Curator digitizes the university’s art collection, one work at a time

Nearly 700 works of art owned by the UAB are being photographed and archived so that the permanent collection can be viewed online.

A massive task is set before John Fields: locating, photographing and archiving nearly 700 pieces of artwork in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s permanent collection.

Fields, M.F.A, is the interim director of the UAB Visual Arts Gallery, and he’s finishing the job former director Brett Levine started. The diverse, permanent collection has grown exponentially for more than three decades with works purchased or gifted. Some are by famous artists: a naughty doodle by Pablo Picasso, photographs by Andy Warhol, a print of a sculpture from the personal sketch book of Robert Rauschenberg. Many other works were created by UAB students and faculty, past and present.

The mission is to first chronicle each and every painting, drawing, sketch, print and sculpture, to develop an online catalog of all the works, available for viewing any time by students and the public. Fields is working on the project during the summer, while the gallery is closed. He first hangs the work level on a white wall, photographs it, then corrects and balances the electronic image before recording all the vital information — year it was created, artist, title, medium and other important details. He’s trained to photograph works behind glass, which can be difficult.

The mission is to first chronicle each and every painting, drawing, sketch, print and sculpture, to develop an online catalog of all the works, available for viewing any time by students and the public.

“My big goal is to make sure we have an accurate inventory before moving to the IVA,” Fields says, referring to the coming UAB Abroms-Engel Institute for Visual Arts, which will be built in UAB’s cultural arts district, near the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center and the Hulsey Center for the Performing Arts. “It’s time for this, we need to do this.”

As UAB’s collection has grown, storage space has dwindled. Sorting through the stored collection is daunting. Each numbered work must be located, identified, photographed and archived. He must locate works from the collection that hang in buildings and offices around campus. Fields must go ensure each is where it is supposed to be and account for works that are missing, misplaced or damaged, he says. UAB does not loan any pieces off-site, except under rare circumstances, Fields says.

One example of discovering what’s hidden in the storage shelves: Fields found a self-portrait painted by illustrator Marvin Hayes, who ended up creating one of the most famous and best-selling modern, illustrated Bibles. The work has real value, although it isn’t obvious from first glance.

“I’ve had lots of surprises as I’ve looked artists up,” he says.

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