The Pivotal Moment: How Artist Legacy Programs of Today are Challenging the Traditional Art Historical Canon

The field of artistic legacy is a rapidly growing sector within the art world, but unfortunately, as it currently stands, it is one that fails to benefit all tiers of artists equally. Issues of artistic legacy have existed as long as there have been practicing artists, yet, today, we are undoubtedly living during a pivotal moment when these issues have taken center stage. The first chapter of my thesis examines why this may be the case by highlighting the art world’s recent obsession with all things “archival” and describing how a number of aging artists have greatly benefited from the rising prices of contemporary art. Top tier artists currently have the necessary resources to fund exhibitions and publications, such as monographs and catalogue raisonnés, as well as create foundations that will continue to promote their legacy long after their passing.

While artist-endowed foundations and the collecting priorities of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California and the Archives of American Art branch of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. help secure the future of top-tier artists, artists who lack this level of fame and wealth are at risk of disappearing from the art historical canon entirely.

I have worked as an archival assistant for Hannele Dzubas, daughter of artist Friedel Dzubas, for three years in order to help keep her father’s voice alive. Standing with Hanni Dzubas and artist Fraser Radford in front of Dzubas’s Crossing, 1975, Tower 49 Gallery, Midtown, New York, March 2017. Image courtesy of Fraser Radford.

Chapter 2 of my thesis illustrates the rising competition that exists between institutions that actively collect artists’ papers and identifies the new niche universities are trying to occupy by training a new generation of archival consultants interested in artists who might not have had internationally or nationally-recognized careers, but who have instead made a significant contribution to their local community.

Art history and library science dual degree students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have become increasing interested in local collecting. Preserving Digital Art Session, Artists’ Archives in the South: An Unconference, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill, March 11, 2017. Image courtesy of JJ Bauer.

These consultants realize in order to secure an artist’s reputation, the artist’s archive must be properly maintained and made accessible to researchers.

Working as an archival assistant for Judith (Weinperson) Braun. Judith (Weinperson) Braun’s studio, Soho, New York, April 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

The final chapter of my thesis focuses on the forgotten managers of smaller artist estates who fall somewhere between these dominant legacy practices and, as a result, do not benefit from either model. This chapter aims to help smaller artist estates feel more empowered, to offer advice on how they can remain self-sufficient if they so choose despite a lack of readily available resources. As Chapter 2 indicates, donating to institutions with significant backlogs should not be the only option for these estates. Instead, they should be offered some guidelines so they can continue working towards a more accurate, more inclusive art history.

Questions of artistic legacy initially drove me to NYU’s program, so I found it fitting to use my thesis as an opportunity to re-examine some of my original questions and concerns. As I consulted the literature and spoke with professionals tackling the same issues, what I found was an emerging sector of the art world still very much trying to find itself. It’s definitely a field in flux, and it’s likely a sector that hasn’t learned enough from archival professionals. Although my thesis has come to a close, I very much look forward to a lifelong career working with living artists and artist estates.