Artist files: rare and rich glimpses into Aotearoa's art history.

Image: Angela Morton Room artist files.

Writer Peter Shaw has called artist files an essential part of our sense of history. "What were the things that reviewers were looking for at a particular time? What was the context in which the works were produced? These are endlessly fascinating questions, and unless you have artist files carefully collected and organized by someone you lose all of that."*

Over 700 files for individual Aotearoa artists are held in Takapuna’s Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library. These can include exhibition catalogues, small printed artworks, posters, CV’s, reviews and interviews. The bulk of the material was collected from 1980 to 2010 and provides important documentation about well-established and lesser-known artists. 

Shaw used our artist file for Pauline Thompson when curating the major retrospective of her work, Combined Cosmologies, held at the Pah Homestead. He said: "If the files weren’t there my picture of her work, her words, and their reception, would have been much poorer."

Shaw, for 28 years curator of the Fletcher Trust Collection, said artist files are largely made up of items which most people might throw out. But, if somebody has taken the trouble to collect newspaper articles and reviews, then one can get a feel for the original reception of works of art.

Image: Angela Morton Room's artist file cabinets. 

Rosabel Tan, Director of Satellites, a production house exploring the experiences of the Asian diaspora in Aotearoa said, "The Angela Morton Room is a revelation, and its artist files are special treasures containing moments that are not easy to find elsewhere, especially when it comes to artists who have been historically underrepresented by our institutions." 

"Our team have been drawing on the artist files for an online archive we are creating of Asian artists and art-making in Aotearoa, and we are so grateful for the rare and rich glimpses they have offered into the artists we are writing about."

Artist Toni Hartill has used the files when researching an artist for a university paper; and she is also represented in our collection with her own file. She said it’s good to know some of the ephemera from her earlier days has a place where it can be viewed, particularly as she began her art career designing furniture, and was known by her maiden name at that time. 

"I think there is really interesting social and local history hidden away in the files which has a lot of value outside of just the art world. I’m thinking of flyers or brochures from galleries that no longer exist, or venues that have evolved a lot over the years and a new generation knows nothing of the changes."

Image: A Humid Day catalogue and materials (2007), Liyen Chong.

Artist and printer Makyla Curtis is also represented in our files with letterpress printed poems and exhibition invitations: "I really love that some of my bits of ephemera have a home – and are available for others to find, and what they might tell someone about my practice." As a practitioner, she also likes looking through the files for inspiration and knowledge about other artists and their work.

Files may contain only one slip of paper – such as an ātaahua invitation to Marilynn Webb’s 1992 exhibition "Heartland" which has a pressed rose petal glued to the card; or there might be enough material to fill several folders, which is the case for Ralph Hotere’s and Colin McCahon’s files. Christine Hellyar’s holds an artwork, "People and the land", enclosed within a stitched perspex envelope; and an extract from Priscilla Pitts’ master’s thesis "Christine Hellyar, 1969-1983."

Image: Materials from Christine Hellyar's artist file including People and the Land (1989) artwork. 

Type designer Joseph Churchward’s file contains a prequel of the wonderful 2009 book showcasing his life’s work: "Joseph Churchward by David Bennewith." The prequel is one of a silkscreened, limited edition publication of 30 copies comprising an essay, and pictures of Churchward and his work. It was presented by the publisher at an exhibition at De Ateliers in Amsterdam – and includes a poster for this 2006 show where Churchward explains why he named an alphabet design after his daughter Marianna.

Another beautiful artefact, in Maureen Lander’s file, is a concertina brochure for her installation "Palm Lines" (2005) created in collaboration with poets Anne Kirker and Samuel Wagan Watson, in the Old Brisbane Botanic Gardens. This opens out to reveal poems, and photographs of Bangalow palms taken by Lander.

Image: Palm Lines catalogue (2005), Maureen Lander.

The Angela Morton Room’s artist files are hard copy, and we are no longer generating new physical files, partly due to information being increasingly shared in digital formats. Our artist files are available to view seven days a week on Level 1 at Takapuna Library. They’re arranged alphabetically, in filing cabinets along the wall on the right-hand side of the space.

We also hold 20 subject files ranging from Ceramics to Māori Contemporary Art, Printing to Weaving. Please check these if there isn’t a file for the artist you are looking for, because they may be included in the subject files.

We are one of nine libraries that contribute to Find New Zealand Artists (FNZA). This database of 19,500 Aotearoa artist names enables everyone from art enthusiasts to professional researchers to discover artist information held across the country’s libraries, art society exhibition histories, and published sources from the 19th century to the present. This website also holds a collection of digitised Aotearoa arts journals including Art New Zealand (1976-1984), Ascent, New Zealand Potter, Spiral and Te Ao Hou, and more.

Image: Prints by Makyla Curtis created for the Print Council Postcard Pen Pal Collaborative Project (2023).

It’s the Find New Zealand Artists (FNZA) 10th birthday this month, November 2023. This invaluable site was developed by research librarians Catherine Hammond and Caroline McBride of the E.H. McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki; Tim Jones of the Robert and Barbara Stewart Library and Archives, Christchurch Art Gallery; and art historian Jane Davidson-Ladd, inspired by the pioneering work of one of this country’s first art historians, Una Platts.

Please visit our exhibition of artist files in the Angela Morton Room which runs from 3 November 2023 to 12 January 2024.

Author: Leanne Radojkovich,  Librarian Research. 

Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library

Free to use. Open daily.

Level 1, Takapuna Library.

*Quotes used within the text are extracts from interviews Leanne had with the respective artists.