Caring for Your Artistic Legacy


Archiving Services Available for Artists and Dance Companies

By Imogen Smith

The part of my job as a dance-specialist archivist that I enjoy most is working directly with artists and dance companies to provide hands-on help and advice about preserving legacy records. This type of collaboration brings together the intimate knowledge that only the creators of the records have, and their passion for the work and its history, with an archivist’s perspective on the best ways to organize, preserve, and create access to materials. Dance/USA now offers archiving services such as assessments, inventories, and consultations on digitizing as a fee-for-service program with discounts for Dance/USA members. Anyone interested in learning more or discussing their archiving goals can schedule an initial phone consultation with Dance/USA’s director of archiving and preservation

These services can help no matter what stage artists and companies are at in the archiving process, from figuring out how to get started, to completing key tasks to improve the security and accessibility of materials, to finding a permanent home for the collection or developing a sustainable legacy plan for an in-house archive. Many aspects of dance collections are common throughout the field, and Dance/USA’s archiving services, developed through the integration of Dance Heritage Coalition’s programs, build on wide experience working with companies of all sizes and genres as well as independent artists and legacy foundations. Every collection is also unique, and reflects the vision and creative practice of the artist or organization that compiled it. Archives, when they are well cared for and accessible, amplify that vision and practice, and tell the story of dance in its contexts and through its evolutions.

Archive Assessments

One of the commonest questions raised by artists and companies who want to tackle their archives is: where to start? A good first step, especially in cases where collections have not had any formal archival oversight in the past, is an Archive Assessment. This is a report prepared by a professional archivist, based on direct observation and interviews with artists or company personnel, which provides high-level answers to the questions: How big is the collection? What types of materials and formats does it include? Where and how are they stored? How are they organized? How are they currently used and who has access to them? What challenges or obstacles prevent full use of the archives, and what would the impact be of preserving and making them accessible? Based upon all of this information, the assessment presents prioritized recommendations for actions to improve the security, organization, and accessibility of the archives.

An archive assessment report can be used to support funding proposals for work on archives, since it demonstrates that the proposed project has been vetted and recommended by professional archivists, and that it is based on accurate information about the scope and condition of the archive. An Archive Assessment also considers what the impact would be of making the collection more accessible. Dance/USA’s template and methodology for archive assessments was developed by Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) with an award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supported a series of dance company assessments beginning in 2010. 

One of the first companies to participate in a Mellon-funded archive assessment was Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). At the time, Judy Tyrus, former DTH principal dancer and curator of the traveling exhibition “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts,” had begun to work on organizing and safeguarding the company’s legacy records, which had been without the care of a dedicated archivist for a number of years. The assessment found that archives were dispersed throughout the DTH building, and some were stored in unsafe, overcrowded, and inaccessible locations. The assessment made a strong case for the urgency of preserving the unique and culturally important history of DTH, and led to additional grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Park Service/Save America’s Treasures program, which enabled the company to continue working with Dance Heritage Coalition and later with Dance/USA. Outcomes of this work included the creation of an inventory of the moving image collection; organization and re-housing of endangered materials in archival containers and storage; and digitization of a selection of video recordings from obsolete formats. DTH staff musician and writer Paul Novosel, was brought on to inventory and process all of the ballet programs from 1969 to 2016 along with Theara Ward, a former DTH dancer and company program associate, and a team of volunteers. He and Tyrus continue to collaborate and work together to preserve the legacy of DTH. 

“Dance/USA’s archiving program is helping us find a way to provide global access to … this remarkable collection,” Judy Tyrus said. “Their support and level of commitment to Dance Theatre of Harlem throughout the years to engage and build audiences, and now to preserve our legacy is an invaluable resource for all dance organizations.” 

Archive Inventories

Once an assessment is completed, the next step is often to create an inventory for part or all of the archive. An inventory provides detailed information about archives, allowing easier access to materials while making it possible to undertake such steps as obtaining a quote for digitization, creating an in-house catalogue, or approaching an institutional library or archive to discuss donating the collection. Spreadsheet templates for inventories are available for download in the Artist’s Legacy Toolkit, along with guidelines for the inventory process. Dance/USA can manage the creation of an inventory as a fee-based service.

In 2018, Dance/USA worked with New York-based Lotus Music & Dance to create a complete and detailed inventory of Lotus’s audiovisual materials. Lotus has a collection of more than 1,000 videotapes documenting its 30-year history as a multi-cultural arts presenter. These videos are augmented by photographs, programs, and other paper materials. Currently, this collection, which documents a wide variety of world dance traditions performed by master artists, is not readily accessible to the public, or even to Lotus’s teachers, artists, and students. The vast majority of the physical videotapes have not been digitized and are on obsolete formats with a high risk of deterioration. Recognizing the urgent need to preserve their videos, and that increasing access to the collection would have a significant impact on the study, appreciation, and survival of many indigenous dance traditions, Lotus began consulting with Dance/USA on the steps to achieve these goals. The process started with an archival inventory.

An important component of the process, specific to Lotus, was to develop a controlled vocabulary (a list of preferred descriptive terms, cross-referenced to alternate forms) for the diverse array of geographic regions, dance forms, and individuals represented in the collection. These terms could then be applied to appropriate items to make it possible to search for specific types of dance within the collection.

The inventory was begun by an archival intern who holds a master’s degree in library science and had experience working in formal archives, and it was completed by a Lotus staff member who had trained with the intern. Dance/USA’s director of archiving and preservation oversaw the process of hiring the intern and the set-up of a customized inventory template, unique numbering system, controlled vocabulary, and procedural guidelines. Throughout the process, Dance/USA provided consultations and oversight as needed to ensure the process followed consistent archival standards. Dance/USA also facilitated conversations between Lotus and the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library regarding a potential transfer of the collection to NYPL. Throughout the process, the input of long-time Lotus staff members was vital in supplying institutional memory about sources, formats, and duplicates, as well as making decisions about which items were considered part of the archive. The organization now has a comprehensive description of its video archive and is ready to take the next steps toward sharing it more broadly with the world.

Digitization

Much of the dance history of the past 50 years is recorded on film and video, since these technologies have been embraced as the commonest way to document performances, rehearsals, and events. These video formats have rapidly become obsolete, replaced by newer formats: ¾ inch video to VHS to MiniDV to DVD. As equipment to play and transfer older formats becomes rare, and as magnetic tape naturally degrades over time and optical media (CDs and DVDs) is very fragile and unstable, it is urgent to migrate these videos, discs, and films to digital files. While paper materials are far more stable than audiovisual formats, scanning paper materials, photos, and press clippings can be an excellent way to save space and make it easier to share and access them. 

Funding is the most common obstacle to digitizing audiovisual materials, but lack of expertise can also prevent this work from occurring in a timely way and having successful outcomes. Consulting with an archivist can help answer questions like:

  • How to curate and select the most important items to be digitized;
  • How to develop good metadata (descriptive information) about the items;
  • How to choose the best digital file formats for your needs;
  • How to select the right vendor and negotiate a cost estimate;
  • How to store and manage the files once you get them back;
  • How to manage the project to ensure the safety of your materials.

Consultants can also advise on options for creating an in-house system to manage digitized materials, including both video and scanned paper materials. Once videos have been digitized, many options exist for sharing and using them for public engagement. For example: after digitizing a selection of seminal works in partnership with Dance Heritage Coalition, Joe Goode Performance Group in San Francisco began a series of “Movie Nights” that paired archival video screenings with talks and live performances. With popcorn and beverages for sale, the series proved a lively and very popular way to engage audiences with the company’s history. 

Dance Heritage Coalition and Dance/USA have partnered with the Mark Morris Dance Group to digitize its video archive and set up an in-house catalog using the open-source content management system Collective Access. DHC also conducted a multi-year project to digitize small selections of seminal works from a broad array of dance artists and smaller companies in New York, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area. (This collection of digitized archival video, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is now housed at the University of Southern California.) The experience and learning derived from these projects can serve dance organizations and artists, helping them make the best decisions about digitizing their irreplaceable audiovisual assets. 

Taking on an archiving project can seem daunting, especially when it comes on top of the regular business of presenting work and running a dance company. Dance/USA’s archiving services offer access to archival expertise that comes with an understanding of unique issues and challenges in the dance field, and feasible solutions designed for active dance companies. Following an initial consultation, Dance/USA can provide a customized scope of work and a cost quote. Contact us today to get started!

Photos: 
An archive storage space at Dance Theatre of Harlem, before and after the archive project. Courtesy Judy Tyrus
Binders of photographs in the Lotus archives, illustrating some of the many dance style presented by LMD. Photo by 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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