AIC's 41st Annual Meeting, Wooden Artifacts Session, May 31st “ Contemporary Sculpture; To Contact the Artist or Not” by Rose Cull

I had really been looking forward to this presentation, especially as there were two WAG session presentations on the same topic, and Rose did not disappoint.
Rose began her presentation with some solid background information and began by defining contemporary art as being created by living artists, meaning I believe that the artist and viewer (and in this case the conservator) are both living at the time the art is being viewed. She also reminded the audience that the creation of art has changed from a means of expression based on a solid craft background to a means of expression where issues of stability or longevity may be of little or no concern. As the inherent instability of much contemporary art requires intervention to maintain some degree of the artist’s original intent over time, this lead to a short overview of the Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA) of 1990. The Act grants the moral right of artists to protect their works from derogatory treatment that may be prejudicial to the artist’s honor, reputation, or economic interests. (apologies for a very compressed overview of the Act which may be viewed in it’s entirety on the web). Rose made a point of noting that under VARA an artist cannot claim conservation as a “destruction, distortion, or mutilation of their work unless it is performed with gross negligence”.
Through her past experience in interviewing various museum related stakeholders she made one other important point. A work of art represents a specific point in an artist’s development or career. Although one may communicate with a contemporary artist and ask those questions that seem most vital to know about a specific work, the artist may have moved on, changed his or her working methods and lost or forgotten the inspiration for a past project. An artist may not view a completed work from their past with the same interest or perception as when the work was fresh, and in fact might create the same work quite differently today.
With the background information clearly presented, Rose offered two case studies, one with a sculpture by Louise Nevelson, and one by Cornelia Parker.
With the Louise Nevelson sculpture, Rose read Nevelson’s autobiography, researched her materials, looked at other works, and contacted the Nevelson Foundation. The Foundation is run by Maria Nevelson, Louise’s granddaughter, and Maria contacted Rose directly, offering enthusiasm and support by sending along a list of conservators known to have treated other Nevelson works. Armed with knowledge, support, and the consultation of fellow conservators Rose was able to address the issues and complete the treatment to everyone’s satisfaction.
The Cornelia Parker treatment was a bit more complicated, beginning with the fact that it was created from charred wood collected from a church that had been struck by lightening and burned. In this case she did not contact the artist. Although the reasons for treatment were rather mundane, an accumulation of airborne dust was beginning to distract from the presentation, the questions and answers might have lead to complications (I am paraphrasing here). In the end Rose created a system of careful and effective non-contact “dusting” effectively minimizing intervention.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the presentation was the limited time left for questions, with only enough time to register the opposing views from the audience that 1. artists and Foundations were often impossible to work with, and 2. times have changed and artists and Foundations are much more receptive. Wish that could have been batted about for another hour!