Think of all the stuff you throw away each day. Almost all of it has no inherent value, right?
Try telling that to an archivist.
For instance, several years ago, the Library at ArtCenter College of Design received a substantial donation from an alumnus who worked in an old movie prop warehouse located in North Hollywood.
My co-worker and I ended up going to check the place out—it almost felt like we were going to an estate sale. And what should we find rummaging about… but several ancient cans of 16mm film containing ArtCenter short films from the 1930s.
This priceless artifact could have just as easily been tossed in the next day’s garbage. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. In a very broad sense, that’s what archivists do: we safeguard culturally significant works that others might regard as insignificant.
A lot of people think an archivist’s job is similar to, say, what historians might do. What an archivist really does is amass and collect things from donors, various departments and assorted outside sources. Once it’s in the archivist’s hands, it’s their job to preserve it—not only to keep it in a stable condition, but to make the materials accessible to the public.
I’ve been collecting things since I was a child. Long before I became the resident archivist at ArtCenter, my tendency was to keep the things I collected in top-notch condition. As an undergrad, I worked in my school's library, where this particular skill set would come in handy.
A fairly common misconception about archivists is that they are here to preserve all that is worthy of serious merit or consideration in our culture. The sad truth is this: you can’t save it all. Art, even brilliant, enduring art, has a shelf life. As a result, archivists must make crucial, definitive decisions. What gets saved? What doesn’t? Our job is not to save it all (that’s simply not possible) but to fine-tune a collection of records and works, with assistance from the various departments that create them. We create an identity for the school out of the many pieces that were either forged by its students or merely inspired by its existence. To an unabashedly geeky collector like me, it's the greatest job in the world.
I’ve always looked at ArtCenter as an integral part of the tapestry of California art and design culture. I’m sure I am not the only one who feels this way. By collecting and cataloging things that help to shape the fabric of the ArtCenter experience—photographs, works of visual art, documents, videos—my job then becomes sharing these unique materials with the ArtCenter community and researchers so that others may learn the history. There’s also the responsibility of creating a linear trajectory out of what is essentially an assortment of objects. What meaning do these old photographs, films and paintings possess? How do these works add to the collective tapestry of ArtCenter as an institution?
Often, artistic treasures are hidden in plain sight: in people’s garages, in people’s homes, etc. Sometimes this results in amazing donations, and we welcome you to contact us if you find any ArtCenter-related materials while digging around in your attic.
ArtCenter gave me the platform to utilize my very specific skill set for something that is greater than any individual achievement. Individual works of art can move us, anger us, and even inspire us to create our own works. But collective art can help to construct the foundation for an entire culture.