Don’t Store Your Programs and Videos Under Your Bed

The Artist’s Legacy Toolkit: Free Archiving Resources for Dancers

Free Archiving Resources for Dancers

Dance Theatre of Harlem archives. Photo credit: Judy Tyrus

By Imogen Smith, Dance/USA Director of Archiving and Preservation

As an archivist specializing in dance, I have seen it all. Archives under choreographers’ beds, in their closets, in garages, basements, dance studios, and off-site storage facilities of every description. It may seem like a paradox that dance, an ephemeral and intangible art form, tends to generate so many records and documents. Artists and dance organizations accumulate videos of performances and rehearsals, audio recordings, scores, photographs, programs, flyers, correspondence, contracts, creative notes, sketches, press clippings, and more. These materials are invaluable for remounting works, marketing, funding proposals, engagement initiatives, and ultimately for carrying artistic legacies into the future. But for independent artists and companies with limited budgets — and hence limited staff, space, time, and infrastructure — they can seem like a burden to maintain.

What should you save? How should you organize it? How can you ensure your materials will be preserved, and findable when you need them? What about digitizing older things? And how can you manage the deluge of born-digital documents? What is your long-term plan for your collection?

Free Archiving Resources for Dancers

Dance Theatre of Harlem archives. Photo credit: Judy Tyrus

The Artist’s Legacy Toolkit and Records Management Guide is designed to answer some of these questions. The resource was first envisioned and initially developed in 2012 by the Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC), a nonprofit alliance of dance archivists. Observing the widespread need for reliable information and resources in the field, DHC and its project partners developed a free online suite of tools, templates, and guidelines to help artists and their organizations improve their skills and capacity in organizing, preserving, and managing their records. In 2017, as Dance/USA began the process of integrating DHC’s archiving, preservation, and education programs, the Toolkit was revised, redesigned, and added to Dance/USA’s website, where it is freely available to members and the entire field. (The development of these resources was supported by generous funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.) The Toolkit forms a cornerstone of Dance/USA’s new Department of Archiving and Preservation, which provides support to enable the dance field to save and share its legacy, with a focus on strengthening artist-archive partnerships, developing community-based resources, and building more inclusive and equitable systems of dance archiving.

To get started, users can explore the menu and index of tools on the Toolkit’s main page and read the tips on Using this Toolkit, which describe the sections of the Toolkit that may be useful to artists at different stages of their careers. These sections include:

  • IDENTIFY: Tools for defining the scope of your archive: what should be collected, and how to begin categorizing materials by record types.
  • ORGANIZE: Guidelines for devising systems of organization based on how you need to access your materials. Knowing what you have and where it is located is a vital first step toward establishing intellectual control of your records. This section includes a sample record retention schedule, label templates, data sheets for capturing information about photographs and video materials, and inventory templates that can be downloaded, customized, and used to create basic or detailed inventories. 
  • PRESERVE: Tips on simple steps to protect materials from damage or deterioration, with a chart of object types, and links to online preservation and disaster preparedness resources.
  • ACCESS: The goal of archiving is always to make materials more accessible, both within organizations and for external users. This page offers an overview of some ways you might share your archives, with guides to deeds of gift and acquisition policies, for those thinking about partnering with an institutional library or archive; advice on developing access procedures for an in-house archive; and best practices for lending items for exhibition.
  • RESOURCES: Advice on finding resources, both financial and in-kind, to support your archiving work.
  • COPYRIGHT: As you think about the future of your archives and making your work more accessible, it is important to understand the implications of copyright for performance documentation. This page provides an overview of intellectual property law and links to more detailed information on copyright and the statute of fair use.
  • DIGITAL FILES: Most records are now created digitally and may never exist in physical form. While electronic records have many benefits, they are also vulnerable to loss, corruption, and accidental alteration, and their sheer volume creates challenges for findability. This section provides information on preservation standards and challenges for different digital formats, as well as tips on archiving social media. Additional tips and guidelines for digital archiving are in the Records Management Guide.
  • RECORDS MANAGEMENT GUIDE: Whether or not you are ready to think about your records as an archive, you can benefit from efficient and sustainable records management practices that will save time and increase capacity. This guide, written for Dance Heritage Coalition by archivist Mary Wegmann, gives specific, user-friendly guidelines for managing physical and digital records, including developing file naming conventions and file structures, archiving email, developing controlled vocabularies (consistent forms of names), and creating inventories.

Ideally, the Toolkit should be used in conjunction with hands-on help from an archival intern or consultation with archivists or preservation specialists. The Resources page on the Toolkit offers tips on finding assistance, and you can always reach out to me, Dance/USA’s director of archiving and preservation, with questions. Talking to peers who are also engaged in thinking about their archiving goals or undertaking projects to preserve or organize their collections can be a valuable way to share and gather ideas, and to provide one another support and encouragement. Dance/USA’s Archiving and Preservation Affinity Group provides a network for Dance/USA members interested in these issues, including professional dance archivists as well as artists, scholars, and educators. The Department of Archiving and Preservation offers archives-related programming at Dance/USA’s Annual Conference, and is in the process of planning and developing programs such as archival fellowships, workshops, and webinars to build skills and capacity around archiving in the dance field.

Free Archiving Resources for Dancers

Dance Theatre of Harlem archives. Photo credit: Judy Tyrus

In September 2017, I collaborated with Dance/USA Trustee Genie Guerard, a curator in UCLA Library Special Collections, to present a workshop at UCLA on using the Artist’s Legacy Toolkit. Feedback from the event confirmed the value of gathering with fellow artists facing the same questions, goals, and challenges. “I often feel very alone and undereducated in supporting the collecting and preserving of my work,” one choreographer commented. “I now have a clear plan for starting to organize and archive materials digitally. I am also inspired to consider creating options for a living archive.” Rebecca Renard-Wilson, executive director of CONTRA-TIEMPO, noted that the workshop “opened my mind to the need for archiving/documenting all aspects of our work, versus solely the performance. The process of creation and the engagement aspect of the work is just as valuable.”

Choreographer Mark DeGarmo, who in 2018 has been engaged in organizing and inventorying his archives with the help of an intern, shared these comments about how Dance/USA’s online resources helped his process: “The Artist’s Legacy Toolkit is a generous open source way for dance artists and nonprofit organizations, such as ours, to address their important archival needs. The inventory templates provided a pathway that was easy to follow and to adapt. It allowed us to tackle organizing and making more accessible our many videotapes across multiple types of systems we had produced and accumulated for over 40 years. Our goal for the 31-year life of our organization has been to develop an artist-driven archive that will preserve my work as a choreographer and dancer and also allow me to continue using the works I have created for new purposes.”

DeGarmo continued: “I am currently writing my autobiography and want to include links to various performances of my work, along with my original poetry. The purpose is to help show the story I am also writing. Having worked in NYC my entire career since 1974, and internationally since 1985, my archived work will hopefully contribute to the untold stories of dance in New York and across Latin America, where I have lived, created, performed, and taught .… We were finally able to complete the first phase of organizing our archives in one month with a full-time archival analyst who organized and help us store appropriately over 700 videos in her first pass of our video archive.”

The ultimate purpose of archiving is not simply to have a well-organized archive: it is to be able to fully mine the materials for research or creative projects. In recent years, an increasing number of artists have been creatively engaging with the process and theory of archiving. The launching in 2011 of the Merce Cunningham Dance Capsules, which digitally preserve assets essential to remounting Cunningham’s choreographic works, got many people thinking about how their legacy would be preserved. In 2013-2014, Dance Heritage Coalition spearheaded a planning project to understand and advance the concept of “Artist-Driven Archives.” The project explored models for developing more dynamic and engaging archives that reflect artists’ unique creative processes and practices. Among the case studies highlighted by this initiative were:

Eiko and Koma’s multi-faceted Retrospective Project, which encompassed re-mounted works, gallery installations and site-specific performances, and the subsequent Archive Project (no longer available online), which aims to create an interactive, artist-led archive contextualized by its creators.

David Gordon’s Archiveography, an ongoing practice that combines traditional archiving with autobiographical writing, performance, and installations to contextualize Gordon’s works and creative process through his own memories and those of his collaborators.

Bebe Miller’s Dance Fort, a web portal designed to share with users the experience of being inside the creation of a work, “containing cross-referenced research materials ‘danced,’ written, spoken and shared in other forms.”

Ze’eva Cohen’s documentary Creating a Life in Dance, which incorporates digitized archival footage and new oral histories to tell the story of her life as a performer, choreographer, and educator.

Community-based, artist-led initiatives to create digital archives documenting regional dance communities, such as the Chicago Dance History Project and the Philadelphia Local Dance History Project.

These innovative projects demonstrate that archives are more than dusty boxes in a warehouse or files on hard drives. However, without first ensuring that materials are preserved, organized, and findable, it isn’t possible to use or repurpose them for creative projects, or even practical everyday functions. They may be effectively hidden, particularly in the case of videos on obsolete formats, or materials stored off-site with no inventories. Tackling these kinds of challenges can seem daunting for companies and artists who need to put all of their resources toward producing work. The best ways to make the effort seem less overwhelming are to educate yourself about what needs to be done, set priorities, understand what costs are involved so you can begin exploring funding sources — and, above all, consult with archivists when you have questions. I invite you to contact me, Imogen Smith, Dance/USA’s Director of Archiving and Preservation, at to discuss your archiving goals.

Imogen Smith

Imogen Smith has more than a decade of experience as a specialist in archiving dance and is a passionate believer that preserving artistic legacies strengthens and supports the art form. As project manager for Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) she spent five years working with dance companies and independent artists around the country to assess, organize, and digitize their collections, and leading projects to process historical dance archives and create new online dance history and archiving resources. As acting executive director of Dance Heritage Coalition, she oversaw the integration of DHC’s archiving and preservation programs into Dance/USA. Previously, she worked on oral history projects and video archives in the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and on visual arts collections at the Brooklyn Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum. Based in New York City, she is the author of two books on film history, writes for a variety of cinema and culture publications, and is a frequent speaker on classic film.


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