America's Distinguished Artists
a national registry of historic artists
Accuracy and trustworthiness of biographers
Biographers have varying motives, levels of credentials and care exhibited in their research. Some biographers:
The above indicators may lend evidence that the biographer can be considered a trusted source.
TFAO advises individuals researching an artist to carefully consider the credentials of the biographer. If the biographer's name is stated, the researcher should weigh the credentials of the author in assessing the quality of the biography. There may be a widely-regarded top expert for an artist. It's worthwhile to find that expert.
Wherever possible, Resource Library, our publication including articles and essays, includes biographical information about authors following texts written by them. Since articles and essays in Resource Library often contain biographical information on artists written by more than one author, you may cross-check facts presented with relative ease using its search feature. When discrepancies in objective facts are found, such as dates of birth and death, awards, roster of exhibits and the like, TFAO encourages you to seek additional sources or contact the sources of conflicting information to allow you to choose the version of facts satisfactory to you. Subjective opinions by authors will of course vary, as they should.
Some biographers are meticulous and thorough, others less careful in their research. The quality level of an author's texts may be inconsistent, just as is the case of an artist's works written about.
Biographies can be written for a mix of motives. Motives can slant what content is added and withheld from a biography. Study the context in which the biography was written to discern how motives may color the quality and relevance of the biography. Common motives include:
Biographies may embellish facts in order to enhance monetary value of an artist's entire production, a block of work or a particular work. Further motives to consider when attributing value to a biography might include:
Extra caution is in order when reading a biography without reference to its author. More often than not, online biographies have no stated author. Most museum and art dealer websites contain biographies without named authors. In such cases, the reputation of the museum's curators or dealer's principals are quite important.
Many biographies found online plagiarize portions of previously written texts. All versions may be inaccurate.
In many cases you should consider information presented in America's Distinguished Artists as a starting point for your research, especially information that is not within Resource Library articles and essays. For information on how TFAO reviews biographies see reviewing existing listings.
What about artist information within Resource Library articles sourced from texts about museum exhibitions where an author is not named?
For many years, Resource Library has clearly identified sources of texts within its articles. In almost all cases when an author is not named, artist information cited in Resource Library articles is sourced verbatim from texts sent to it from museums regarding exhibitions. Resource Library does not revise biographical information provided by a source without first consulting with it. But what about the accuracy of the texts written by a museum? Anonymous media relations staff in many museums condense texts written by exhibition curators to create press releases. For smaller museums, press releases may be written by the exhibition curator without attribution. For many articles, Resource Library includes additional texts forwarded by museums. These texts may include art object labels, gallery guide and wall panel texts, which are almost always written by curators, and checklists created by a museum's professional staff.
TFAO's research report Museums Explained contains sections with explanations of terms used above: see Staff positions and Definitions.
What about Wikipedia?
A rapidly increasing source of biographies is Wikipedia, which provides scant information on its sources. Although entries can be edited by anyone, many Wikipedia biographies are well researched and monitored by expert editors. Quality is improving over time as Wikipedia improves its editing system. The references and footnotes provided in Wikipedia biographies may prove useful even if the biography is suspect. America's Distinguished Artist often lists Wikipedia biographies for the value provided by references and footnotes.
What about artist information from oral interviews?
The Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art contains hundreds of oral history interviews of living and deceased artists. Taped interviews of artists and transcripts are available online. They reveal first hand information without interpretation by authors. Many of these interviews are listed in America's Distinguished Artists. Other oral interviews in video or audio format my be found by search within Resource Library articles and essays devoted to individual artists and within TFAO's Catalogues.
While we're talking about research...
You may also enjoy TFAO's pages How to research topics not listed and General Resources.
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