A Century of Artists’ Ephemera

Francis Alÿs, postcard for The Ambassador, the XLIX Biennale di Venezia, Venice, June 2001

Francis Alÿs, postcard for The Ambassador, the XLIX Biennale di Venezia, Venice, June 2001. Francis Alÿs documentation file, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Francis Alÿs Photo: NGC Library and Archives

Most, if not all, art libraries have collections of ephemera – variously known as vertical, pamphlet or documentation files – that gather together random pieces of printed matter that the majority of people would throw out. Too numerous to warrant capturing in the library’s catalogue, these fugitive bits of paper still tell an important story and contribute to the history of art in a unique way. They often provide greater understanding of an artists’ practice, make apparent connections between figures in the art world or announce what will take place on a given date. Despite their transitory nature, if properly preserved, ephemera can stand the test of time and provide a more unique historical snapshot – as pointed out by Elizabeth Lawes and Vicky Webb in their recent article in Art Libraries Journal.

The Library and Archives documentation collection of the National Gallery of Canada, initiated in 1920 by the Gallery’s first director, Eric Brown, comprises newspaper clippings, obituaries, exhibition notices, flyers, posters and other ephemera, as well as biographical information supplied by the artists and their galleries. The varied nature of the material in these files, and the fact that this material has been collected over a full century, opens the door to serendipity and surprise. The exhibition 100 Years of Documentation Files, on view at the Gallery’s Library and Archives, includes a small sampling of artist ephemera to celebrate the centenary of this idiosyncratic, valuable and highly consulted collection.

Roughly 57,000 files on Canadian artists capture artistic output across a broad range of media, including painting, sculpting, printmaking, photography, performance and much else. For emerging or little-known artists, these files are often the only sources of information about their practice. The heart of these files is the information form sent to Canadian artists, a practice initiated by Brown in the 1920s. This tradition of reaching out to artists or groups has continued, albeit with forms now sent electronically. Once the form is returned, a new file is created, with some artists updating forms as their careers flourished. The files are registered in the Artists in Canada database, which is maintained by the Library.

Paraskeva Clark, Information Form, received 16 March 1943. Paraskeva Clark documentation file. Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Paraskeva Clark Photo: NGC Library and Archives

Created in an age pre-dating the Internet and artist websites, the forms request details such as place and date of birth, membership in societies or organizations, and where and with whom the artist has studied. At one point they were expanded to enquire about positions held, lectures given, writings by or about the artist, principal works created and exhibitions held. Sometimes the artists would share surprising information, such as the revelation that the eminent scientist Frederick Banting accompanied the Group of Seven’s A.Y. Jackson on sketching trips, or Alex Janvier’s disclosure that he felt his best work “was produced while out on the range.” It’s always a thrill to see an artist’s handwriting, or an artist’s creative and often humorous efforts at sabotage of filling out an administrative form.

Robert Amos, Information Form, received 16 August 1972, Robert Amos documentation file, © Robert Amos, and Joe Fafard, Information Form, undated, Joe Fafard documentation file. © Estate of Joe Fafard Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC Library and Archives

Occasionally, there are miscellaneous additions, such as newspaper clippings, exhibition announcements and CVs. Often these objects are evidence of the artist’s hand – small works of art, such as drawings, watercolours, Christmas cards and facsimiles of the artist's work. Some adopt unusual formats, such as Michael Hayden’s microfiche of his catalogue and biography; or they document rare events, such as the photocopied handbill for Rodney Graham’s 2004 musical performance at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel. General Idea’s Great Canadian Split Project, a mail-art activity that landed on the desk of former NGC curator and director Pierre Théberge in 1972, stands in stark contrast to the sober program from Dan Flavin’s memorial service in 1997, in which former NGC curator Brydon Smith paid homage to the celebrated minimalist artist known for his fluorescent light installations.

By far the most numerous type of ephemera in the collection is related to exhibitions – notably announcements or invitations, postcards and posters – sometimes the only evidence of an exhibition or event. Since the 1960s, artists have often been the authors of this material, and some invitations actually incorporate works of art. Conceptual artists, in particular, have often relied upon ephemera in art practices that are not object-based, as in the case of Robert Barry’s works on the invisible, for which he sent out cards in 1969 announcing that the gallery (Galleria Sperone in Turin) would be closed during the exhibition. Artists such as Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and Francis Alÿs, who have made walking an art form, have also taken great care to produce invitations and postcards that are freely distributed and document their excursions. Some artists, including Marcel Duchamp, have played with the format of the invitation. His 1966 invitation to his exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London required a spinning turntable in order to appreciate its optical illusion.

The documentation collection is ever-expanding as library staff and volunteers browse information sources in both print and electronic formats on a daily basis. All departments of the Gallery continue to forward ephemera they collect or receive in the mail. The files are still one of the most frequently consulted resources in the Library and Archives, and one can’t help but wonder if Brown could have imagined a hundred years ago that the collection would evolve into such an important and enduring resource.


In an effort to  reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Gallery has temporarily closed its doors to the public and will reopen when safety measures by the Ontario Government are lifted. 100 Years of Documentation Files is on view at National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives to April 2021. Access to the artist files is facilitated by the Artists in Canada database, compiled by the NGC Library and hosted by the Canadian Heritage Information Network, indexing the artists’ files collections for 25 Canadian institutions. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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