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A living library

Feminist collective EMILIA-AMALIA dives into the archives to activate and broaden the AGO’s Artist Files Collection.

Artist questionnaire completed by Mary Hiester Reid

Artist questionnaire completed by Mary Hiester Reid, 1913 © Art Gallery of Ontario.

Since 1912, the AGO (then the Art Museum of Toronto) has been collecting materials from living artists – soliciting biographical details through questionnaires and documents such as exhibition invitations, press clippings and CVs. Today, the Artist Files Collection in Edward P. Taylor Library & Archives includes more than 14,000 files documenting contemporary and historical artists in Canada. In recent years, the library has been expanding the collection with EMILIA-AMALIA, a feminist working group based in Toronto that employs citation, annotation and autobiography as modes of activating feminist art, writing and research practices.

"What I love about the Artist Files Collection is that it's an open documentation project, so it creates a unique connection between the AGO and the art worlds in which we operate. At least potentially, the files are very inclusive. The problem is that unless we continue to do active work, like seeking out new galleries for their mailings or asking artists to contribute, the simple act of collecting can be passive, reflecting all kinds of systemic issues in the art world in terms of who is represented, “ says Amy Furness, Rosamond Ivey Special Archivist & Head, AGO Library & Archives.  

Aiming to address systemic gaps in the archives, in 2017, the AGO began collaborating with Toronto collective EMILA-AMALIA. It was during the group's tenure as artists in residence that members first became aware of the Artist Files Collection and sought to update the artist questionnaire in order to include questions about mentorship, motherhood, collaboration, organizing and works that were made but not (yet) shown. Since then, the group has led multiple Artist File Fairs to encourage submissions by artists with disabilities, as well as from the Black, Indigenous, People of Colour and LGBTQ+ communities. 

The AGO Artist File Room

The AGO Artist File Room in 2021 © Art Gallery of Ontario.

Describing the collection as a ”repository of ephemera” EMILA-AMALIA says the Artist Files preserves this county’s lesser-known art histories. Shellie Zhang and Gabrielle Moser, two members of the collective note, “We see the Artist Files as a repository or time capsule that can inspire, influence and provide grounding and comfort for future generations. As an intersectional feminist group, we have each gone looking in the archives for stories that resonate with our own, and we’ve often found them in the minutiae of these kinds of collections, generated by artists, community organizers and librarians.”

Check out the latest Artist File Fair, held virtually on January 30, 2021, where EMILIA-AMALIA and the AGO came together once again to widen knowledge about the Artist Files Collection. The event had a turnout of more than 50 people joining in a conversation between artist Erika DeFreitas and curator Lillian O’Brien Davis about looking for traces of Black women artists in the archive. 

Consider submitting! The Edward P. Taylor Library & Archive  invites emerging and established artists alike to start an artist file or contribute materials to their existing file. Participants can build a file by completing an online questionnaire about their work and submitting copies of exhibition invitations, pamphlets, press releases and any other ephemera related to their practice or exhibition history. Visit the Artist Files webpage for more information on the Artist Files Collection and how to contribute. We are also always looking for artist recommendations to add to the Files.

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