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If you are a working artist, you know how much time and effort goes into keeping track of all the info on your pieces. In this article by Daniel Grant, learn the ins and outs of collections management databases for artists, and start managing your studio like a boss.
21st Century Bookkeeping
The 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer only produced 30 or so paintings during his entire career. While that may not seem like much, from a bookkeeping standpoint it’s definitely easier to keep track of a handful of artworks than the hundreds most artists produce today. If your output is over 30 annually, keeping track of when the artwork is created, it’s title, where it’s shown or sold, and for how much, can be a nightmare. Typical artist’s tracking systems can range from file cards to Excel spreadsheets. But a growing number of artists have looked to cloud-based collections management databases to catalog their work.
What does “cloud-based” mean? By definition it refers to data and applications that are administered from multiple servers in a variety of locations. This is opposed to pre-cloud software that ran on one physical server in one location. Now, if one server goes down, others in the cloud immediately can respond from anywhere in the world. So you will always be able to access the content on your art database. And it comes with the ability to retrieve that information from any device.
Anywhere, Anytime Access
Collections database management systems are not new. Most of them are for art galleries and museums, and consequently can be too complicated and cumbersome for most artists to use. “The learning curve for these databases is high,” says Suzanne Quigley, owner of Art Artifact Services, a collections management company. Paring down the complexity, a newer class is aimed at artists who have fewer objects but similar needs to track what they own.
These artist-friendly database companies also assist subscribers in uploading information and sorting it in ways that increase ease of access. Most significantly, artists can access their accounts through an app on their phones. Now they can see images of their artwork anytime and anywhere, freeing them from their desktop computers.
For many artists, having images of and information on their artworks in an app is the best part of using a database. “A lot of my clients own smart appliances, where everything is on an app,” says Claire Marmion, chief executive officer and founder of The Haven Art Group, a collections management firm. “They want to be able to look at their artwork when they’re not where their artwork is. They like to show what they own to collectors. You go to international art fairs, which are very social activities, and everyone is looking at each others’ phones.”
What to Include in a Collection Database
Every artwork has a paper trail that can be stored in a collection database. Documentation on each artwork should include the basics: artist’s name, title and date of the work, dimensions, medium, and subject matter. List if it had been purchased (name of buyer and sales receipt), and any history of ownership (provenance). Include photographs of the artwork. Show more than one image, with and without the frame, as well as the signature. There may also be an insurance appraisal, exhibition history and literature (reviews, articles, catalogues and books), and condition reports.
All this information is of value to current and prospective buyers. But it’s also valuable particularly to insurance companies in the event of a theft or damage. The value of a work of art “is in the information” about it, says Doug Milford, managing partner of the New York City-based collections management database ArtSystems. If an artwork is lost, stolen, damaged or destroyed, assembling all that info after the fact may be difficult, perhaps even impossible. This can delay a claim and even reduce the insurance settlement.
Protect Your Work
Art databases have continued to grow in popularity, in part because of the growing number of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and wild fires. These unforeseen events have led artists to see the need to store their documentation in different locations from their art.
Additionally, many artists have their work in various locations, from their home and studio, to on consignment to galleries. “Knowing what’s where can be a challenge,” admits Mary Pontillo, national fine arts practice leader of DeWitt Stern, an insurance brokerage firm. “And listing items on a spreadsheet or Google Doc becomes unruly,” she says.
The Price of Storing Information
Databases, like physical storage units, charge a monthly fee. The fee ranges based on the number of artworks for cataloging and the number of devices that need access. For example, London-based collections management database ArtLogic, which opened its NYC office in 2018, charges $80 per month for single users whose collections have 1,500 or fewer pieces and who access the database through one iPad and one iPhone.
Artwork Archive is less expensive, charging between $6 and $19 per month, depending upon the number of images stored. On a public profile page, an image of each artwork will include the title of the piece, its dimensions and medium, date, subject matter, an inventory number, where it is located and its price, as well as contact information for the artist. In addition artists not only use Artwork Archive to manage their inventory but potential buyers also use the site as an online source of available material. Justin Anthony, a co-founder of Artwork Archive, notes that many artists send links to galleries they are interested in having their works shown. “It helps artists present themselves professionally,” says Anthony.
The process of uploading data to the database is not only intended to be easy and intuitive, but there are often useful custom pages. For example, database page features can include where and when a particular piece was sold, the retail price paid and what the artist received, and information about the buyer. Some services also provide calendars, reminding users, for instance, when proposals or applications are due. See charts that reveal where most sales are taking place and how one year compares to another. Plus you can store contact information on clients, suppliers and galleries all in one place. “It is a user-driven design,” says Anthony.
Anthony noted that security has always been a “top priority” at Artwork Archive. There haven’t been any data breaches since the company formed in 2010. More worrisome for artists, he claims, are personal computer hard drives that die, particularly when there are no back-ups. This can result in losing valuable information about their careers and work.
Nothing, of course, is 100 percent secure. “If VISA can’t avoid hackers, I doubt these small collection management cloud companies can avoid it,” says Quigley. She recommends that artists back up their documentation not only in the cloud but on a thumb drive kept in a safe-deposit box. William Fleischer, a principal at the insurance company Bernard Fleischer Sons, agrees that artists need to assemble and organize information on their art holdings. He adds that it’s also important to “have a paper back-up, too.”
Do Your Homework
The benefits of a cloud-based collections management database are clear, but there are caveats. Quigley expressed a concern about the number of database companies that have come into existence in recent years. “Will they all survive? If one goes belly-up, what happens to the users’ data?”
As a lawyer, Pontillo recommends that prospective database subscribers “vet the contract with an outside IT professional. You want to know who owns the data, you or the database company? Can you extract the data at any point? And, if you terminate the relationship with a company, is the data terminated as well?” In short, make sure you do your homework so there are no surprises. Then see if an art database can be an essential tool to make your studio business more efficient.
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