Reviewed February 2016
Reviewed February 2016
Kara Lewis, Collections Information System Administrator/Analyst, IT Applications Office
Smithsonian, National Museum of the American Indian
Initiated in 2000 “to improve access to information about Native American visual artists and their art,” VIRCONA is a publicly accessible catalog featuring 1,500 Native American artists and 3,500 related art objects drawn from the slide collection at the University of New Mexico’s Bunting Visual Resources Library (BVRL). The coverage is expansive, representing painters, sculptors, carvers, shoemakers, silversmiths, photographers, architects, digital artists, and many, many more, from the past 170 years. Here, one can explore the works of Arapaho architects, browse representations of pottery from the Acoma Pueblo, or research specific people such as contemporary Inuit artist Pudlo Pudlat, Ojibwe sculptor Adam Fortunate Eagle or works from the Pangnirtung Workshop.
One can search by keyword or specific terms such as artist name, fabrication method, place, or time period. Of particular importance to this catalog is the ability to search by tribal affiliation; VIRCONA provides a drop-down menu with more than fifty tribes from which to choose. The initial results feature thumbnails of the relevant art objects, the object’s title, and the artist’s name.Clicking on the object’s title retrieves the full record whereas clicking on the artist’s name retrieves the profile record featuring biographical data and tribal affiliation as well as links to all of the artist’s work represented in VIRCONA. The artwork records describe materials, techniques, measurements, work types, and the repository where the work is housed. While much of the content in VIRCONA is highly unique in nature, the general data is structured according to standards in the Getty’s Union List of Artist Names, Art and Architecture Thesaurus, and Thesaurus of Geographic Names, and the Visual Resource Association’s Core Categories. Other features of the site are the familial relationships between artists and variant names as well as multiple resources with more information about the artists and their work. The thumbnails can be downloaded but they cannot be resized. If one wanted to pursue a higher quality image, they could track down the source from where the image came as VIRCONA includes citations from where the image was found.
Since its launch in 2000, VIRCONA has undergone some platform changes as the BVRL staff has worked to expand the content. Unlike a registry, the mission of VIRCONA remains wed to adding records related to Native American artists represented in the slide collection or selected by faculty in the UNM College of Fine Arts. To some users, the interface of the catalog may seem dated and out of step with today’s discovery systems. However, the content available should trump the initial impressions one may have about the search interface. The rich content will leave users wanting more functionality so as to better experience and interact with the records.
If the BVRL is able to expand the site, the BVRL could consider making the information and/or indexes available through XML downloads or other formats allowing people to repurpose the data itself – a move well-aligned with the “Open Data” trend in many research libraries. It is evident that a lot of hard work went into validating and standardizing the terminology on the site and others could make good use of it. BVRL could also investigate making larger “thumbnails” available for educational purposes citing “fair use,” which would greatly increase VIRCONA’s value to educational institutions.
VIRCONA is important resource, with or without significant infrastructural development. Where else can one generate a list of Kwakwaka'wakw headgear makers? The search features alone play an important role in raising the visibility of Native American artists for a wider public audience. Any expansion would enhance an already rich resource that remains freely available for anyone to use.