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Monday, February 11, 2008

Validate Yourself

By Adjoa Burrowes

The Importance of Documentation for Artists

I recently interviewed an important community resource -- George McKinley Martin, Director of the Black Art Project. Our interview centered on the issue of raising the visibility of artists and their works for generations to come. I plan to publish George-McKinley Martin’s responses to each of the ten questions I posed in a series on this blog weekly.

© 2008 Harlee Little

About George McKinley Martin

George McKinley Martin, longtime resident of the Washington Metropolitan area, attended Howard University as both an undergraduate and graduate student. For approximately eleven years he has been the Chief of the Art Division of the District of Columbia Public Library and very involved with art related programs, projects, and organizations across the city. He has a personal interest in the welfare and promotion of Black art/artists as demonstrated by his committed desire in mentoring young artists and art collectors; collecting Black art and publications relating to Black art/artists; curating art exhibitions; and publishing the annual Guide to Black Art Exhibitions. He is a member of several national and local art related professional and special interest art-related organizations.

George is the Director of the Black Art Project, an evolving umbrella for a number of activities driven by the need to raise the visibility of the work of black artists through documentation, education, and activism. Over the past 5 years, the Black Art Project has published the annual Guide to Black Art Exhibitions (ISSN 1559-5129). A second major project of the organization is an annotated bibliography, focusing on exhibition catalogues of black artists from 1975 to the present. Thus far, 300 plus catalogues have been annotated for a forthcoming publication. Finally, the Black Art Project has an extensive collection of print and non-print material documenting the work of black art/artists, including books, exhibition catalogues, exhibition announcement cards, press releases, and other ephemera.

Question 1: Why is it important for Black artists to document their work?

The process of documentation demonstrates, in a tangible way, that these Black artists existed, so documentation becomes an important issue. In addition to their art work, the documentation, in its many formats, gives us clues as to who these artists were as a group or as individuals. What were their passions, their feelings, their messages that they wanted to convey through their creative endeavors? The sum total of documents will answer who am I as an artist and what role have I played on the American art scene? How will my work be interpreted or understood in the larger scheme of fine art on the national or even the international scene? Pieces that document an artist’s existence, in addition to the artwork, give that art an added and deeper meaning. Documentation allows us to put the artist and his work in focus and into some meaningful context. Furthermore, documents relating to a piece of art gives that art added meaning.

Some documentation validates…yes, this artist existed because there is some recorded evidence. This recorded evidence can be in an oral history; journal entries or thoughts written on a piece of paper or extended writings by the artist; letters between the artist and other artists, family and friends; 21st century communications through emails, blogs, web postings, web sites; exhibition catalogs, exhibition announcements, business and personal letters, sketchbooks, clippings, photographs, and posters. To document is key to one’s future existence in posterity; it affords a record. Hence, the visual artist can be given his/her just do in the larger canon of American culture or even a world culture. Documentation of one’s work is more of an assurance that its value will be recognized and not by happenstance stumbled upon as time passes. Even to a greater extent, documentation assures that the visual arts are a cornerstone of cultural development and it assures that those art historians, critics, connoisseurs, collectors, and the general public will have enough information readily available to write about, discuss, understand and then appreciate the importance of the visual arts in the overall scheme of our black culture.

A classic example of documentation comes to mind, regarding Jacob Lawrence from 65 years ago, when I think of a couple of letters that I read from the Archives of American Art (Smithsonian Institution). The first letter was written in 1941 from Jacob Lawrence to Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery (New York) in which Lawrence states that he wants $2000.00 for the 60 panels in the “Migration Series.” Further, he states that he wants to sell the series as a set because the entire story was conceived and told in the 60 paintings and to sell individual pieces would make it an incomplete story. In a letter dated March of 1942, Edith Halpert expresses that she has an interested buyer (Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, DC) who will pay $1000.00 to match the $1000.00 that the Museum of Modern Art (New York) is paying for its half of the series. Through these letters, as documentation, we know who made the purchases, how mach they sold for, an approximate date of the sell, the gallery making the sell, the artist’s sentiments about how he wanted the panels to be sold, etc. From these letters, there is a better understanding, from the perspective of a young Jacob Lawrence, of how he wanted his art sold. The tone is readily noticed in the letter he wrote.

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