Found in the Artist Files No. 1 – Ben Ortega, Woodcarver, or, Why Are Artist Files So Special?

Ben Ortega – Canyon Road Art Gallery – Page 2
Ben Ortega – Canyon Road Art Gallery – Page 1

So today I was randomly fishing around in the Amon Carter’s artist files for something to illustrate my first blog post as newly-elected Co-Coordinator of the ARLIS/NA Artist Files Special Interest Group. It wasn’t long before my eyes landed on the “Ortega, Ben” file. Mr. Ortega’s file had one lonely item: a folded leaflet, printed on both sides, date unknown—though I place it sometime in the 60s. I interrogate it, and it reveals a good deal. We learn that Mr. Ortega was born in northern New Mexico in the early 20s and lived there all his life, save time in the war; that a prominent family in Santa Fe launched his career; that he worked in Los Alamos (an intriguing nugget); that he was a prolific father; that this is his first gallery exhibition; and that his work was sought after. We also have a picture of the artist with examples of his work, which corroborates that his work is in the primitive vein. And we also learn something about the Canyon Road Art Gallery, including its address, logo, and that a variation of its name is “Jean Seth’s Canyon Road Gallery” (no Library of Congress authority file for either name). By the way, who is Jean Seth?—another puzzle to solve.

I just Googled “Ben Ortega,” and I’m chagrined to not find the Amon Carter’s file within the first few pages of results. I also learn that this item is not in WorldCat. So how do I provide access to the riches contained in an item like this?—a chronic problem facing managers of artist files.

So why are artist files so special?

Well, they’re so special that they are their own distinct category reserved for files that capture the voluminous “small stuff” about artists (or made by artists) that quite often ends up being “big stuff.” I cite the example above to prove it. Similar items are peppered across collections around the globe. Artist files are collections so elemental to our line of work, so much part of our parlance, that we accept them as part and parcel of our professional reality. Or at least I do. They are collections chiefly associated with art libraries, and they are often cited as one of the most prominent “hidden” collections within those institutions.

Artist files are among the most valued and heavily used resources in art research facilities. These files often provide critical documentation about well established artists, as well as lesser known artists not well documented in the literature. Researchers rely on artist files to establish chronologies, flesh out exhibition histories, review stylistic developments and assess the critical reception of artists over time. Artist files often do not circulate due to their unique and irreplaceable nature. Artist file collections frequently have regional strengths that make them particularly vital repositories for communities. [1]

Another thought: you could think of an artist file as something akin to an artist’s scrapbook. How special is that? They are so unique that ARLIS/NA created a special interest group to facilitate professional discussion about them. And, by the way, it’s not “artist’s files,” “artists’ files,” or even “artists files.” Our group has ruled that they shall be called “artist files,” a term sanctioned by the Art & Architecture Thesaurus.

I know librarians collect ephemera on any number of topics, so we’re back to the original question: why are artist files so special? In the Amon Carter’s case, those before me recognized that this kind of material had value and that we needed to save it. As far as I know, we’ve always had an artist files collection (we call ours “bio files” because they cover, to a lesser degree, collectors, art historians, and the like). This collection could never be replicated. So many hands have built it over the years: contributions from librarians, curators, artists, so many. It is our bedrock collection. If someone comes into the reading room and wants to research an artist, we instinctively pull the artist file. It’s always the perfect starting point.

You could think of an artist file as something akin to an artist’s scrapbook.

But even before we collect it, the stuff has to be produced, right? There is a swirl of publications, both print and digital, surrounding artists: material produced by galleries and museums, material produced by artists themselves, to name a couple of examples. Sometimes it’s big stuff like books and sometimes it’s small stuff like the Ortega leaflet above. And, sometimes, it is made by the artists themselves. And to confound the matter, sometimes it’s unpublished material. We must also recognize that these files are often full of pretty stuff, sometimes “original” art, making them uniquely alluring. As I said earlier, we might also think of them in terms of artist’s scrapbooks, a fascinating mix of published and unpublished items.

Today, I present this roaming blog that I hope inspires others to think about the character of artist files and to energize thinking about the scope of the SIG’s work for the next couple of years. I feel certain that the lion’s share will revolve around figuring out effective and sustainable solutions for letting the world know about and use these collections. I tip my hat to previous leaders of this SIG for the work they have been able to accomplish as documented in our minutes. Contact either of your co-coordinators with any comments or ideas that move us forward.


[1] Artist Files Working Group, ARLIS/NA. Artist Files Revealed: Documentation and Access. Art Libraries Society of North America, 2009, 2010, p. 3.

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