Conversation with Claire Kennedy: Librarians in the Art Studio

Claire Kennedy

Following her thought-provoking talk at ARLIS, “Artist in the Library: A Case Study”, in which she touched on the underexplored applications of LIS training in a studio environment, we wanted to follow up with Claire Kennedy, formerly the Librarian and Archivist for John Baldessari, to discuss further.

First, can you briefly discuss your current position and some of your main day-to-day responsibilities and priorities?

Actually my current position is Gallery Archivist at L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, California. I was just hired, as of a month ago. Before this recent change, I worked for the artist John Baldessari as his full-time Librarian and Archivist.

What is your educational background?

I have a degree in Anthropology and an MLIS degree, both from UCLA. In between my two degrees I spent about six years working and taking a few classes here and there. I would recommend to anyone interested in diversifying their training to look into taking a class in something like project management.

Did you “hack” your library degree in order to prepare you for working directly with artists?

No, I didn’t. My background is in rare books and manuscripts. I worked in Special Collections libraries at UCLA, the Huntington and with private book dealers and collectors before working for John. I think the best thing you can do while in an MLIS program is to take all the technology classes you can. Take UX design, or web development if you can. Take archiving classes if you want to be a librarian and take cataloging if you are training to be an archivist.

Can you talk a little bit about ways that you draw on the more conventional aspects of your LIS education? And what are some things you’ve had to learn on your own?

I think the most conventional skills I have used working for John were cataloging books, applying preservation knowledge to re-housing paper-based and photographic archival materials, record retention scheduling and the research skills I picked up in my degree program and working in libraries. As far as the skills I had to learn on my own, I had to learn about how to track auctions, gather provenance information, become familiar with the production and exhibition schedules of an art studio and the needs of John’s production staff. In the private world, you learn how to assess and serve the needs and priorities of your employer. In the MLIS program, it is sometimes taken for granted that everyone will eventually be working in a Public or University library setting. Its too bad that the private working world isn’t discussed more.

What would you consider the most rewarding parts of your job, and what are your biggest challenges as an information professional in a nontraditional environment?

I think the biggest challenge was learning how to communicate the needs of the archive and library to people who aren’t also librarians. I had spent most of my career around like-minded library staff who understood perfectly where I was coming from when I spoke about bone-folders and bindings. When I was the only MLIS working amongst artists, I discovered that I had to learn how to communicate more clearly about the needs of the minutiae of the library and archive. Initially I was out of my comfort zone.

What is a typical day like for you?

Working for John, I purchased and cataloged books, documented artwork in the database, created condition reports for artwork coming in and going out of the studio, performed research for outside reference inquiries, I tracked auctions and processed reproduction requests. There were always new tasks and projects popping up every day. Sometimes I wore multiple hats, where I was helping the production manager move large artwork around the studio, or running errands to lend a hand. We all worked together in the studio to get the job done.

During your talk in Fort Worth, you alluded to the fact that artists often have a need for people with LIS training, but they’re either not aware of the field or not able to articulate their needs using LIS language, so the two communities aren’t connected.

In your opinion, what is the impact of those jobs being filled by people who lack LIS training?

I think that LIS training is essential to perform the meticulous, detail oriented work that we are asked to do. Database management, creating and tracking inventories, cataloging books and other objects, performing research, maintaining any type of project schedule, etc. I believe there are “archivists” and “librarians” out there hired to do this kind of work who don’t have the training, skills and experience we do. As a result, I suspect there are some messes being made. Ultimately we are experts at preserving things and making them retrievable. In a world where there is so much being produced, digitally and physically, our skillset is an incredible asset. All we need to do is promote ourselves! How can we do this? Let’s work together to make ourselves invaluable!

Is there a community of information professionals who work with practicing artists? And how can interested ArLiSNAPers (and others) get involved?

That’s a great question! I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but I am not familiar with any group in Los Angeles. As the Southern California Chapter Chair, along with the chapter’s Vice-Chair Ben Lee Ritchie Handler, I want to reach out to all the archivists and librarians (professional or not) to form a network. We can all help each other, put together show-and-tells as well as workshops.

Do you have any advice for bridging the awareness gap between the two communities?

To be honest, I recommend joining your local ARLIS chapter and being very proactive! Cold email anyone who is working in creative spaces in your area and set up a visit for your chapter. Ask to interview local artists for your local chapter’s blog or website. Start communicating with a local gallery and offer your contact information in case any of the artists they represent need any assistance with their archive or documenting their work. Go to art gallery openings and start meeting people. Build your own resources.

Do you have any tips for job-seekers on how to approach artists about their information and content management needs?

I guess I answered this question above. But my biggest piece of advice is to put yourself out there. Email artists and tell them what you can do for them.

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