THE ARTS ORGANIZATIONS AT A CROSSROADS TOOLKIT:
Managing Transitions and Preserving Assets
Written and developed by Mollie Quinlan-Hayes and published by NCAPER, the National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response
This project was produced by NCAPER with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts to South Arts, the administrative home of NCAPER, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This section is a guide to preserving and archiving your history, whether you are emerging, fully operational, going dormant, merging, or closing. It offers reasons why you should take the time to archive your records, how to undertake it, and how to find a home for your archival materials. We share the etiquette of working with an archive, and a list of resources to help you find a repository. You will also find tips to record oral histories and capture personal stories about your organization today and from its past; and to store your records safely if you’re going on hiatus.
If yours is a young organization, build preservation into your mindset early. Imagine the value of capturing the founder’s vision and point of view from the beginning!
If yours is a more long-standing entity, many people have brought your organization to life and built it over the years.
Either way, your collection of artistic and administrative assets is of unique value to your community and perhaps to the entire field. Preserving and celebrating your history helps ensure that those contributions are honored and protected wherever your organization is in its lifecycle.
And we provide advice on the process of closure. Managing this transition can be tricky, and you want to do everything you can to honor the people affected and all that your organization has accomplished. (follow the links to access the topic)
1. Why Bother Archiving?
Archiving and preserving your assets – the physical assets and the stories – can take different forms and resources. Why would an arts organization want to take the time and effort?
To maintain the history of your work and creative practice, whether your organization is going strong or your structure is changing
To protect your brand by ensuring your story is told accurately and allowing future artists, administrators, and researchers to learn from it
To mark the tenure and collect the stories of departing founder(s) or long-time leaders
To track the provenance of artifacts and assets, including commissions, gifts, and permanent collection objects, and ensure that donor rights and your responsibilities are maintained and recorded
To properly decide what to keep, store and discard if you are downsizing, merging, or moving
To celebrate its life if your organization merges or closes, and make sure the community doesn’t lose your valuable physical and cultural assets
You don’t need to wait until you are close to archiving/preserving your records and stories! When your organization is living and thriving is actually the best time to begin a relationship with an archive.
You don’t need to wait until you are close to archiving/preserving your records and stories! Materials that are no longer being used in your active operations may be prepared for archiving. When your organization is living and thriving is actually the best time to begin a relationship with an archive. “The longer you hold on to materials, the more they may deteriorate,” says Beth Kattelman, curator of the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at Ohio State University. And beginning the process means that key people are still around while the repository processes, organizes, and describes the material. “If they haven’t passed on or dispersed, we can call them and say, ‘We’re confused, we have this material from this date and this from another,’ and they can let us know, ‘Oh, that was a re-mount of the play, and there were a lot of the same people but it was a different production…’ Those people with institutional knowledge really help us to untangle that history.” And, you and the archive can announce the relationship and build interest – and potentially financial support - for the collection.
2. What is Archival Material?
“Archives are the non-current records of an organization or an individual preserved because of their enduring value,” according to Developing and Maintaining Practical Archives by Greg Hunter (emphasis ours). They can include letters (handwritten, typed, emails); photographs; Board minutes/reports; diaries; business records; speeches and lectures; ephemera (brochures, flyers, posters); media (film, video, audio, digital recordings); and books and scrapbooks. For arts organizations, they can also include original artistic material (scripts, drawings, photos, scores; marketing materials; catalogs, playbills, and programs; and educational materials.
3. How Archives Work
You may think, “Everything about my organization is precious!” Or you may wonder, “Why would anybody care about any of this stuff?” The reality is probably somewhere in the middle!
Every good archive has a specific purpose. And, just as your organization should have a gift acceptance policy to ensure you only take donations that serve your organization and you can use them well, an archive should have a collecting policy. They may collect in specific topical areas, from a certain time period, from a particular geographic area, or specialize in a particular format. Just as examples, the artists’ archives housed at the massive Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas (Austin), include those of Henry Miller, David Foster Wallace, Stella Adler, and Gloria Swanson. The modest (2,600 square feet) Conjuring Arts Research Center in midtown Manhattan holds more than 500 volumes of conjuring books printed prior to 1700 and an extensive collection of manuscripts of magic methods.
Similarly, just as your organization chooses what to do based on your mission, an archive or repository chooses what to accept based on its educational and research purposes. They may do workshops and classes for students and/or adults, be a research center for specific faculty or departments; they may present exhibits, oral histories, or other programs to share and interpret their collections with the public.
4. Finding An Archive
Take a clear-eyed view of your organization’s records and think about who is your archives' most likely audience/user. Do a little research to see if there’s a library, archive, or museum with an area of specialty relating to your organization’s type of work [link to Resources]. “If they don’t have a collecting policy, beware – this can be a red flag that they collect everything without a plan of how to manage and preserve and share it,” advises Schindler.
If your material is most likely to be of interest to your local community, then target a local library, museum, or historical society. If your organization has a statewide or regional presence, you might first want to contact a state college, university library, or state historical society. Academic libraries and archives collect primarily for student and faculty research. And if your records are artistically unique, you have a significant history, or have high visibility; you might begin by contacting a regional or national archive that collects work aligned with yours. Kattelman, of the nationally known Jereme Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at Ohio State University, explains, “We’re looking for material that can’t be found elsewhere, and that if we take it, it would only be found here, such as personal papers and various iterations of a work, to see the progress of a piece; or original set and costume designs … and things that were handled by the artist themselves.” Many archives are not interested in books or other published material. She suggests thinking about it like the Mona Lisa – a museum’s not going to collect published versions of the Mona Lisa. A specialized archive wants your Mona Lisa.
Etiquette discourages you from e-blasting a bunch of potential repositories at once. It’s best to do some research and reach out to one preferred archive first.
Feel comfortable emailing or calling an archivist to inquire – as long as you’re ready to hear, “Sorry, we don’t have the resources to take that,” or “That’s not our area.” But the archival world is small, and they may be able to refer you to a colleague.
Try to have a basic idea of the material you have for potential donation. “Our files are in a couple of different Board members’ garages … We also have some Google docs… Oh, and we were founded in 1970, but there was a fire in 1990, and we lost five years’ worth of our records.” This is all helpful to share. Don’t fret if you don’t have everything in an organized, pristine fashion. Better to get it to a professional who can review and organize it now than to wait and risk it never being preserved.
“When in doubt, don’t throw it out!” exhorts Amy Schindler, Director of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) Libraries. “We won’t want your plaques, your five years’ of canceled checks – but in the interest of avoiding the chance of someone with all good intentions throwing something away just because it’s old, find out if we want it.” Some archives will want copies of your press releases, newsletters, board meeting minutes, and annual reports.
It is best to have conversations with the archivist at your prospective repository ahead of time to find the right fit. However, if you are on the cusp of closing, don’t be tempted to just trash everything and walk away. Amy Schindler of the UNO Libraries offers, “Most archivists are used to dealing with folks at difficult times in their life … we’ve negotiated some emotionally tricky situations. I reassure you an archivist is going to be sensitive to that.”
And once you match up with a repository, be patient. It will take time – perhaps several years – for them to review, log, describe, and prepare your materials for use. Digitizing material is expensive - if you can contribute to the work, it may happen more quickly.
If you don’t have success, reach out to a college or university library in your area; their archivists can often help guide you. Each state also has an official archive which may be a resource.
To learn more about what to look for in a potential archive and what to discuss with them about protecting and preserving your material, this webinar from Performing Arts Readiness has it all.
5. Putting Material Into Hibernation
Leigh Grinstead of LYRASIS suggests this process for preparing your material for safe storage and preservation while you’re on hiatus:
Collect all your materials and put like material together: artistic output, administrative output; and history.
Paper: If you can, store material in metal file drawers; if not, banker’s boxes. Archival (acid-free) file folders and boxes are preferable. DON’T try to repair, laminate or otherwise preserve one-of-a-kind items – wait for a professional to assess the needs of the materials at a later date. Label the folders and create a box and folder or container list when everything is arranged. Store boxes off the floor by raising them up about four inches (wooden pallets are often good for this), and storage boxes and files away from exterior walls and windows. If there is a threat of water leaking from above, you can drape boxes with plastic sheeting but do not make the sheeting tight or seal it in any way, which can cause greater damage by trapping moisture and humidity against collections.
Other types of media and material: You might want to gently clean (without chemicals or solvents) or dust the collections (unless they are fragile). Climate control is more important here. Heat and humidity are enemies for photographic/film/video material, as they are for many textiles (costumes and set pieces) and any electronic equipment. Make notes about the objects to store with them.
When storing your material, try to avoid any place inviting to pests – they can damage all kinds of objects. If you can’t find a secure, clean place for storage, you may want to contact your state library to make a “temporary loan” or your local arts council which may offer business services to arts organizations.
If you have an emergency and your collections/assets are affected, the National Heritage Responders (NHR) may be able to help with salvage. Call 202-661-8068 or, if it’s not urgent, email firstname.lastname@example.org
6. Housing Your Own Archive
If you want to begin an in-house archive, here are some tips.
Identify/inventory where your records are: closets, external hard drives, cloud storage, filing cabinets, etc.
Prioritize your records based on your needs: business continuity, historical value, etc.
Digitize your paper material.
Don’t laminate or try to repair or preserve the material. If you’re concerned about deteriorating materials, call a professional for advice.
Provide a safe and secure environment. Stable humidity and temperature off the floor, avoid storing in garages/basements if you can, and avoid water and pests.
Start the process of finding an archival repository to be the future home of your archive.
The Martha Graham Dance Company is passionate about preserving the history – dances and artifacts – of the iconic dancer and choreographer and has committed vast resources to do so. However, this leader in legacy planning was surprised at the damage that Superstorm Sandy wrought on their collection. Hear from executive director LaRue Allen in a video created by NCAPER.
Though offered by discipline-specific organizations, these DIY resources have relevance for a much broader swath of arts organizations.
Don’t try to do your own preservation! “Many an archival disaster’s been started by a well-meaning volunteer who thought laminating an organization’s founding documents or photos was the best way to preserve that material. It’s actually almost the worst,” warns Schindler.
The Artist’s Legacy Toolkit is a free online suite to help independent artists and dance companies organize, preserve, and plan for the legacy of their records. From Dance/USA
Preserving Theatrical Legacy: An Archiving Manual for Theatre Companies, a free resource, has been created for the busy theatre worker who loves this ephemeral art but is concerned about its place in history. ATAP also offers consultants to assist with your archiving questions. From American Theatre Archive Project
7. Closing Your Organization
This may be a painful process. Some may disagree about the choice to sunset. Beyond the legal procedures, you have the people, the “stuff,” and the message to manage.
For those who find this reality really difficult, see if there is a way to let them be part of preserving your legacy to give them a sense of contribution and closure: documenting the organization, helping to move your assets to another organization, assisting with the celebration. And realize that not everyone will stick it out to the end. Staff will need to look for new jobs; some volunteers may just need to walk away. Respect and support the fact that everyone will handle the transition in their own way.
Who Needs to Know and When
The message needs to be conveyed with passion and consistency.
The community is likely to have concerns about what will be lost – as soon as it’s appropriate, engage in conversations about what is really happening and how your mission and assets will be preserved. “Negate any speculation in the community of why and how this is happening,” advises Christopher Hochstetler of the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Nebraska. “If we don’t do that, the community will form its own stories. They will begin to tell those stories, and they will be more damaging than the fact that we don’t have the resources to continue delivering the robust mission that we have in the past – regardless of whether that’s because of COVID or not.” He further recommends putting talking points together for your spokespeople and getting it out in as many channels as possible. “The message needs to be conveyed with passion and consistency.”
After current staff and Board members have been notified, you will want to be in touch with stakeholders, donors, guest artists, constituents, and vendors. Make sure that they don’t feel their investment has been in vain or isn’t appreciated, and how you will handle any existing obligations to them. Hochstetler suggests, “Individual conversations may be really important. That could be difficult with limited time and resources, but discussing and honoring their contributions can be vital. You can help redirect their energy. You may make a simple introduction to a peer organization with a similar mission.” You may also want to make sure that former staff and Board members hear the news directly rather than through social media or word of mouth.
Keeping Your Mission Alive
“Be an active participant in preserving and perpetuating the legacy of the mission”
Is there another organization that can carry on your mission? Can you pass on programs and/or assets? Re-homing your physical assets – material that can be used or re-used, equipment, supplies, and funds – keeps their value working in the community. Your assets may include intellectual property such as domains, copyrights, transferable licenses, etc. Ensure you follow your Articles of Incorporation/Bylaws to distribute assets. And be certain that the intended recipient organization(s) is equipped to accept your donation and commits to using it in alignment with your mission and intentions.
Collecting institutions and historic properties have special ethical considerations. As with all nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, gifts they’ve received – whether money or artwork/artifacts – were intended for public benefit and generally should be transferred to another nonprofit, not sold.
Sometimes a well-meaning administrator or Board member suggests selling (“de-accessioning”) objects or entire collections as part of hibernation or closure. To help explain why this is such an important professional and community standard and help you to advocate against the sale, use this Toolkit PDF, which provides insight into why this is such an important professional and community standard.
Susana Smith Batista ran the Pasadena Museum of California Art and relates her experience closing it in 2018 in her new book, How To Close A Museum: A Practical Guide.
When the Bead Museum, based in Glendale, AZ, permanently closed in 2011, it found a new home for its collection and focused the messaging to its stakeholders and the press on its ongoing life.
Marking the Milestone
Hochsetler sees the winding-down process in four steps:
“Keep the mission as your North Star – just as the mission was your core when your organization was founded and introduced to the world; just as your mission has been at the center of the change you have made in the world, so, your mission must be at the center of your actions as you close. The goodness of that mission will give you the energy to do what you need to do in the winding down process.”
“Find champions.” You will need people to do the administrative work, to be communicating with the public, and find the organizations/partners to carry on the mission. These may include former Board members and volunteers.
“Make a plan.” Messaging must accompany each phase. Your assets need to be distributed. Initiate the documenting/archiving of your history.
Grieve and celebrate. “Both are very human experiences; we need to acknowledge there are going to be both.” By offering a path for them, you can help your people channel their mourning into a positive resolution.
Acknowledge the steps between grief and acceptance, and everyone will experience these stages at different times.
Honor your mission.
Honor the people who’ve done and given so much to deliver the mission to the community.
Set aside some funds to honor the organization, or raise (this might be easier than it seems). Creating a video or booklet, organizing and archiving your material, having an event, or endowing a scholarship or program are all great memorials.
Conduct oral history interviews of key individuals. See below.
Work with a local museum or library for a public exhibit/display to share your history and collect people’s memories. If you’re a performing arts organization, use the power of that ritual to tell the story of your organization.
8. Collecting Oral Histories
Oral history is an art form itself and offers people with experience and a connection to your organization to share it in a very accessible way. When deciding whom to interview, don’t stop with founding artists and Board members – think about participants who’ve been particularly impacted by your programs, artists involved in signature productions or exhibits, and community members who have witnessed the growth and value of your work.
Certain guidelines and protocols to help elicit the teller’s story have developed in the practice of oral history, and we’ve provided links to these resources. You'll need to follow these closely if you’re capturing information for future research or formal historical use. If you’re gathering stories to use now for a celebration, or landmark event, or to simply record information while you still can, you can be more flexible in your process.
Beth Kattelman counsels the importance of getting a signed release form from the interviewee that outlines details about how the oral history will be conducted, whether the interviewee will be able to review the history to make corrections or to edit out things they are not comfortable with, etc.
“Also, in situations where you are gathering oral histories for an academic institution, it may be necessary to apply for exempt status from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) before proceeding.” Information on standards and best practices is available from the Oral History Association.
Voice of Witness notes that “oral history can exist in many forms: from literature to podcasts, to plays, video, photography or painting.” The organization works from these core elements:
Curiosity and Inquiry: propelled by questions instead of answers
Listening: let the story take its own form, and stay completely focused
Shaping Narratives: maintaining accuracy and preserving the teller’s voice while formulating a compelling story
Ask “why,” “how,” “where,” and “what kind of ….”
Willa Baum, one of the U.S. pioneers of oral history, developed tips for the interviewer new to the process. They include:
An interview is not a dialogue – you’re there just to ask questions
Ask “why,” “how,” “where,” and “what kind of ….” questions that can’t be answered by Yes or No
Ask brief questions, one at a time
Save any delicate questions until your teller has warmed up and feels comfortable
Periods of silence are OK, to let your teller get their thoughts together
If you think of a new question, jot it down to ask later, don’t interrupt a good story
Let the teller shine, don’t show off your own knowledge or perspective
Preserving the Legacy of Your Arts Organization During Challenging Times is a free on-demand webinar from Americans for the Arts. It addresses ways to manage your art inventory: what information is worth saving to report on your organization's impact and what key records are available if art will be deaccessioned, gifted, or sold. It also presents best practices for maintaining your artwork: how you can track and stay on top of conservation so that your art will be preserved for future generations.
The Theatre Library Association (TLA) has a list of Theatre and Performing Arts Repositories maintained by the Theatre Library Association housed at the New York Public Library, which has over 35 performing arts libraries, archives, and museum members. These have a wide range of interest areas – here are just a few:
The Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays, located in the John Hay Library at Brown University, Providence, RI, collects not only well-known American and Canadian poets and playwrights, but many thousands of little-known writers
The Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts is an eclectic mixture of mainly non-book, primary research materials. Its collection is mostly ephemera from 19th and 20th Century Europe and America – including more than 60,000 playbills, programs, costume and stage designs, sheet music, theatrical scrapbooks, prints, etchings, drawings, photographs, posters, and scripts spanning all of the performing arts. It’s housed at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
Here is a link to a list of Theatre and Performing Arts Repositories maintained by the Theatre Library Association
The American Theatre Archive Project, a recent initiative effort of TLA, has created the free resource Preserving Theatrical Legacy: An Archiving Manual for Theatre Companies for the busy theatre worker who loves this ephemeral art but is concerned about its place in history. ATAP also offers consultants [https://www.americantheatrearchiveproject.org/resources/consulting-archivists/] to assist with your archiving questions.
The Artist’s Legacy Toolkit is a free online suite to help independent artists and dance companies organize, preserve, and plan for the legacy of their records.
Fellowships in Dance Archiving and Preservation, pairing Library Science students and mentors to complete archiving projects with local dance artists and organizations.
Consultations and hands-on assistance to dance companies to conduct archive assessments, improve records management systems, create inventories and descriptive records, and digitize moving image materials.
Museum of the Moving Image advances the understanding, enjoyment, and appreciation of film, television, and digital media's art, history, technique, and technology by presenting exhibitions, education programs, significant moving-image works, and interpretive programs and collecting and preserving moving-image-related artifacts.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures advances cinema understanding, celebration, and preservation through inclusive and accessible exhibitions, screenings, programs, initiatives, and collections.
The SAA also provides this directory of general archival institutions in the U.S. and Canada – national, state, and local.
We welcome your comments, questions and suggested additions to this Toolkit.
Please contact us at email@example.com
The information included in this Toolkit was culled from sources available to the public, with input and review by field and subject matter experts. Every effort was made to present current and correct information as of July, 2021. This Toolkit does not represent legal guidance, and is provided for informational purposes. The author and publisher cannot be responsible for any losses or failures users experience as a result of using this information.
This Toolkit Includes Material From:
The American Association for State and Local History, Amy Schindler/University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Libraries, Arts Advisory Board, Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, Bancroft Library/University of California at Berkeley, Beth Kattelman/Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at Ohio State University, BlueAvocado.org, Christopher Hochstetler/Stuhr Museum, Deborah Gilpin/Madison Children’s Museum, Deloitte, Edgepoint, the Glendale Star, Greg Hunter/Council of Nonprofits, Harvard Business Review, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, Jean-Phillipe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker/Aspen/Santa[MQH1] Fe Ballet, Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman/Nonprofit Sustainability, Judy Polacheck/Polacheck HR Law LLC, Krystal Siebrandt, HBE LLP, LaRue Allen/Martha Graham Dance Company, Leigh Grinstead/LYRASIS, Michael Ibrahim and the MassCultural Council, Mindtools, Oral History Association, Performing Arts Readiness, Stephanie Mattoon/Baird Holm Attorneys at Law, Stephanie Plummer and the Nebraska Arts Council, Susana Smith Batista, Voice of Witness, the Wallace Foundation and AEA Consulting. Thanks to Beth Kattelman, Claire West, Deborah Gilpin, Leigh Grinstead, Lynn Dates and Stephanie Plummer. Special thanks to Jan Newcomb/NCAPER, and Tom Clareson, Performing Arts Readiness project. Design by Lynn Dates.