Retrospective-Database Consultation Results

12 December, 2023

AOPA had two very constructive critiques of our Retrospective database design yesterday with a NYC art advisor and Montreal McCord Museum’s conservator.

We will be implementing the improvements they suggested, which were overlooked in the preliminary design. The database for archiving artworks is the foundation of the Retrospective platform. We want it to be as solid as possible for the launch later next year.

Art Advisor Sarah Greenberg Morse

Sarah Greenberg Morse brought her experience as an art advisor working with collectors and estate executors in NYC and beyond to AOPA’s Retrospective platform. Her comments were great, with several useful suggestions that will improve the information collected for artworks in terms of sales, collections and legacy information. I was nervous but so happy to have her eyes on our data design!

Before becoming an art advisor, Sarah Greenberg Morse founded and directed two contemporary art galleries in SoHo. She is an Associate Candidate of the Appraisers Association of America, USPAP compliant through March 2025.

Here are some of the improvements that we will make following her feedback:

  • It is important for art advisors, exhibitors and buyers to know the framed dimensions of a work, so this data field will be added.
  • For multiples, the number of artist proofs is important to have documented, so this data field will be added.
  • Sarah pointed out that the current Exhibition Type options are not coherent: solo and group are Exhibition types but art fair and festival are exhibition venue types. We will create a new data field called “Exhibition Venue Type” and include: museum, gallery, artist-run centre, festival, art fair.
  • We discussed Legacy information at length. Sarah pointed out that making a bequest often is a process. So we will reorganize this section to reflect that a bequest can be anything from desired, to requested, to confirmed.

Conservator Sara Serban

Sara Serban brought her vast experience as a conservator to AOPA’s Retrospective platform. Her focus was a critical look at our fields for condition reports, location and authenticity information.

Before taking on her current post at the McCord Museum, Sara also worked at the National Gallery of Canada and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. In addition, she has worked for the Centre de Conservation du Québec, working on various works of public art around Montréal. She graduated from the Master of Art Conservation Program at Queen’s University, Kingston with a specialty in Objects Conservation in 2007.

Here are some of the improvements that we will make following her feedback:

  • Sara pointed out that condition reports must take into account the specificity of the medium of the artwork (glass, ceramic, video, painting, works on paper, etc.). Each requires some specific data fields. We concluded that, because of the large number of fields required, it does not make sense to have all these data fields built into the Retrospective data design. Furthermore, these fields will never need to be used in our web pages, or will they need to be searched. So, the preferred solution will be to create a series of Word documents, one for each artwork type, with multiple check box and text fields to make it as efficient as possible for the user to do the report. These can be downloaded, filled out and then uploaded to the artwork.
  • Sara also pointed out that condition reports need to be able to capture changes in the artwork’s condition, for example when it travels to an exhibition. So this will be taken in consideration when the Word templates are created.
  • She brought up the special issues of documenting and archiving early digital artworks using video and computers. We will review all data fields for artworks with this type of work in mind and make any additions if necessary.
  • Sara pointed out current problems arising in the art world around the creation of false provenance (e.g. artists or collectors making false claims about a work being in an exhibition). The database already has fields to collect documents related to exhibitions, but we see the importance of encouraging our artists to use these fields to add exhibition invitations, screen shots of the exhibition page created by the venue, and including image and video documentation of the exhibition showing the works installed.

We have two more consultations planned. But for now, I’m off to make those changes to the database and our page templates!


Bringing Contemporary-Art-Publication Design into Retrospective

24 November, 2023

The design vocabulary for AOPA’s Retrospective platform takes the last 50+ years of print publications in the art world as a primary reference: specifically the rich design conventions of contemporary art catalogs and artist monographs.

With the recent and most happy addition of the accomplished freelance designer Alex Tench to the AOPA team, the visual design process has begun. Our objective is to create a basic classic graphic theme for Retrospective that will be available to all our clients. The point of departure for this work was a concentrated round of research.

The First Step: Research

Last week, Alex went on a field trip to the Emily Carr University of Art + Design library and Don did the same at Artext and the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Bibliothèque des arts. We perused many dozens of contemporary art catalogs, from the 1970s to the present, with the intent of distilling out recurring design choices.

Page from Outside the Palace of Me: Shary Boyle, Canadian Art Institute, 2021.

We quickly found that there were many best practices for presenting information and images that the unsung army of talented and committed art-publication designers have returned to over the years. We identified the visual treatments that made the content easy to understand and read, and that struck the eye as looking fabulous and beautiful. Then we gave consideration to which of these design conventions showed promise in making the transition from paper to screen. What’s relevant on the physical page does not necessarily translate to monitors or mobile devices.

Design in the Service of Art

Before getting into the research findings, this is a good place to reiterate a fundamental principle that is applied to all AOPA’s design work, whether it is visual or in terms of usability. We take as a given that our design decisions must not only put the artwork first, but also must enhance, where possible, users’ understanding of the artist’s creative project. We want people to leave feeling they are closer to the artwork.

For graphic design this means it must, in most cases, be quiet, sit back. It should only come forward if a bolder graphic treatment makes sense for the artist’s work. The design is in the service of the art, not vice versa.

The Research Findings

Here are some of the findings that Alex put together, which will guide his design work on the classic Retrospective theme…

Considered Use of White Space

Convention: Whitespace

Convention: White Space (examples)

Sophisticated Grids

Convention: Grids
Convention Grids (examples)
Convention: Grids (Swiss Style)

Restrained Use of Color

Convention: Color
Convention: Color (examples)


Convention: Typography
Convention: Typography (examples)
Convention: Typography (examples)

Type Alignment

Convention: Type Alignment
Convention: Type Alignment (examples)

Predominance of Imagery

Convention: Predominance of Imagery
Convention: Predominance of Imagery (examples)

Limited Use of Graphic Elements

Convention: Graphic Elements
Convention: Graphic Elements (examples)


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Client Feedback

I love your attention to detail, be it in the design, the images, editing text, improving on my writing. Your background in writing is an extra asset to your service. You were very professional in the whole process. You take the whole of the client's needs into consideration and that is what makes your service unique. You care, and it shows in the creation of a beautiful product. I felt you went beyond what was needed to make the site spectacular.

Mariela Borello, Montréal artist

I have so appreciated working with Don at AOPA to create my website. His knowledge of navigation on various screen sizes, his understanding of clients' needs, combined with his attention to detail and endless patience makes working with Don such a pleasure. My online presence has enabled my work to be professionally presented to gallerists and clients alike, which in turn has resulted in exhibition invitations and exposure in print, and has got my work out to a much larger audience . I trust Dons judgement, appreciate his professionalism and I have and do highly recommend collaborating with him on any project.

Jennifer Small, Montréal artist

I am very pleased with my site, its appearance and functionality. I was also happy that you showed me how to do some of the work myself so I can do the updating. You aren’t some young hotshot so I felt like I would be less likely to be judged for my ineptitude with all things computer-related. I am particularly pleased that people continue to be able to find it. I know that is something you put a lot of work into.

Sarah Stevenson, Montréal sculptor