AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting-Working With Artists Luncheon

Moderated by Nancy Odegaard, this lunch session featured three speakers, Landis Smith, Charles Stable and Glenn Wharton, who gave presentations about their experiences working with artists-from specific case studies to broad approaches-to carry out conservation work in museums.  All of the speakers touched on the idea that working with artists was necessary to determine a sense of the essence of the objects/artwork-even if they weren’t working with the artists who created created the items in question. These engaging talks were followed by a question and answer session which gave the speakers and the audience the opportunity to explore questions and concerns about the role of the conservator and the artist in interpreting and preserving museum collections.

The first speaker was Landis Smith, who spoke about her experiences working with indigenous artists. She has worked with people from many different communities, from tribes in the Southwest US to Native Alaskans, and in her career she has seen as shift in the way that museums work with these communities-from a post-colonial way of working toward facilitating greater access to collections for indigenous people. She has learned how objects from these communities are more than just objects-they are an embodiment of culture, traditional knowledge and memory, and this has affected how she carries out examination and documentation. She touched upon the idea that working with artists in this way always involves a risk-benefit assessment; that there is a middle ground to be found between artist intent, object meaning and conservation needs.

Landis stressed the importance of working collaboratively with indigenous communities so that we can better interpret, document and exhibit their material culture. While most of the consultations she spoke about were in-person, she also briefly mentioned a live video consultation carried out as part of the Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: the First Peoples of Alaska at the Smithsonian. Using new technologies for this type of interaction may allow for more conversations and collaborative projects to take place that otherwise might be prohibitively costly or logistically difficult.  For any consultation, Landis stressed the importance of preparing in advance so that this experience can result in a meaningful information exchange and to allow a real dialog to take place.

Landis concluded her talk with a discussion of the fact that the missing link for ethnographic conservators is spending time in these communities. She recently worked with NMAI to organize a trip for their conservators and Mellon fellows visit communities in and around Santa Fe and Albuquerque. This type of experience offers the unique opportunity for conservators to being to make the link between the objects and the culture, the people and the landscape.

Charles Stable spoke next about a project at the National Museum of Scotland, where the museum worked with a Maori artist to recreate missing components of a war canoe in the collection. The canoe has mostly resided in storage and it cannot be attributed to a specific Maori community-it was likely made as a trade piece-and has been challenging to interpret. As a result, the museum consulted with Maori artist George Nuku, who suggested that the canoe was a pastiche that was not constructed by a Maori. He recommended that certain components be removed and replaced and the museum worked with him so that he could create pieces using his own inspiration and materials. Both Nuku and the museum wanted it to be obvious that these new components were reproductions, so Nuku chose to make these pieces in his material of choice-Perspex, which is essentially the same as Plexiglas. After creating these components he added new abalone shell inlays, and bound the pieces to the rest of the canoe using traditional methods.

During the talk, I believe that Charles mentioned that Perspex is not a stable material and so there would be issues with its preservation over time. Perspex is a Poly (methyl methacrylate)-I’m still not certain why it has preservation issues-it’s possible that due to the way Nuku carves into the Perspex, which may make it more brittle? If anyone else knows more about this please leave a comment!

In the end, this project was an attempt to balance the integrity of the object with Nuku’s interpretations and artistic expression. While some may find this type of work controversial, Charles pointed out that all of the additions made are reversible. To hear George Nuku speak about this project and to see him work on the new canoe components, follow this link.

The third speaker was Glenn Wharton, Time-based Media Conservator at MoMA and NYU Conservation Center faculty member. Glenn spoke about several projects at MoMA that have involved working with artists to exhibit their work many years after they were created. In the case of these artists and their work, there were questions about how the exhibition should look or be configured, so he requested interviews. He discussed the fact that working with the artists in this way results in the conservator, curator and artist working together to construct the authenticity of the artwork.

Glenn presented several examples, including Valie Export’s 1967-68 “Abstract Film No. 1”, John Maeda’s 2004 “Reactive Books” and Bruce Nauman’s 1993 “Think.” In some cases, because of technology or because the fact that the original artwork was a performance piece, the work as it was originally shown could not and cannot be exhibited. In these cases, Glenn has worked with the artist to identify the essence of their work and how this can be properly communicated to the public in a new exhibition. He spoke about the re-exhibition of these pieces as “translations” and “reconstitutions” of their artwork. In some cases, the pieces are re-dated to include the new date of exhibition, since this new exhibition is still part of the piece. So, for example, Bruce Nauman’s Think was originally created and exhibited in 1993 as 2 videos playing on 2 CRT monitors on a metal table with playback equipment, but in 2009, the videos were exhibited on 2 plasma screens on DVD. Nauman’s Think is now dated 1993/2009.

Glenn also spoke about his conversation with John Maeda, who felt that his work, which incorporated CRT monitors and plasma screens, was not about technology, but rather about people interacting with the work. He felt that this interaction should be filmed and perhaps this was the best way to exhibit (or preserve) the work into the future, however Glenn also mentioned that this idea may not be fully resolved by the artist or the museum.

Questions and discussion followed the talks, including conversations about artists’ “afterthoughts”-the fact that an artist’s idea of what the essence of their work is may be a moving target. Glenn reminded everyone that even in these more extreme examples that were presented, all interventions are reversible, which allows for future reinterpretation and changes to be made-both by the artists and the museums.

Several people voiced opinions about the notion of an artist reinterpreting another artist’s work-some people took issue with this and others thought this was interesting and an important way to involve artists. Conservation, after all, is not neutral either, no matter how much of an attempt we make for it to be. This led to a discussion on the importance of documentation-as we all know, no matter what decisions are made, it is important to document both the interventions and the decision-making involved. Landis also commented that documentation helps us to take the subjectivity out of our decision-making.

I thoroughly enjoyed this session and the discussion-it was evident that this was a topic that can and should be revisited repeatedly in the future-especially as museums and the role that they play in our culture evolve. I hope that anyone reading this will feel welcome to leave comments as well to continue this discussion and to raise any points that I failed to mention!



2 thoughts on “AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting-Working With Artists Luncheon”

  1. Thanks for your post, Molly. This was one of the sessions that I was sad to miss during the meeting. I was interested to see that Charles Stable recently published a paper in the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies on the treatment that he presented during this session in which he talks, in fairly good detail, about George Nuku’s carvings for the canoe and work proposed to document them so that accurate replicas potentially could be made in the future. Really interesting.

  2. Thanks Nancie! I’m glad you posted a link to that article-it has such terrific images and detailed information, including information about the issues with the long-term stability of Perpex/PMMA. I agree-what an interesting project.

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