When you’re in the middle of your career, who has time to even think about preserving your artist legacy?
You’re busy in the studio creating work, applying to shows, making sales—everything it takes to run a successful art business. You definitely don’t need one more thing on your to-do list. And you still have so much career ahead of you!
But it’s an issue that should not be ignored for many reasons, and we’ll tell you why.
It may be a hard pill to swallow, but you want to ensure that your life and work as an artist are remembered after you’ve gone. Artists devote their life to their work, spending decades honing their craft and producing works of art, putting your heart and soul into what you create.
But when you’re gone, how do we ensure that your life's work is not forgotten in a pile of cardboard boxes at the back of a studio? Or even worse, how do we keep the burden of protecting your legacy from resting on your family’s shoulders?
Because when an artist’s career is not organized when they pass, families find themselves suffocated by the amount of work it takes to ensure their loved one’s life, career, and reputation are preserved.
Luckily, your fate is not sealed by these outcomes. There are actions you can take right now in your art career to ensure that your legacy is preserved.
Read on to learn what mid-career artists should be doing right now to protect their legacy:
Accurately and comprehensively catalog your life’s work
First things first, if you want to preserve your legacy as an artist, you need to have a complete and detailed record of your art inventory.
We get it! An inventory project can seem overwhelming, especially if you have hundreds or thousands of pieces to archive. The task can get so built up in our heads, that oftentimes it gets postponed indefinitely.
Here’s the thing, though.
Think about all of the details that past, present, and future collectors will need to know to identify or resell your work—details about each piece that could be lost or forgotten once a work leaves your studio. Details only you, the artist, may know.
And if you think cataloging your art is a big task, would you really want to burden your family and friends with this seemingly insurmountable load of work down the line?
Elizabeth Hulings, daughter of the renowned artist Clark Hulings, 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:
“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.’”
How to get started
When it comes to archiving your artwork, there are a few steps you can take to get started—so you aren’t left feeling like a deer in headlights!
At the very least, start by recording the title, medium, dimensions, and creation date along with high-quality photographs for each artwork. You may also want to consider recording the original selling price, inventory number, and any other vital information about its creation or sale.
Creating an inventory of your work doesn’t have to be the daunting task that we make it out to be—especially with so many easy-to-use and intuitive art inventory programs out there.
That is why online art inventory management systems like Artwork Archive exist, to keep track of the massive amount of details on your hands.
Unlike a notebook or spreadsheet, images of your work and these important details are stored on the cloud so you never have to worry about losing track of this information again. And when you’re gone, your family can easily access it from anywhere.
Get in the habit of adding Artwork Archive to your workflow. With a few minutes a week of getting organized, your inventory will stay up-to-date. No more holes in your art history. No leaving your family to deal with your mess.
Your legacy goes beyond the basic details of your artwork
Besides the titles and dimensions, think about recording your artist legacy in a more comprehensive way.
“Vision, technique, process—they are all essential to understanding an artist’s lifetime and legacy,” explains CERF+’s Mark Leach.
Authentic artistic legacy is reflected in and through an artist’s actions, words and thought. Together, these provide the public with a close sense of the artists’ peculiarities of style, technique, and influences.
Mark believes that it’s all about capturing and documenting the maker’s perspective; that's where it all begins: “Today, artists have an opportunity to record their process and what they are thinking as they create their work. This approach leaves neither question nor prompts speculation on artistic ideation, concept, and result. We can learn so much more if there is a record and a deeper knowledge of the artist.”
Artists can show how they got where they are by documenting their processes and results and by digitizing it all.
For instance, with each piece you enter into Artwork Archive, you can record notes about its creation—the story behind it, your inspirations, process, etc. Doing so gives an in-depth view of what makes your work unique and covetable.
Now, not every piece of artwork is a comment on society, but every piece tells a tale—no matter how subtle or abstract. A piece of art is so much more than its aesthetic attributes. It’s a portal into the artist’s life and their unique experiences.
Art historians, art dealers, and art collectors are eager to delve into the reasons behind every creative decision—to discover the stories intertwined with each stroke of a painter’s brush or movement of a ceramicist’s hand. While the aesthetics draw a viewer in, the story is often why people fall in love with a piece.
Similarly, it’s important to leave behind a paper trail of more than photos.
Collect documents like biographies and artist statements, resumes and CVs, proposals, press materials, news articles, and more that show who you are as an artist. And with Artwork Archive, you can save them all in one place, so they are safe with the rest of your inventory.
Remember the big picture
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 major challenge for those managing an artist’s estate after their death.
You need to find a way to keep track of where your artwork is—if not for your artistic legacy, for the success of your art business.
There’s an incredibly simple way to do so, too!
Once you’ve entered works into Artwork Archive, add the locations and clients you are working with. Then, you can link these locations and contacts to your individual pieces, so you always know who has your pieces and where they are.
Besides recording the location history, you can make note of the show history, print inventory lists for gallerists or consignment shops, record sales, manage limited edition runs of the work, and more.
A quick and easy way to stay organized, while simultaneously building your legacy.
Pay attention to provenance
The word provenance is derived from the French word provenir, meaning “to come from”. An ideal provenance captures the ownership history of a piece all the way back to the artist's studio, and when it’s verified, can prove the authenticity of a piece and greatly increase its value.
Provenance also establishes an item's collectible significance beyond what it would otherwise appear to have. A piece with interesting provenance might tell a story of fortunes made and lost, famous owners, and remarkable epochs in history. Sometimes the provenance of a piece can be just as interesting as the piece itself!
The value of your art, and therefore your legacy, depends on this documented history.
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. That’s 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.
One unexpected issue for Elizabeth Hulings when dealing with her father’s legacy 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.
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.
Besides maintaining an accurate inventory of your artwork, providing a signed, detailed Certificate of Authenticity will help collectors immensely when it comes to tracing your piece’s history and proving it’s the original.
And with the click of a button, you can generate a Certificate of Authenticity straight from Artwork Archive that includes the image, sale price, essential details like title, medium, and dimensions, and a place to express copyright protection.
In the end…
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.
It is vital to have a plan in place for protecting and preserving your artistic legacy. And, it’s something you can and should start working on immediately in your career. 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.