document your artwork
Art Business

Document Your Artwork to Ensure Its Preservation

Wildfires, earthquakes, and hurricanes displaced thousands of people last year. People lost their homes, and with that, their belongings. For many artists, their home is not only where they sleep, but where they generate, finish, and store much of their artwork. That artwork, along with equipment and supplies, frequently comprise an artist’s major assets. Anything from a natural disaster to your neighbor’s faulty wiring could threaten your body of work.

While museums and galleries design their spaces with concrete and fire-resistant walls and hire security teams to wait out storms alongside their collections, chances are most artists do not have those resources readily available. However, there are several measures artists can easily take to protect their body of work when disaster strikes.

document your artwork
Take pictures so can document your work in a digital portfolio.

Document and Preserve Your Work

Whether you are a painter, sculptor, filmmaker or performance artist, you must document your work. For contemporary artists, much of your work is ephemeral. For performance artists, often the only evidence of your work is documentation, such as photographs or recordings. You’ll always want to make sure you have the right lighting and equipment, in order to effectively document your work while ensuring that the resulting images are high-quality. Aside from gaining the peace of mind that you’ve recorded your work, you’ll likely be able to use these images for sales purposes, such as creating a catalogue or uploading your works online.

Documenting your work properly may require investing in high-quality cameras and lenses. This equipment should be protected, just like your materials. The easiest way to do that is to make sure you have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, which can cost as little as $5 a month. You’ll also want to be mindful of documenting your work as you move through your process – take photos at pivotal steps along the way of your art-making process, so that you can refer back to these steps should you need to recreate a piece or find inspiration moving forward.

In addition to the digital files of your work, you should maintain a collection of printed photographs of your work. You should regularly update and keep this collection in a secure location, such as a safe deposit box at a bank. The larger the box, the higher the price, but it should not cost you more than a couple hundred dollars annually. If that is too steep a cost, you might consider a home safe. However, these usually require a greater upfront cost and do not offer the added security features of a bank. In the wake of the California wildfires, residents returned home hoping to find passports and valuables protected in their fireproof safes. But even those had melted.

Whether you choose a safe deposit box or a home safe, you should keep your collection in sealed, water resistant (at the least) portfolios or containers.

Additionally, you should consider if you want to purchase additional insurance. Your answer may differ depending on whether you are storing original artwork, drafts, or photographs of your work. If you have homeowner’s insurance, you may be able to insure your safe deposit box through that policy. In addition, there are a variety of options for artists who wish to secure their artwork at a very affordable price point. Websites like insuranceforartists.com, run by Zinc Insurance, provide customizable options for artists depending on their various needs.

art portfolio
It doesn’t hurt to backup your data. Make multiple copies of your work for safekeeping.

Back Up Your Data

“The first thing I say to young artists, ‘Is your data backed up?’” said Nomi Mishkin. Mishkin, a New York-based artist, uses a triple back up system and advises young artists they should do the same.

Mishkin is extremely diligent about preserving her work after what happened several years ago. She was living with two other artists when their neighbor’s apartment caught on fire. As she was standing on the sidewalk outside her building for the fire department, she recalls thinking to herself, “Please let the hard drives be ok.” Between the three of them, they had at least $15,000 worth of equipment, supplies, and artwork in their Brooklyn apartment. Luckily, their apartment sustained little damage and none of their work was harmed. Her drives – containing her art portfolio and other important files – were safe.

Mishkin maintains three digital copies of her art portfolio. She keeps one copy on her computer’s hard drive, one in the cloud and another on a hard drive at her mom’s house. Every few months, Mishkin updates her art portfolio and switches out the hard drive at her mom’s.

When asked if Mishkin insured any of her work, she responded that it is simply impractical, even for many more established artists, to insure their work. “I do not insure my artwork,” she said. “For the majority of contemporary art that is made, it is cheaper to remake it than it is to insure it.”

When it comes to storing your artwork, especially as an emerging artist, Mishkin said your options are either storing it in a facility or your parents’ house or selling it.

value of artwork
Know the value of your work so you can feel confident about its appraisal value when insuring.

Value Your Artwork

As an artist, it is important to know the value of your artwork. Valuing your artwork not only allows you to determine how much you’re willing to accept from a potential buyer or collector; it’s also a useful exercise should you decide that you wish to insure your artwork. Determining and documenting the value of your artwork documented will be extremely important if there is a claim in the future.

The value of art is determined by many factors. To begin with, an artist should tally the cost of materials and labor, and keep track of the time it takes to make a certain piece. Then, an hourly rate for the artist’s time should be assigned and factored into the cost along with other factors, including an artist’s reputation or standing, the popularity of the image or object, its prior sales record at auction or in the retail environment, its size, condition, and signature, and, in the case of photography, whether it’s a  vintage or modern print, a multiple (or editioned) work, or a posthumous printing.

By considering the worth of your art and what you would do in the event of a disaster, you will be better prepared to protect and preserve your work in the event something should happen.

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About the author

Katie Guthrie

Katherine Guthrie is a writer and Emmy-Award winning producer. She has covered a wide range of stories including the 2016 and 2012 presidential elections, women's reproductive rights, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, and prison reform.

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  • The preservation of art is ALSO established by “timely” registering its copyright with the US Copyright Office either before publication or within five-years of first-publication. Doing so, artists receive “presumptive proof” (prima facie evidence) that they have a valid copyright and the facts stated in the copyright registration application will be deemed valid. Having a copyright Certificate of Registration in-hand proves when the artist created the artwork and that s/he is the copyright owner (see 17 USC § 410(c): Registration of claim and issuance of certificate).

    When filling out a copyright registration application, artists must “certified” that they are the author, copyright claimant, the owner of exclusive right(s), or authorized agent of the work. Creatives and others who knowingly lie and make false representation of a material fact in the copyright registration application, are subject to a $2,500 fine (see 17 USC 506(e): False Representation [Criminal Offense]).