ARLIS/NA Collection Development SIG Blog

For ARLIS/NA members interested in collection development issues.

Artists Files – Collection Development Committee blog submission / Suzy Frechette, St. Louis Public Library

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An important part of many art libraries is the local Artists File Collection. In my case, our St. Louis area artists clipping file collection was started soon after the 1912 Central Library building was completed. Today, it includes over 3000 artists and organizations– everything from a blurb in a City Directory to extensive multi-envelope files containing clippings, fliers, exhibition lists, personal correspondence, questionnaires, and more. This collection has been developed by many dedicated staff members for over a century, but it is possible to create a successful local artists file collection today, given the right inspiration, institutional support, and dedication.

My case in point is the Artists File Initiative (AFI) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The head librarian there, Marilyn Carbonell, was inspired to create a KC-area file in 2013 during an event at the museum attended by many local artists. She realized that here was a large source of information about art—information that would be valuable to future researchers and collectors—that was going untapped. She developed a plan to address this and received approval from her administration to proceed. She consulted museum staff, local galleries, and art organizations, identifying an initial core of artists to get started. Artists were contacted and asked to submit materials for their files, more contacts were made, and the project took off. Marilyn and other library staffers offer information programs and visit galleries and shows, distributing a specially designed AFI calling card with their contact information. By this winter, over 80 of the 250 originally identified artists had donated materials and information. The individual files are stored in folders or boxes and cataloged at a hybrid manuscript-level in WorldCat, and can be searched in the library’s catalog, accessible through the Nelson’s website.

This project has been a big hit in the Kansas City arts community. One gallery owner says it is “an overdue miracle that will have positive effects on the artist community for decades to come” [KC Studio, March/April 2016].

Marilyn is preparing an extensive paper for Art Documentation about the AFI that should be published in 2017. I’m sure she would be glad to answer any questions before that, however, at mcarbonell@nelson-atkins.org.

I see the challenges to this project as being, “How to maintain physical files in an increasingly digital world?” and “What if people start asking about historical, non-living artists?”  But those are questions for another post!

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