My immediate question when I see a piece of art is, without fail, “what is its story?”
Take, for instance, Edgar Degas’s famous painting The Dance Class. At first glance, it’s a confection of white tutus and bright-colored bows. But, on closer inspection, none of the ballerinas are actually looking at each other. Each is a glamorous sculpture contorted into a detached, artificial pose. What once seemed like an innocently pretty scene becomes an example of the psychological isolation plaguing Paris in the late nineteenth century.
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.
So, what if you’re not recording your artwork and its story? Here are a few points to consider.
In a recent interview with acclaimed painter Jane Hunt, she said, “I’ve been painting for 25 years and I don’t know what’s happened to most of my art. I’d like to have an accurate record of what I’ve done over my lifetime.”
Prominent art business expert and artist Lori McNee echoed these sentiments during a chat about art career advice: “I don’t know where a lot of my painting are and who owns them.”
Both artists wished they had used an art inventory system early on and recorded their artwork from the start.
Jane said, “I’m really kicking myself that I didn’t catalog my artwork from the beginning. I’m really sad all those pieces are lost. You need to have a record of your life’s work.”
She noted that no one begins as a professional artist and you should record your work even if you think you’re just creating art for fun.
It also makes planning your retrospective a lot easier as you’ll have all the images and details of your pieces in your art inventory software.
Golden Moment by Linda Schweitzer. Read the story behind the art.
Your Art’s Value
According to Christine Guernsey, ISA CAPP, “Solid and documentable provenance increases the value and desirability of an artwork.” Christine also notes that “Failure to keep careful records of this pertinent information can cause a work to be undervalued, remain unsold or lost without the promise of recovery.”
I spoke with eminent curator and Executive Director of the Irvine Museum, Jean Stern and he stressed that at the very least artists should record an artwork’s date, title, location where it was created, and any personal thoughts they have about the piece.
Jean also noted that more information on an artwork and its artist can help the piece’s artistic and monetary appreciation.
On the Rocks in Tofino by Terrill Welch. Read the story behind the art.
Your Art’s Prospects
Jane reported, “Some of the galleries I'm in want to brag about the awards certain pieces have won. Whenever I give my galleries that information, they’re ecstatic.”
She also mentioned Jean’s fascinating podcast with Eric Rhoads where Jean says, “Do what you can now to make an art historian’s life easier in the future and you’ll be rewarded.”
If you have piece details, showing history, awards won, and publication copies, you will be more attractive to curators and gallerists looking to put on a compelling exhibition or showcase work with a rich history.
Provenance is paramount—and, according to Jean, so is a legible signature. So, make sure people can clearly see who has created your artwork and know the story it tells.
Splendor of Longing by Cynthia Ligeros. Read the story behind the art.
From Holbein to Hockney, every artist leaves a legacy. The quality of this legacy is up to you. While not every artist strives for or achieves the fame of Hans Holbein, your work deserves to be remembered and recorded. Even if it’s just for your enjoyment, and family members or a local art historian down the line.
My family has a few old paintings passed down from ancestors and we have no information on them. The signature is illegible, there are no provenance documents, and they stump art consultants. Whoever painted these lovely, bucolic scenes of the English countryside has faded into history and their story went with them. As someone with an art history degree, this is heartbreaking.
Jean stressed, “Artists should secure as much as they can on a painting, even if the artist never becomes valuable or famous. Art needs to be recorded.”
Ready to Start Recording Your Art’s Story?
While it can seem overwhelming to start cataloging your artwork, it is well worth it. And, if you enlist the help of a studio assistant, family member, or a close friend the work will go a lot faster.
Using art inventory software allows you to catalog your art’s information, record sales, track provenance, create reports of your work, and access the details anywhere.