Welcome to the Data of the Artist

Last fall, 120 artists sent me their résumés. They were not applying for a job at the Foundation, nor was I creating a hard copy LinkedIn. Artists agreed to share this career documentation as part of a year-long celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the McKnight Artist Fellowship program. In thinking about the history of the program, we were curious about concretes (What kind of things have artists been up to?) as well as questions grandiose (What patterns, trends, and threads are discernible in the records of artists’ livelihood?). Since most artists already keep a résumé at the ready, it seemed a good place to start.

We knew that the work reflected in the résumés would be wildly varied. What became apparent almost immediately was that artists didn’t always capture the same kind of information as each other, and when they did, they didn’t do it in the same way. (Nonconforming artists!)

We asked data artist Wes Grubbs and Pitch Interactive to decipher a way into this rich and messy stream of information. We knew of Wes as a founder of the Eyeo Festival, and liked his work for Wired and Scientific American.

Wes and his colleagues turned hundreds of pages of résumés into blocks of comparable data, then used that data to create three distinct types of visualizations. Each draws a picture of the artists’ career paths in a different way. One aggregates their activities into a collective stream. Another shows bursts of activity and periods of dormancy (or most likely development) over a career. The final diagram follows the path of each artist’s work around the world. Every element of the design comes directly from each résumé, and accordingly, no two visualizations are alike. (Nonconforming data visualizations!) To see them collectively feels like a wild geometric free-for-all. To see them individually animates a unique history. The work probably raises more questions than it addresses, but it points us in a direction of thinking about the myriad kinds of work artists do, and the places they do it. It’s a fitting complement to the deep, textured films that Works Progress is making about artist fellows this year.

And, I would venture, it is more fun than you’ve ever had with a pile of résumés.

Take some time to explore the project: diagrams.stateoftheartist.org. If you use Twitter, please share what you see in this work using #McKnightData.


Laura Zimmermann is program officer and director of artist fellowships at The McKnight Foundation. You can reach her directly at lzimmermann@mcknight.org.