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'Seeing' series: What is creative legacy, and who is it for?

An image of brown and white paper, with a batman-like symbol in the center in blue and yellow, and the text no me llame written in pencil, plus a phone number
Courtesy Kenny Rivero, Charles Moffett Gallery, New York
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No Me Llame (917-212-1718), 2011-2020, graphite, latex paint, Styrofoam, record sleeve from record album. This artwork by Kenny Rivero, who was recently exhibited at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, is an example of materials not necessarily made to last.

There is no time like losing individuals – especially the recent passing of Desmond Tutu, Sydney Poitier, Betty White, Joan Didion, and others – who contributed to our arts and culture such that it inspires us to think about what is meant by one’s legacy.

This is part one of an exploration on the individual and institutional aspects of creative legacy. Stay tuned for part two. 

When we think of legacy, we think of something that is attached to resources – usually, it is language we think of in association to wealth within and outside of the realm of art.

But what are the ramifications of legacy, especially for individuals who have established connections within their communities? What is the implication of what is left behind within the reality of our digitalized world, in addition to the tangible things – the creative output of an artist, the tools they have used to create?

As we think about longevity in creating art, who becomes responsible for preservation? Is it the artist, or those who dwell within the artist’s community?

From the perspective of New York-based artist Kenny Rivero, who works across mediums and who was recently exhibited at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, the answer to this is beyond the individual.

"You're never working alone, that you're always working in connection to other people,” Rivero said. “You're part of a constellation. It's about having a voice in a larger dialogue.”

A drawing on paper that's frayed in two of its corners, with writing and images. One of the images looks like Superman with red eyes, another looks like a flashlight, a third like a shut doorway.
Courtesy Kenny Rivero, Charles Moffett Gallery, New York
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Don’t Look for Me, 2020, color pencil, graphite, on reclaimed paper from a record sleeve, 12.25 x 12.25 inches.

Rivero’s view of the artist within the community is similar to the ways that Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, interim president of the Wolf Khan foundation, described as the other elements of Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason’s support of artists – in addition to the couple’s philanthropy,

“They befriended other artists,” McCulloch-Lovell said. “Recently, when their jointly-held art collection was seen again in public, it was auctioned through Christie's, you could see how many artists they supported by actually buying their art. And Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason were great friends with other artists, to a large circle of people. They especially encouraged artists. And I think that is a legacy that will continue to live on.”

This insight invites us to take a closer look at the mythology of the solitary artist. We can revisit any number of historical examples, like the origin story of one of Mary Shelley’s most famous novels, Frankenstein.  Without the community of other writers, without the dare issued by Lord Byron to the other writers on Lake Geneva just over 200 years ago, we could ask the question of whether there would be a Frankenstein?

There is no question that legacy is also about the lives that become impacted by the individual who is doing the creating. And for Kenny Rivero, legacy becomes something that extends beyond the making, and is less about the permanence of the work itself, and more about some key questions that an artist may ask themselves. 

“How am I conversing with my peers?” he asks. “How am I conversing with my past and my future? And not only being represented on a roster of other artists, I already do that by making – by being a maker. What I'm actually communicating, and how am I communicating? And what's the urgency, and what I'm trying to say?

Rivero added that in thinking about longevity and legacy, he’s not very interested in the idea of making something last.

“Nothing lasts, ever,” he said.

More from VPR: Reflection: On Kenny Rivero's Exhibition 'Palm Oil, Rum, Honey, Yellow Flowers'

The resistance to creative output, or one’s work being permanent, further complicates the conversation about legacy. But Rivero offers us an opportunity to think differently.

“One of my teachers, when I was thinking about using house paint exclusively, I told one of my teachers, ‘But it’s not archival,’” Rivero recounted. “He answered, ‘That's not your problem. That's a conservator’s problem.’ And it makes sense. Imagine Basquiat, if he never made all those non-archival paintings, which are not made with really good materials. That’s not his issue, he needs to just make what he needs to make.”

Rivero likened an artist worrying about the preservation of their art to a race car driver worrying about building an engine.

“Race the car, someone else is going to build the engine for you, and someone else is going to repair it,” Rivero said. “If it’s part of the work to think archivally, then yes. If it’s part of the content, if it’s part of the motivation driving the thing that you are trying to communicate, then absolutely. But if it’s secondary, and you are doing it to make sure that it lasts, so that it can last for the sake of lasting? Then I don't know.”

A photo of a drawing on paper that is stained and ripped in places. The drawing is of a hand with lines and shapes around it.
Courtesy of Kenny Rivero and Charles Moffett Gallery, New York
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Mano Poderosa, 2019-2020, graphite on liner from a record sleeve, 11.75 x 12.25 inches.

So if the life of the work is not the artist’s responsibility, then who is responsible in terms of the enterprise of creative legacy?

The answer to that question might depend on where one sits within this continuum of creation. Ellen McCulloch-Lovell with the Wolf Khan Foundation, for example, acts as a steward of creative work, and does think the artist has some responsibility.

"Because, for example, take the matter of how artists’ stored art can be stored in a studio or a barn, you know, or places that will not make sure that it stays intact,” she said. “Some artists don't make their work to last. That's one consideration. I think most artists would like their work to last. And so they have a kind of primary responsibility for the materials they use and how they take care of it. Beyond that, do they have relationships with organizations, collecting organizations, like museums, or other organizations that will help them think about what happens to that work when they're no longer there? Do they want to give it to family members? Do they want to give it to a museum or a gallery?”

If you are picking up a tone of urgency in the questions that Ellen is posing, that is not by mistake: She says an artist’s materials, family and legacy are some of the most critical questions that many are grappling with.

Cornelia Carey, Executive Director of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund (CERF+), knows these questions all too well. In fact, it was a complex situation linked to legacy that was the impetus for CERF+ to start educating crafters about these issues.

“I was at a craft show a number of years ago now, and a jeweler friend came up to me saying, ‘You guys have to do something about this,’” Carey said. “He dove into this story about a good friend of his who was an art jeweler for over 40 years, and who suddenly passed away at 70 – he hadn’t been sick. This jeweler was one of those individuals who was so busy with his career and making, that he really hadn't made any plans or told his family what his intentions were with the completed work in his studio, his equipment and materials. Over the years, he created a number of one-of-a-kind tools, some of which had been inlaid with precious gems and stones, they were stunning just as objects in and of themselves. His family, in their grief, was very keen to clear out quickly. These tools ended up in a yard sale.”

CERF+’s practical approach and advice to crafters is highly applicable to artists working in any medium – performing and theater arts, textile, visual and culinary arts, the literary realm. And if you are the artist at the center of this, whether you are emerging, mid-level, or established, what are the key questions you need to be asking yourself based on where you are in your career?

“Self audit,” Carey says. “Look at looking at your studio, where do you create your work? Do you own or rent your studio space? And, all the things that you have put together to create your work, a kind of inventory. What are your non-artistic assets? Do you have tools as I mentioned earlier, or books, rare editions? What are the things in your space that are of great value to you, or might be to others in the future?”

“The real focus needs to be, who was this person? What did they care about? How do we remember them for future generations? And how do we take their great spirits and pass them along to others who won't have had the opportunity to get to know them?"
Cornelia Carey, Executive Director of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund

There are many other scenarios within the range of case studies that CERF+ outlines within their guide, Crafting Your Legacy, that will encourage you to at least get the wheels turning about what creative legacy might look like for you or an artist you are connected to.

While Carey outlined many of the assets that an artist may have, she wants us to think beyond these things when we consider what is at the center of an artist’s life.

“The real focus needs to be, who was this person? What did they care about? How do we remember them for future generations? And how do we take their great spirits and pass them along to others who won't have had the opportunity to get to know them? How do we take that?” she said. “To me, that’s what legacy planning should be all about.”

If you are the artist reading this, you can think about your options, which might include what Wolf Khan and Emily Mason have done, and create an organization that stewards your work.

If you are within a community or are the spouse of, or friend to an artist or group of creatives, maybe you want to be thinking about how you can be a good steward of their work.

And anyone along this continuum can take practical steps that range from organizing and sorting digital archives, to assessing the physical assets attached to the creative output.

These things are important options to consider. However, key to all of this is the advice of artist Kenny Rivero, who wants to remind you to think about your approach to your practice within this legacy creation – while you are here.

“There's this myth about artists solitary in the studio working away, and that's great for a couple of years,” he said. “But at the same time, you want to be connected to a larger history with your peers.”

Legacy, Rivero adds, isn’t about being the only person doing something.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vprnet.

A logo in blue text that reads "seeing," with an eye shape in the middle of "see" and "ing"
Natalie Cosgrove
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Vermont PBS

This story is part of "Seeing…the Unseen and In-Between within Vermont's Landscape," a new series dedicated to the exploration of culture, place, people, and the stories that run deep here in Vermont.

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