Art Archives & Legacies

Visual art archives are the key to telling the story of contemporary visual art. These archives often contain incredibly diverse information that plays a vital role in obtaining a good understanding of the artist’s oeuvre and practice. Think of it as a glimpse behind the scenes of artistic production: sketches, letters, photos, invoices, books, etc. All these elements make up the backbone of the bigger picture.

An archive is an organic whole that stores key data recorded in different types of documents. The word ‘document’ covers a vast range of materials, from letters, postcards, invoices, agendas, minutes, files and deeds to photographs, films and digital files. Archival records differ from other forms of documentary sources because they stem directly from the specific operations of an institution, person or group of persons, both at the public and private level. The significance and value of archive documents aren’t contingent on the material itself, but on the meaning they acquire as part of a greater whole.

The archives compiled by artists or art institutions are often a hybrid cross-sampling of documents and works of art. Moreover, art archives are broad and contain more than what the artist has personally made of their artistic practice. Artists often apply a broad definition to their archive too. It’s for this reason that the archives’ conservation and management call for greater focus and commitment.

In addition to visual artists and the visual arts organisations with which they are associated, there is also an important group of archive creators who could be dubbed ‘reflective actors’. These reflective actors, critics, academics, students, authors, etc., are engaged in archive creation that stems directly from research.

A legacy is the totality of goods and capital or debts that someone leaves behind on their death. Where visual art is concerned, the situation is different because the legacy occasionally constitutes a large collection of artworks with market potential and management costs, just as the oeuvre of every living artist does.
The artist’s heirs may decide to structure the entire legacy to ensure that it is well-managed and accessible afterwards. It all begins with drawing up an inventory of the works of art, along with sorting and making an inventory of the archive. In addition to archive care, the living and working environment of the artist can also be documented. The coherence of the legacy as a whole is what makes documentation crucial. Based on this documentation, CKV can provide the heirs with advice and support, as well as assist them with responsibly deciding what should be done with the legacy. That includes decisions on what should happen to the oeuvre. For example, whether the archive and the assets should remain in the heirs’ possession, be sold on the private market, or be sold or donated to a museum, archive or library.
Should the heirs decide to further the use of the legacy’s content sustainably to promote this interest, based on the artist’s own perspective when living, the word ‘estate’ should be used. If the economic and symbolic content is also used on behalf of the broader interests of the visual arts sector, the legacy becomes a foundation (not in the legal sense but based on the object and operation of the organisation).

There are many instances today of art archives that are haphazardly and shoddily kept. Often these are totally inaccessible or only partially accessible. For that reason, it is vital that their conservation, management and structuring take priority. Each of these activities requires a unique approach. What’s more, an orderly, well-cared-for archive can more easily be appreciated for what it is. The archive’s content can be contextualized, structured, indicated or interpreted in different ways and at different levels. The archive’s creator can do this personally, or it can be done by a third party, alone or in collaboration and dialogue with others.