artists and Models in Western Art to highlight the oft-overlooked legacy of Black artists in western art history.
Beyond archiving for the sake of organizing your work, archiving is a way to provide historical documentation of the time when you observed the world around you.
Artwork Archive artist Zsudayka Nzinga sees her studio practice as a cultural anthropology of Black Americans. She uses Artwork Archive to document her studio practice as it unfolds:
“Making sure that these moments are captured and gathered in one place where they can be accessed, seen, collected and shown, ensures that my story is told—and it is told by me. It cements my experience in history and allows the nuance of whatever timeframe I’m creating within to be pinpointed. The artwork created by Black American artists in the summer of 2020 is some of the most historically significant work in American history. Archiving protects that legacy and voice.”
It is vital to have a plan in place for protecting and preserving your artistic legacy.
An artist’s career is different than most. Your work lives on forever and is part of our collective history. Your body of work tells future generations about our values, aesthetics, and culture.
That's why it's so important to have a plan in place for recording your artistic legacy. It’s something you have the power to take into your own hands. By building a comprehensive inventory as you go and by documenting your life’s work and story, you will ensure that your legacy lives on.