Forrest Nash on the Importance of Documentation and Accessibility in Digital Archiving

Q&A with Forrest Nash, executive director of Contemporary Art Library.

How did Contemporary Art Library start?

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Our nonprofit organization has been publishing Contemporary Art Daily online since 2008. Over the last few years, we often heard that people were using the search function on the website as a research tool, but it was never intended for that kind of use. We created Contemporary Art Library to address this need. Anyone looking to learn more about artists can search Contemporary Art Library and find thorough documentation of their projects that isn’t mediated by the market or promoting a critical agenda. As far as we know, we are the first major archive of this kind and the largest public database of documentation of contemporary art.

What do you think people get out of this digital archive?

Our goal is to be the best place to learn about the work of contemporary artists. One can find images of artworks and exhibitions, along with key information such as press releases, checklists, show dates, etc. We hope that over time, as we add more material, we’ll be the first place people look. We created an unfiltered, primary-source-driven way of learning. It’s not hierarchical, not based on prestige or financial support. We want users to see the different things that artists have done, collected in the exact same format and without any imposed scale of priority.

We hope that the availability of this type of infrastructure will gradually shift expectations about how easy it is to get involved with contemporary art. I grew up in a suburb of a small city, learning about contemporary art through museum catalogues and magazines like Art in America. And, frankly, it was very hard to get a deep understanding without seeing all of the artwork discussed. While Contemporary Art Library is far from comprehensive, it presents an opportunity to introduce contemporary art to a wider international audience.

How do you continually update Contemporary Art Library?

I work with a small team, primarily on archival work. Together, we reach out to individuals and organizations, get permission to add media and information, and then enter it carefully into a database. We double-check everything to reduce the number of errors. We do have a submissions process, but we have our own systems in place to sort through, select, and enter that material ourselves.

Have you come across any major surprises in your career?

I find it unfortunate that more artists haven’t considered documentation as part of their right, or to some extent, their responsibility, to decide how they want their work to be situated in a digital context. There’s a giant collective memory being built that’s full of choices being made about how to convert artwork exhibited within a given space into a set of maybe twenty or so images. I’m surprised at the extent to which that set of decisions has been ceded to galleries and photographers. More artists should consider dictating or experimenting with the ways in which their work is documented.

What are the projects you’re working on right now?

Our main activity right now is finding partners who will share their archives with us so that we can expand our database. We’re also working through what has been an encouragingly large flow of submissions.

Recently, we received a grant to convene a group of experts from various disability communities to discuss the best ways to make digital archives of art documentation more accessible to users with disabilities. There are a lot of issues, especially with disabilities related to perception, where the process of making an image or a video or a sound accessible involves a person translating that material into a text that can then be read by a screen reader or seen by those with a hearing impairment, for example. Since what does or doesn’t matter about an artwork can vary depending on who is asking, this can be complicated to address. I’m excited to see what the group can teach us. We plan to develop a pilot program and do user testing based on those conversations. Accessibility in the broadest sense is a big part of our mission; whether it’s making material accessible to those without access to a major metropolitan area or to those with disabilities, it’s important.


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