As an artist or creative, there are lots of reasons why you may not document your work and career. Sometimes you’re so busy making art that documenting your work just doesn’t happen. Perhaps you are motivated to document your work, but given there are only so many hours in a day, it just at the bottom of your priority list. Or, you do document your work and career but maybe not routinely or properly. Let’s face it, documenting work isn’t as fun as making it. But it is just as important to protect your work and document your career.

When thinking about how to document your work and career, many artists would say that the most important thing to document is the work itself. Whether it is for marketing and selling your work or applying for grants and commissions, keeping records, high-quality images, and an inventory of your work helps organize, further and sustain your career. Rather than having to scour through old emails, bank statements, files, invoices, papers, and more, or worse, making things up as you go along you can have a system in place and know where things are when you need them.

Record keeping and archiving has many benefits. You can:

  • Provide images for galleries, curators, buyers, grant proposals, and open calls
  • More easily answer pricing inquiries from potential buyers
  • Show the development of your work throughout your career
  • Update your artist statement, bio, resume, or CV
  • Give backstory to art critics and writers on a deadline

Creating an Art Archive

In its simplest form, an art archive is a comprehensive set of records of each individual artwork that includes all of the relevant information to document your work. The name, date, origin, dimensions, materials used and its current location accompanied by a high-resolution photograph are the most basic pieces of information necessary. Collectors, curators, and art enthusiasts will additionally want to understand the significance of the work itself. Writing down a few lines that explain the meaning behind each piece will make it a simple copy and paste response when asked.

Creating an archiving system is simple and doesn’t require any special software, though there are lots out there. An easily accessible excel or google spreadsheet organized into clear categories, linked to high-resolution photos, and backed up in the cloud is all you need to get started.

Having an art archive or inventory on-hand will prove useful in a number of ways. For artists selling original works or prints, all of the above will be required pieces of information when providing buyers with a Certificate of Authenticity or receipt of purchase. For artists and other creatives like graphic designers, you will likewise need to provide as many details as possible to prove authenticity when applying for a copyright of your work to protect yourself in the unfortunate event of a legal dispute. When putting together a show with a new gallery or curator, they too will want to have detailed information about all of the pieces on display. For commercial artists, having a clear record of work in an art archive will be helpful to measure the growth of your business or enter new contracts or negotiations with potential clients.

Creating an internal archiving system is simple and doesn’t require any special software. An easily accessible excel or google spreadsheet organized into clear categories, linked to high res photos, and available on all your mobile devices will do the trick. An additional art archive in booklet form, either digital, organized in a clean folder, or in glossy print, can also be a great way to show collectors, curators, and studio visitors your entire body of work in an easily digestible format.

The Benefits of an Art Catalog

While an art inventory or archive is the best way to keep track of your body of work, you may also want to consider creating an art catalog. A catalog is a visual archive of works used to highlight a particular series or subset of artworks and can be used as part of your marketing strategy to send out to art critics, curators, gallerists, and collectors or to support an upcoming show, sale, or studio visits. Graphic designers, photographers, set designers, and art directors, likewise, should always have an updated art catalog or portfolio of work on hand to show to potential employers.

A self-published catalog can bring various benefits to an artist. It can help grow your audience, increase your chances of exhibiting, and generate new sales by increasing your visibility amongst curators, collectors, and other art industry professionals. Having a well-produced catalog also demonstrates the professionalism and seriousness of an artist.

Artists will first need to decide whether the art catalog will be housed digitally via their personal website, be available and distributed in physical print, or a combination of both. If you choose to create a print catalog, understand that it comes with significant costs that artists, especially young emerging artists, should weigh out very seriously from the beginning.

To start, collect a handful of art catalogs and analyze their production and content. You can either purchase catalogs, rent them out at a library, or pop into museums and galleries and ask for a catalog. The latter will allow you to ask curators and gallerist questions about what went into creating that art catalog.

Rather than making decisions that will affect the cost of production as you go along, carefully consider the following: Will anyone else be involved in the production of the catalog, including a graphic designer, photographer, editor,  writing contributors, or assistant? Will you commission an art critic to write a forward? If so, what are everyone’s fees? How many pages and what size will the catalog be? Will it be a hardcover or softcover? Will you use matte or glossy paper? Does your printer have a minimum? How many people will you mail it to and how much will postage and packaging cost?

It is also important to consider how you will recoup your investment. Will a portion of the printed art catalogs be put on sale? How many will need to be sold to break even on your investment? If not, consider the average price of your works and budget accordingly. If your works sell for $500, it doesn’t make sense to budget out $15,000 for an art catalog project. Instead, budget out the project and plan to recoup the investment with just a handful of new sales.

Designing Your Art Catalog

Your art archive is akin to bookkeeping. It’s an organized record that allows you to easily access information about all of your work. A catalog, however, is a tailor-made presentation of your work and should be curated and organized in a way that is both coherent and engaging. Your catalog is a piece of art all its own. Every single design choice will work to create your first impression as an artist and determine how your audience interacts with your art. Like all of your branding materials, your art catalog should provide an experience that seamlessly interacts with established visual and language cues on your website, portfolio, and social media.

A catalog should not solely have photos and information about individual pieces. An artist statement or foreword from an art critic or colleague should be considered as an introduction to the catalog. Additionally, information about shows, fairs, gallery representation, and residency programs should be provided. Including up-to-date pricing is helpful for gallerists and individual collectors alike–consider organizing them into a clear table of contents in the back of the book rather than alongside each individual piece.

Once the art catalog has been designed, lay out all the pages and proofread. Budgeting a proofreader or editor could turn out to be a solid investment–there is nothing worse than a catalog with spelling and grammar mistakes.

Once you have your printed catalog in hand, send out copies to galleries and institutes you would like to work with, previous clients, and keep a handful set aside for anyone that comes in for a studio visit. Send copies with a personalized message and follow-up with an email.

The fruits of your labor may not be immediately evident. It could take months before your art catalog results in a sale or gallery exhibit. But by creating an archive or catalog of your work, you are strengthening your business and amplifying your audience.


Kevin Vaughn
Kevin Vaughn

Kevin Vaughn is a writer and photographer focused on food and culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work has appeared Munchies, New Worlder, Remezcla and Savoteur.

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