AIC's 41st Annual Meeting- Art on Paper Discussion Group

The inaugural meeting for this group took place on May 31, 2013 at the AIC Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, ID.  Organized by Nancy Ash, Scott Homolka, Stephanie Lussier and Eliza Spaulding, the session presented the Draft Guidelines for Descriptive Terminology for Works of Art on Paper which is a project under way at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and supported by an IMLS 21st Century Museum Professionals Grant.

img1 We all probably face the same questions of how to describe a work of art in detail.  For example, when do you call something a “colored print” as opposed to a “print with color”?  We may have our own system for description which is internally consistent, but what happens when an object goes out on loan and the borrowing institution uses different language for its exhibit labels or publications or websites?  Additionally, survey and collection management software often come with pre-populated databases that limit the options and can result in two similar artworks having very different exhibit labels.   The slides that were scrolling across the screen during the introduction were great examples of the dilemma.  Two different collages demonstrated the issue of describing the pieces of a collage; one had artist-generated pieces, the other cut outs of printed papers such as magazines and newspapers.  Would you feel the need to go to that level of detail if the two collages weren’t next to each other inviting comparison?  Does the purpose of the description (collection survey versus pre-loan condition assessment versus pre-treatment documentation) make a difference?  The slideshow ended with a picture of a Harley Davidson motorcycle on exhibit and a shot of the label that said “mixed media”.  While catch-all phrases can be handy, clearly they don’t always work!
The Terminology Guidelines propose systematic levels of information and rules of syntax to structure description including three “levels of detail”.
The meeting conveners had put together a practical exercise for the audience as a “test-drive” for their proposed system of terminology.  Six different drawings were laid out on the chairs in the meeting room along with a list of questions.  A group of people was assigned to each drawing with a moderator to facilitate the process.  The questions were:

  1. How would you describe the drawing (using your “home” criteria)?
  2. Using the excerpts from the Terminology Guidelines provided, please modify your description accordingly.
  3. What immediate suggestions/changes come to mind? Discuss.

The exercise inspired a lot of discussion and engagement from our group.  We agreed, generally, on how to describe our drawing of rats, working through the list of media and then describing the artist’s technique or manipulation (e.g. smudging).  Our moderator prompted us with additional questions about level of detail and the order in which you might list things.  One of the people in our group was a panel presenter from the general session.  He was not a conservator but sat in for the sake of the experience and he noted that while we spent a lot of time describing the media and the technique, none of the conservators in the group considered mentioning the subject of the drawing- the rats!  No surprise to us, but definitely a surprise to our guest.
After our allotted working time was up, each group presented their findings and feedback to the audience.  The response was generally enthusiastic, but of course, there were more questions: How many colors do you describe? Do you list the media in order of predominance or application?  Are there differing levels of detail recommended based on the intended use of the documentation (pre-treatment condition report vs. pre-loan condition assessment)?
The Terminology Guidelines are a work in progress, but I look forward to further drafts.  I think there is a lot of potential for greater consistency across the profession and I also see real potential in time management for documentation and for spec’ing out projects and contracts.  The format of presentation, exercise and feedback was a really great way to engage the audience, so well done APDG!