To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We kicked off the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation, and now we are focusing on practitioners in AIC’s Electronic Media Group (EMG). These conservators work with time-based media, which can include moving components, performance, light or sound elements, film and video, analog or born-digital materials. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.
In our first EMG interview, we spoke with Nick Kaplan. Now for our second interview from the EMG series, we turn to with Alexandra Nichols, currently a Sherman Fairchild Foundation Fellow in the conservation of time-based media and installation art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. From 2016-2017, she was a Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow in Time-based Media Conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She earned her Master’s of Art Conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (2016) where she concentrated on the conservation of modern and contemporary objects.
ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Alexandra Nichols (AN): I received my Master’s of Conservation from Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2016, where I concentrated on the conservation of modern and contemporary objects. I recently completed a one-year fellowship as a Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow in Time-based Media Conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where I was working under Joanna Phillips, the Guggenheim’s Senior Conservator of Time-based Media. Just a few weeks ago, I joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Sherman Fairchild Foundation Conservation Fellow, where I’ll be working with the Met’s collection of time-based media and installation art.
ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
AN: After obtaining my undergraduate degree in art history, I moved to London and landed a job as an executive assistant at the British Museum. While there, I visited the Hirayama Studio, the British Museum’s conservation lab dedicated to the care and treatment of East Asian paintings and works on paper. It’s a beautiful, peaceful room, with tatami mats and walls lined with brushes and different types of paper. I loved how the conservators could develop such a close, tactile relationship with the artworks, and how the treatments were carried out with respect for the cultures that created the works. This led me to seek out internships where I could gain experience in conservation.
ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue electronic or time-based media conservation?
AN: I’m really fascinated by the wide range of materials and methods utilized by contemporary artists. Something I love about time-based media art is its complexity and variability. An artwork may have multiple channels of video, require a very specific placement in the gallery, or be shown differently based on the size or shape of the room.
My training is in objects conservation, focusing on the conservation of contemporary art. During the course of my graduate studies, none of the North American programs offered coursework in time-based media*. Thus, I was able to explore working with time-based media during my graduate internships at the Hirshhorn and the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that many of the time-based media pieces I’ve worked on incorporate sculptural elements, so my graduate training has been helpful in ways I didn’t expect. Learning how these objects should be placed in an installation and their relationship to electronic and audiovisual elements is really intriguing.
*The Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) at New York University is implementing a curriculum geared towards the conservation of time-based media, and is accepting applications this this year for Fall 2018 matriculation. http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart/conservation/time-based-media.htm
ECPN: What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
AN: I’ve always had an interest in computers and electronics. In middle school and high school, I learned the programming language C, built computers as a hobby, and took courses in video editing and digital photography as part of my undergraduate degree.
I’m originally from the Washington, DC area, and after deciding to pursue conservation, I completed pre-program internships and contracts at various museums in the Smithsonian system, including the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Museum Conservation Institute, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
In 2013, I began my graduate studies at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, where I specialized in the conservation of modern and contemporary objects. As a graduate student, I completed a summer internship at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, preparing time-based media works in their collection for the 2014 exhibition Days of Endless Time. During my third-year internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I collaborated with Kate Lewis and Amy Brost to treat a pearlescent bead-adorned cathode ray tube television set by Nam June Paik and Otto Piene.
Additionally, the chance to work with Joanna Phillips at the Guggenheim has been thrilling—there aren’t many opportunities to learn about time-based media conservation in the American graduate conservation programs, so emerging conservators must gain expertise through internships and fellowships. However, this is changing soon — The Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) at New York University is implementing a curriculum geared towards the conservation of time-based media, and is accepting applications this year for Fall 2018 matriculation (link: https://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart/conservation/time-based-media.htm). I’ll be utilizing the skills I’ve developed over the past year at my current fellowship working with the time-based media art collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
AN: Strong documentation skills are important in any specialization, but this is especially true for time-based media. The inherent variability of time-based media requires extensive research and documentation to ensure that it can be installed correctly in the future. It’s also important to know about the history of video production, including film history and the development of various formats. Foundational knowledge of video and other technologies is also crucial and has to be updated continuously, since technology is always evolving. Without this knowledge, media conservators cannot seek out and engage external specialists and vendors who can provide specific technical expertise
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
AN: I am just getting started at The Met, but I am currently working with Nora Kennedy and Meredith Reiss to help document the 250 time-based media artworks in The Met’s collection. This includes updating questionnaires that are sent to artists during the acquisition process, which help us learn more about the production history and intended exhibition of the artwork, and researching past exhibitions to create retroactive iteration reports. The Met has had a Time-based Media Working Group for many years now, and I am looking forward to collaborating with its members as I conduct my research.
ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
AN: I think the acquisition and display of virtual reality (VR) will pose a number of challenges for conservators in the coming years. Artists are increasingly experimenting with these types of works—Jordan Wolfson exhibited a VR work in the Whitney Biennial this year, for example—but as far as I know, no museums have acquired a VR piece yet. This technology is so new and is still being developed, and as a result, there’s so much potential for the obsolescence of file formats and hardware.
ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
AN: Try playing around with how to shoot and edit your own video in Final Cut Pro or Premiere! It will teach you about digital video formats and give you some insight into the artist’s process. And, don’t be afraid to reach out to conservators you admire to learn more about what they do!
ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.
AN: Supervised training under established media conservators is essential to the development of one’s skills as an emerging time-based media conservator. Fellowships and internships provide practical experience with real-life museum scenarios that is not possible to gain through readings or coursework. I am extremely grateful to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for providing me with opportunities to hone my expertise at the Guggenheim and The Met.
*Featured photograph: Alexandra examines a MiniDV tape containing an artwork while working at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. [Photo: Kris Mckay]