Launch Your Legacy: documenting your artistic process will add career value and longevity

by Tash Moore

Interviewees: Aziza Gibson-Hunter and George-McKinley Martin

As black millennial artists, we occupy a unique space. We’re not quite buppies, and though it may appear otherwise, we strive for preservation. Plenty. For every ounce of passion and commitment we apply to our crafts, as our work does not always fall into traditionally accepted or promoted career paths, we may grapple with inherited mindsets that don’t match our life goals. How do we bridge the space between our work and our legacies? Especially as we find ourselves sandwiched between generational approaches that don’t always match ours? 

“You’re thinking generations after yourself…” — A. Gibson-Hunter

We decide to tell our own stories. Don’t wait until someone wants to speak for you to decide where your best interest lies. That said, often, in the creative landscape, support and monies are tied up in processes we may not be familiar with. Black artists seldom expect our families to have access to the necessary capital to seed our aspirations, advise us on legal procedures effecting our work, or understand why, earlier on, we should take ourselves more seriously. When building up a creative portfolio, we often don’t consider the trail of breadcrumbs we’re leaving behind. For every dollar applied to a showcase, event, or class, we should ask if we taking as much (or even more) time to document and catalog our work? Don’t wait for some gallery or office to tell you where your value lies. The true value is in speaking for ourselves about our moments and creations. In this generation’s art world, you can be your own best advocate.

We also need to respect the talent of the people who help us, who assist us in creating. It’s easy to dismiss our assistants, our editors, our collaborators and supporters, but those same people are the ones who will cheer you on, boost you, and tell others about you. Recognizing the talent of someone who isn’t directly tied to the outcome, yet is indispensable to the process, is key. For every fellow builder, there are also folks who source your materials, understand color scheme, or proofread quickly. Yes, as an artist, you are important, but so too are your fellow travelers.

“…Sometimes we just don’t have access, access to equipment, access to photographers that are skilled at taking photographs of work because that’s an art unto itself. Not everyone can photograph [work] well…” — A. Gibson-Hunter

“Ms. Jackson” by Vitus Shell 30 x 44 inches, acrylic, wallpaper and foam cut on paper, 2017 — unframed

Historically, black folks lived in a world that looked down on us at every turn. This included our music (blues and jazz were routinely vilified before achieving mainstream recognition) and our visual art, the latter depicting bodies and lives marginalized by the dominant culture. Out of necessity, we built institutions because the same businesses that catered to the predominant society were closed to us or capitalized on us. We opened our own law schools and practices, maintained our own colleges, and promoted our work to our own people. Post-desegregation, we gained access to the system yet lost confidence in ourselves and our stories. In the modern art world, we do as much as it takes to secure a brand deal, then we let the marketing and legal teams of larger entities tell us what we want to hear. We trade community support for mainstream promotion. While this in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad, our decision not to speak for ourselves earlier limits us later. We keep journals and sketchbooks but don’t discuss our back stories or how we evolved. We may have umpteen studio sessions and connect with numerous visionaries, but did we track our creative process, including writing, photography, and the recording itself? Or do we wait until a brand decides the world should see what we have and where we’ve been? They merely amplify what we’ve already done. For every piece you create, you should also track the whos, whats, wheres, whens, whys, and hows. How many shows did you organize and promote for a painting? Did you paint a series and, if so, did you change styles along the way? Did you partner with other creatives? Did you save a copy of your fliers, write blurbs about the process, note any social or political influences you experienced, or how one show led to another? This may seem tedious, but that’s the sort of information a gallery will need to promote your work or develop a showcase later on. On a deeper level, if a collection is built around your work this documentation will be priceless.

In the past, groups of black professionals, either privately or associated with a HBCU, would pool their resources and monies to support black artists who were both obscure and well-known. That’s how collections were started over many generations. However, the practice isn’t as common now as it was a quarter century ago. Sharing your work with a team that is culturally familiar to you can be a great stepping-stone. Further, it challenges the idea that we’ve only “made it” once a mainstream publication, institution, or collector from outside of our community steps into that space and purchases our work. 

Ongoing archival work and historical documentation are important. Whether you’re a novelist, pianist, or sculptor, you started somewhere. Each phase of our creative process tells a story. From selecting which instruments to use, to leaving whole drafts out; to inserting them into another piece, or starting over from scratch; we’re making decisions that impact the final product. The audience may want to see the final draft or finished work, but the true fans want to go deeper alongside you, and this may be a years’ long collaboration. When you get a commission or sell a piece, it would benefit you to document the buyer and attempt to keep track of the piece if it’s resold. What you sold for $300 one year could be worth $10,000 in the future, though you are unaware. Your work may be immensely popular years’ apart, but what about the downtime? Did you pursue more education? Did you collaborate with someone who changed your approach? What is your story in the ups as well as the downs? Your admirers will want to know, and your promoters shouldn’t be shy.

Personal and professional growth are important as well. The reasons you got into the business, left the scene, or reinvented yourself can vary, and part of the growth process is permitting yourself to let go of what doesn’t move you forward. Your documentation process can and should evolve. For the first few years, a notepad and a fireproof envelope should suffice; later, you can transition to paid staff and support. Your evolution deserves to be shared as well.

“…let’s start from the beginning in that you create a piece of work…this piece is completed, and [you have] a notebook, a plain old notebook, a binder, where [you] keep the title, the measurements, the length and width of the piece, and the date that it was created. That is the beginning. That’s low tech, that’s a notebook and a pencil…”  — A. Gibson-Hunter

Institutions can also do their fair share to support documentation. When an artist’s earlier works are traced, the galleries can fill in the blanks, especially if they want to follow your trajectory. If you walk into a gallery and they aren’t tracking openly with binders and filings, then that gallery is not operating as it should. The gallery should have a plan in place to maintain the content if they shut down or the owner dies given an HBCU, library, or foundation might be available to host the records. But this is only possible if they keep annual records of their sales and who bought their pieces and when, including photographs, essential information, and associated media.

“Millennial King” by Kevin Johnson
36×48 inches, Oil on Gallery Wrapped canvas. — unframed

We need to take another look at how black cultures and communities prioritize our artworks. We pour a lot of money into fashion that faces outward, like streetwear or design. Building our artists and their reputations up could go a long way towards helping us see art as a viable path, let alone an investment opportunity. When stretching limited resources in our colleges and universities, we often don’t consider the resources necessary to maintain the acquired or donated artwork and keep the collection together. This is why more intentional estate planning would go a long way towards securing the other half of your legacy: the part that lives on after your lifetime.

“[…]Historically, the largest and the most profound collections were those of HBCUs, so traditionally when you go back in time, it was the HBCUs that were the repositories for our visual art; so something has gone awry over the years. It’s important for us to understand that we very much did appreciate our work and collect our work. Some of these schools had a purchase club…where the people in the university [including administration and alumni] would put their money together and purchase work…[we need to] revitalize those clubs…”  — A. Gibson-Hunter

Stepping back from higher education for a moment, let’s not forget primary and secondary school where so many of us got our start in the arts. An effective education in painting, ceramics, or music often starts well before college, and getting our youth in the habit of keeping diaries is another strong suggestion from Ms. Gibson-Hunter. While science and math are very important and can further our understanding of the artistic process, we push children to follow career paths with lucrative payoffs while neglecting or minimizing tactile learning (including art and machines). If Coltrane didn’t have a fundamental understanding of mathematics, he never would’ve been able to go as in-depth with his deconstruction of jazz. His documentation process is legendary and, as a young boy in North Carolina who experienced hardships and loss, he turned to music to continue growing and learning despite his pain. This was an understanding he built his later career on, and it was the painstaking process of revisiting his work that led to his breakthroughs, however little they were appreciated during his lifetime. Coltrane’s process is still studied and beloved by experts and aficionados to this day, and his diagrams are fascinating even if you don’t read music or understand their mechanics.

“Abby & Gabby” by Khalif Thompson
30 x 40 inches. Oil, Origami paper, handmade paper, spray paint, lace on upstretched canvas. — unframed

In a related conversation, Mr. George-McKinley Martin advanced the idea that while we can readily name black contributors to popular culture, music, and even literature, many a man on the street would be hard-pressed to name five prolific black visual artists of any era. This is an example of the lack of provenance we’ve experienced collectively. Even when we publish retrospectives in black media, we often return to the same names over and over. While valid historically, we need to make more room. When we go to galleries, we can request our documentation, copies of promotional material, and the write-ups to bolster our presence and this can be repeated as often as necessary over the years.

Far too many visual artists such as Augusta Savage enjoyed wide recognition and acclaim for parts of their careers yet lacked the resources to secure their art posthumously. As a sculptress, Ms. Savage was featured in the World’s Fair (The Harp, 1939) and was a WPA artist who studied abroad, yet much of her artwork was not preserved and little remains to be seen today. We can argue that with the Great Depression and Jim Crow, one might’ve been busy securing resources and positions period let alone worrying about what would remain in the end.

Another option, as Mr. Martin suggested, is taking the idea of collectivizing and downsizing with your creative network by pooling resources with other artists for wider support with less financial impact. While we tend to center our connections along creative lines, we can also consider building informal partnerships to access more costly needs like legal counsel and publishing together to offset prices.

Time and deliberate effort are essential. Given the brouhaha this year over several unbalanced, insensitive, or rushed together showings to promote justice for black lives, we’d all do well to give both the creative and cultural moments equal effort when it comes to promoting our voices. Supporting more black documentation by black organizations could help. When we rush to promote to as wide an audience as possible, we trade a deeper conversation for an opportunity to capitalize. Sometimes we artists are not the best people to continue to build our repositories after a certain point. Bringing in experts within our community, especially as we gain relevance, would help us, the institutions, and the wider public consuming our work. Where early days may call for the notebook method, bigger shows need bigger networks to keep everything together in the best light. Developing a good working relationship with a knowledgeable agent or manager can be key.

“…documentation would be the artist’s direct involvement in it when the training is not there. They are a creative spirit and unless you are a creative spirit as well as an art activist, it takes a lot of your time. It can be done and it needs to be done, but it takes a lot of time for the artist to [build their paper trail] and it’s incumbent upon whoever’s representing them to make sure that the documentation exists and that documentation would include the catalogs, the brochures, the announcement cards, the press release, the reviews [of the show], and maybe magazines, [and] newspapers…” — G-M. Martin

Lastly, don’t forget to print your photos if you’re using social media as your primary publisher. Even if you deactivate an older project, maintain access or back up your content as often as you can. As technology changes, have a plan to maintain copies of your content and ensure trusted people have access to your files. Folks creating in the 1920s could never have foreseen things like electronic copy machines or the internet. Ongoing innovations will impact your visibility over the coming decades. Plan for future audiences to the best of your ability. Don’t wait until you’re in the fading years of your life to try to cobble together a coherent story. Be mindful of your inevitable success early and act into it as you go along.

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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.

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