Arlene Gottfried, La Familia Rivera en El Barrio, NY, 1978. Photo Courtesy of Dara Gottfried.
Artists spend decades honing their craft and producing works of art.
When artists pass away, how do we ensure that their life's work is not forgotten in a pile of cardboard boxes at the back of a studio?
Family members often become the legacy keepers. That stewardship can be sifting through 97,000 slides, inventorying a 3,000 square-foot warehouse, or contacting galleries around the world in search of one artwork.
For these four families, the inventory work is not even a question, it is an expectation—a duty to preserve the work and promote the legacy of their creative kin so that it can be appreciated for generations to come.
“Every Vincent needs a Theo.”
Renowned artist Clark Hulings used to say to his daughter, Elizabeth, “Every Vincent needs a Theo, and you’re mine, Elizabeth.”
Clark was referring to the special relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his younger brother Theo in which Theo served as financial and emotional support for his brother. After Van Gogh’s death in 1890, his brother dedicated himself to raising the profile of his brother. During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one work. But, Theo and his wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, committed themselves to sharing Van Gogh’s story and promoting his works. Without the dedication of his brother and his sister-in-law, his works may never have been known to the world. Imagine an art history book without Starry Night.
For centuries, the family has played a crucial role in legacy preservation for artists. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for instance, did not gain notoriety until after his death in 1901 when his mother and art dealer began promoting his art and paid a French museum to house his work.
This trend of family art stewardship continues today. Justin Anthony, co-founder of Artwork Archive, comments on a recent change in the business of archiving artists’ work—“Traditionally, working artists have relied upon us to help organize their work and manage aspects of their business, but we've seen a major surge recently in people seeking us out to help preserve the artistic legacy of a loved one."
Sunday Afternoon by Clark Hulings. Image courtesy of Clark Hulings Fund.
Legacy keepers: keeping it in the family
Why are family members often the ones preserving the artist’s legacy? We uncovered a few reasons.
Usually, it’s because the family knows the artist and their work the best; they are the closest to it. Heather Krebs, daughter of sculptor Rockne Krebs attests, “it was always assumed that I’d preserve his art and legacy.” Rockne made his daughter the trustee of the Krebs Art Trust and left her responsible for his life’s work. “No one knows the work as well as I do. I grew up watching him make his art. I was surrounded by his art.”
Elizabeth Hulings, daughter of painter Clark Hulings and founder of the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Arts (CHF) echoes the same upbringing: “I’m an only child. I’ve always been involved. I grew up hanging out in my dad’s studio. I know it inside and out.”
Some family members recognize the work of the artist as their own legacy. Elizabeth says that it is her obligation and she doesn’t want someone else to do it. She doesn’t want to seed it all to another dealer. “I should do it,” she asserts.
And sure, for most family members this is their inheritance, so it’s worth preserving and protecting.
Often the family member is acting on behalf of the artist’s intentions.
When asked why Dara Gottfried spends hours cataloging her sister-in-law's works, she succinctly stated: “That’s what she [Arlene] would have wanted.” Arlene, like most artists, worked her whole life to build her collection. Family members witnessed and honor that hard work and want to make sure that it lives on and is enjoyed by future generations.
Similarly, loved ones close to artists also fear that the artist will die without the recognition of their talents and legacies. Risa Morimoto, daughter of sculptor Nori Morimoto, shares that an artist’s legacy “is an important way to remember how one contributed to life.”
Clark Hulings Fund focuses on establishing the artist during their lifetime. The nonprofit equips professional visual artists to be self-sustaining entrepreneurs through educational programming, financial assistance, and training and mentorship. If alive today, Theo Van Gogh would surely approve of such work.
POBA promotes the works of creatives that have passed. The nonprofit was founded by the mother of artist Jamie Bernard (1987-2010) to give works a new life after the passing of their makers.
And then there is the raw, emotional side of it all—a way to connect with the person that is no longer on this earth. Heather shares,
“I’m always blown away by the process. Even when I am in the worst
mood, cursing Dad because he left me with all of this—spending hours
in a dirty, hot studio, climbing over piles—I think, Dad, really this is what
you left me? Then, I open up a drawer and find a drawing I haven’t seen
since I was a kid, and wow, it’s all worth it.”
A labor of love
On weekends you can find Heather buzzing around a 3,000 square-foot warehouse combing through rows and rows of bookshelves, looking thousands of slides, and digging into boxes called “stuff” which may or may not consist of old clothes, and a laser from the 1970s.
Boxes of “Stuff” stacked in Rockne Krebs’ studio. Photo credit: Heather Krebs
These are the types of lovely messes that artists leave behind after they pass and it can be overwhelming for those left to organize and preserve.
“It’s an endless work in process. I’m left with a 50-year career. I don’t think my dad understood the amount of the mess he left for me to figure out. It’s a job,” shares Heather.
Often the legacy keeper responsible for archiving the artist’s work is not an artist themselves.
Arlene Gottfried left her family with over 15,000 prints since she never worked with digital photography. Dara shares how the task was left to her: “My husband, Arlene’s brother, is busy working. I am the one that is best with organizing things and using computers, and I am the most available. But, I have zero experience in the arts. Before this process, I knew absolutely nothing about photography.”
Online art inventory management systems like Artwork Archive exist to help people wrap their arms around massive collections. And with simple, cloud-based technology, you don’t have to be an art professional to accurately and comprehensively catalog an artist’s work. So family members are more and more often inventorying the work of the artists themselves.
Rockne Krebs studio warehouse outside of Washington, DC. Photo credit: Heather Krebs
Leaving behind more than just art
Artists produce more than just finished works. Drafts, correspondences, press releases and imagery are also important sources for understanding and contextualizing an artist’s legacy.
Working as a public artist, 95% of Rockne Krebs’ works were ephemeral, so that left his daughter Heather with the task of archiving drawings of the pieces, slides and photos of the installed work, scanning newspaper articles, and even uncovering tools like 1970s lasers.
How do these legacy keepers decide what is important to keep? Is it a doodle to throw away or a sketch to treasure? Sometimes the artist makes it clear what is to be saved and what is to be abandoned. For instance, Clark Hulings used photography and Photoshop to generate source material for his paintings—he called them “recipes". Elizabeth says, “he made me promise that I would destroy all of his source material because he didn’t want anyone to use it. I spent 10-hour days just sorting through the 97,000 35mm slides.”
Piecing it all together
Archiving an artist’s lifetime of work is like completing a puzzle, and it often takes years to piece it all together. Typically the artwork is considered “done” when the creative process is over and the work has been sold, so many artists do not keep track of the works once they leave their studios. This presents a challenge for those managing the artist’s estate after their death.
Elizabeth was lucky enough to have a father that archived his works during his lifetime. Despite all of that organization, she still recognized the magnitude of the puzzle ahead of her. She remembers a time when the magnitude of that puzzle hit her:
“Back when my dad was alive, a woman called the house and said, ‘I have a painting called Blue Barn.’ We all thought, that doesn’t ring any bells. She sent an image. My father recognized the work, but had called it something else entirely. Only my dad knew what that painting was; if he hadn’t been there, we would have been at a loss. I thought to myself then, uh oh, I need a much better handle on this because one day that woman is going to call me and I don’t want to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Provenance is king
Ask someone managing an artist’s estate, and no matter how large the scale of the artist’s output, the common challenge will be maintaining provenance. There are a lot of variables that impact proper provenance tracking— what kind of records the artist may or may not have kept, who had ownership, the length of the artist’s career, etc.
You can read more about the importance of tracking provenance in “Provenance: What is it and why should it matter to you.”
The provenance of an artwork is not easily decoded; there are a lot of moving parts. For instance, artworks change hands multiple times—from artist to gallery to buyer, back to a gallery to another buyer, etc. Most often beneficiaries of an artist estate have to become detectives to uncover that journey of the work. Heather didn’t know where most of her father’s works went once they left his studio. She had to piece his collection together through exhibition catalogs and newspaper articles.
Often a work lives beyond its first sale. Elizabeth spends hours trying to track down the second, third or even fourth sale of her father’s work. Through it all, she stresses the importance of building strong relationships with the people trading your work so that you can always get the information you need.
One unexpected issue for Elizabeth was how cavalier people can be about identifying and describing work. Her father worked with a gallery in the 1960s that had a marketing director that would change the title of a work because she thought it was better, and would not inform the artist. Then, the records would go down incorrectly. And sometimes, a piece is renamed by accident. For instance, Elizabeth discovered that one of her father’s drawings, Two Troublemakers, was being called Burro.
Clark Hulings’ Two Troublemakers. Image courtesy of the Clark Hulings Fund.
Preserving an artist legacy can also be about identifying what an artist did not create. Whether it be identifying forgeries or working with people that were simply wrong about the origin, family members often have to be the detectives and experts when identifying the authenticity of the piece.
Being better legacy keepers
Those managing an artist’s estate will all agree how important it is to keep a database of the artist’s work from its creation. Along with managing her father’s estate, Elizabeth works with thousands of artists and she asserts how “inventory and collection management has always been a huge issue for everyone in this industry. It’s really hard to track what is no longer in your hands.”
Before the advent of computers and the internet, a lot of artists did not manage their own inventory. Even today with modern technology, there are many that do not, despite the knowledge that provenance and record keeping help support the preservation of their legacy.
Sometimes artists believe that someone else will handle the details. Heather explains that her father assumed that the galleries would handle all details related to his artworks. So, she was left with no database. In Risa’s case, she started inventorying her father’s work when he retired. They moved all of his work from Vermont to Long Island and she knew that they needed an inventory system to keep it all organized.
That is why online art inventory management systems exist. Elizabeth, Heather, Dara and Risa all use Artwork Archive to keep track of the massive collections on their hands. You can see the Public Profile that Heather created for her father, Rockne Krebs, on Artwork Archive here.
Fire Lamp by Nori Morimoto. Image provided by Risa Morimoto.
For every Vincent, there must be a Theo
During an artist’s lifetime and after, family members support and advocate for their creative loved ones. Clark Hulings saw his daughter, Elizabeth, as his Theo—the one to ensure that he and his works would not be forgotten.
Artists need a champion after their death to preserve their legacy. The artist used to be the captain, but after their death, they need someone else to take the helm. Family members are powerful champions to ensure that an artist’s legacy can live on and flourish.
Learn more about the importance of preserving a collection by reading up on how to start cataloging your artwork.