OpArt: The Art Research Collective Collection in Motion

“Descending” by Bridget Riley (1965). Gemeentemuseum Den Haag; Rob Oo from NL, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Optical art – Op Art for short – explores the illusion of movement in two-dimensional spaces. To create the impression that the images on a canvas are in motion – pulsating, moving in waves, blinking on and off, etc. – artists in this genre carefully orchestrate detailed patterns of shapes and colors to arrive at the desired effect. And that brings us to collective collections …

OCLC Research has done quite a bit of work using WorldCat bibliographic and holdings data to offer a view of what the collective collections of groups of institutions might look like – size, overlap patterns, salient characteristics, and so on. But ideally, collective collections should be more than static images in data; instead, they should be collections in motion: dynamic, functional collections that release value both to their stewards and users. For this, we need to think about the orchestrations that lie underneath – not of patterns of shapes and colors, but of collection characteristics and collaboration models that make the collective collection come to life, or in other words, put it in motion.  

This is the theme motivating a new OCLC Research project, Operationalizing the Art Research Collective Collection (OpArt). Art libraries play a vital role in supporting art scholarship within their own institutions and in the broader scholarly community. But the economic impact and other repercussions of the COVID pandemic are accelerating and amplifying challenges to institutional sustainability, and the consequences are likely to persist into the coming decade. An important component in building sustainability is identifying new opportunities for collaboration that will address the challenges brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. OpArt will help art libraries find sustainable pathways through this season of diminished resources and shared challenges by identifying potential collaborative models around collective collections, and illuminating the practical considerations involved in such collaborations.

OpArt is a four-phase research project aimed at developing a better understanding of the relationship between art, academic, and independent research libraries, through an analysis of their collections and resource sharing activity. We will then use these findings to inform an exploration of new possibilities for collaboration and partnership models that support sustainable, ongoing availability of the rich collections of art libraries to researchers, wherever they may be.

The four phases of OpArt include:

  • Analyze Collective Collections: How do art library collections, and the collections of other types of libraries, compare against one another? What areas of overlap and redundancy do we see? What does this tell us about potential opportunities for cooperation, coordination, and/or sharing across collections?
  • Analyze Collection Sharing Patterns: What patterns exist in resource sharing activity (past and present) across art library collections, and across art library collections and the collections of other types of libraries? What does this tell us about the opportunities for cooperation, coordination, and sharing that art libraries are currently leveraging? 
  • Explore Collaborative Case Studies: Building on the findings from the first two phases, we will take a “deep dive” into several case studies of regional art library cooperation/coordination/sharing. What insights and lessons can we learn from these examples?
  • Operationalize Collaboration: What are the practical challenges of creating and maintaining cross-institutional relationships that can deliver the opportunities highlighted in our collections and resource sharing analyses, and the case studies? What general recommendations can be identified to help art libraries create and manage partnerships around their collections?  

The concept for this project originated in a discussion in 2019 between members of the OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP), a transnational collaborative network formed to address issues of collective interest to research libraries. The discussion focused on an acute lack of space at art research libraries, difficulties in arranging for offsite storage of art research print collections, a lack of knowledge regarding the library collections of peer institutions, and the perceived value of art libraries partnering with other types of libraries on the shared management of print collections. The COVID pandemic has amplified the urgency of these and other issues related to the long-term sustainability of art research collections. 

The OpArt project will engage key stakeholders as partners in our research, tapping into the deep expertise within the RLP membership – including those members participating in SHARES, the resource sharing arm of the RLP. Art libraries are an important part of the RLP and SHARES, and the experiences of staff at these institutions will be critical in informing our case studies work, as well as providing guidance for all aspects of the investigation. In addition to regular engagement with the RLP membership, an advisory committee drawn primarily from SHARES member institutions will provide advice and consultation throughout the project, including helping to frame the collective collections and resource sharing analyses, identify case study partners, interpret results, and finalize recommendations. The advisory committee membership includes:

  • Jon Evans, Chief of Libraries and Archives, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
  • Rebecca Friedman, Assistant Librarian, Marquand Library, Princeton University
  • Roger Lawson, Executive Librarian, National Gallery of Art
  • Autumn Mather, Director, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Lori Salmon, Head, Institute of Fine Arts Library, New York University
  • Keli Rylance, Head Librarian, Richardson Memorial Library, Saint Louis Art Museum
  • Kathleen Salomon, Chief Librarian, Associate Director, Getty Research Institute
  • Tony White, University Librarian, OCAD University

The OpArt project is supported through a grant by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, with significant co-investment from OCLC. It draws on OCLC Research’s deep experience analyzing collective collections, including those of art libraries (see An Art Resource in New York: The Collective Collection of the NYARC Art Museum Libraries), as well as more recent work focusing an strategies for operationalizing collective collections (see Operationalizing the BIG Collective Collection: A Case Study of Consolidation vs Autonomy). And as mentioned above, it benefits from the experiences and perspectives of practitioners engaged in the stewardship of art research collections. 

In the time of COVID, budget realities and sustainability challenges are more acute than ever. Art libraries will look to innovative partnerships and collaborations as one way to move forward. Understanding the scope for cooperation and coordination between art, academic, and independent research libraries can help identify new collaborative models to support the continued availability of art research resources – and contribute toward putting the art research collective collection in motion. Stay tuned as the OpArt project explores these exciting topics!