Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) Survey

Scope of digital holdings

The Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) is a small non-profit art gallery in Seattle, Washington, founded in 1980 with “the intention to foment and create contemporary art in Seattle.” (CoCA Archives Project “About” page) The CoCA Archives Project was founded in 2013 by Anna H., who served as the project lead until 2018 and now serves in a volunteer advisory role. CoCA’s digital archives are the public-facing, digital side of the total archives project. Grant funding from 4Culture provided nominal stipends for archivists, funds to purchase in-house digitization equipment, and aided in digitization, cataloging, and the creation of the CoCA Archives Project website.

CoCA’s missions statement described that it “serves the Pacific Northwest as a Catalyst and Forum for the Advancement, Development, and Understanding of Contemporary Art,” and CoCA’s Archives Project has an in-house tagline of “preserve, catalog and share our unique collection of archival materials.”

Physical holdings of CoCA’s archives are comprised of records and images documenting the over 200 major exhibitions held at the gallery, as well documents related to the internal organization of CoCA (founding documents, bylaws etc.), 40-60 bankers boxes, 4000 slides, 125 posters, and approximately 500 articles and reviews. Digital collections comprise roughly 300 items, organized into 31 online exhibitions. CoCA’s VHS collection was recently digitized – Anna H. indicated that there has been three separate digitization projects, resulting in 80% of the poster holdings,100% of video holdings, and a small portion of newsletter holdings being digitized.

Formats in the digital collections include: PDF, DOC, PPT, CSV, TIFF, JPEG, PNG, GIF, MPEG, MOV, and MP3. There might be other formats being used in creation of documentation of newer exhibitions as well.

The archives are housed in a daylight basement of a 1920s building a few miles from the main exhibition space. The business overhead is a trapeze school and studio, which causes some unique preservation concerns – heavy landings in the studio above can dislodge dirt from the ceiling or cause light bulbs to fall and potentially break. The building is also older and archives volunteers have created workaround to protect the collections, but there are also concerns about the safety of the building, since there have been break-ins in the neighborhood.

The archives are primarily used by CoCA employees and volunteers, although there is researcher interest in the images and files related to the exhibitions, since many notable contemporary artists have displayed their work at CoCA. There is likely to be local interest as well, in CoCA’s role in Seattle’s art and counterculture scenes. CoCA’s archives are not accepting outside donations.

Management of digital content

Images are digitized then uploaded to LibraryThing’s TinyCat system, which creates MARC records for every image. Each image is cataloged with hand-keyed Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) terms. Copies of digital images live on local machines with backups on Google Drive, and some images taken by a previous board president live on that individual’s personal server. URLs to digital objects are shared through CoCA’s Archives Project website, which is run on Weebly. A finding aid exists for the full extent of archival holdings, and digital objects can be accessed by searching TinyCat, or through the “exhibitions” tab on CoCA’s Archives Project site.

Some content in the digital archive might be under copyright, but CoCA’s Archive Project site makes a statement that they believe this content is covered under fair use and provides contact information for copyright holders to submit take-down requests.

Current files are also stored in Google Drive (in-use administrative files can be found there) as well as on the archives desktop computer. The desktop has an external hard drive that is used for backups; the HD is stored off-site.

Perceptions of state of digital content

The volunteer archivists are concerned about the longevity of the collections they steward, since CoCA is a small organization and the archives have no regular paid staff. Additionally, the physical space that collections are housed in and digitization is conducted in poses preservation challenges. The archivists also expressed concern about staff and intern work potentially being done on personal computers and then not uploaded to CoCA computers or being backed up. The nature of a small arts nonprofit does not seem to lend itself to large-scale preservation projects.

Digitized version of administrative materials have the potential to be very useful to CoCA staff and board as it will be easier to find information for grant applications. Digital collections aid the work of CoCA as well as generating interest, but may not be seen as mission-critical, especially in a small non-profit that has many areas needing funding.

Future collection plans

CoCA’s archives do not intend to expand beyond the material they currently have, but there are some future directions for digitization that Anna H. brought up, such as digitizing administrative files for easier searching and access by CoCA’s staff and board. The focus for CoCA’s Archive Project now is preserving existing digital content and maintaining digitization projects.

Resources

CoCA’s archives contain unique content, and illustrate contemporary art, the Seattle arts scene, and Seattle culture in general, While small, CoCA’s archives of exhibition-related material are remarkably well inventoried and catalogued (Anna H. points out that administrative records are less thoroughly inventoried), and TinyCat seems to be serving them well. However, with CoCA’s Archives Project being entirely managed by volunteers, staff resources are scant. Anna H. is rolling off of her volunteer role, and a new head consulting archivist volunteer (Staci C.) will be taking over. Losing the founder of the Archives Project might lead to some loss of institutional knowledge, although Anna H. will be available to answer questions. In addition, CoCA’s archives have a number of interns (primarily from the University of Washington’s iSchool) who assist with archival work, as well as some CoCA-wide IT interns. The relationship with UW’s iSchool provides lots of opportunities for student labor, although interns are by nature a shorter-term staffing model that present significant preservation and stability concerns. There is also no regular budget for digitization or preservation – the digitization equipment and much of the work on the digital archives has been grant funded thus far.

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