Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting and 42nd CAC-ACCR Annual Conference — Book and Paper Session, May 16th — “Push Pins, Staples, Daylight, Glazing and Barrier Free: Are conservation standards becoming too relaxed?” by Joan Weir

In the BPG session on Monday, May 16, Joan Weir gave voice to a question that has undoubtedly plagued the sleep of many of her colleagues: are conservation standards, particularly when it comes to exhibition, becoming too relaxed? In her role as Conservator for Works of Art on Paper at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Ms. Weir has gained extensive experience with the challenges of exhibiting contemporary art. Noting that the range of artifacts classified as “works of art on paper” is very broad, Weir commented that it can be difficult to set consistent boundaries and guidelines for exhibition practices. Some touchstones are available to conservators, including AIC’s Code of Ethics and intellectual property laws. I was interested to learn that in Canada, artists retain “moral rights” to their work, even if they no longer hold economic rights to the work. This moral right allows artists to protect their work from changes that might compromise their original intent, including changes in how the work is displayed.*
To illustrate the challenges inherent in exhibiting contemporary art, Weir presented several case studies. The first example was Richard Serra’s 9’ by 21’ oilstick on paper, Untitled, 1974 (presented at the 2013 AIC Annual Meeting, and blogged by Karen Dabney). The artist’s intention was that the work be stapled directly to the gallery wall, and shown without any barrier. Weir and her colleagues collaborated with Serra and a studio assistant to develop a protocol for installing the work, which toured to several locations. They created mockups to practice the installation protocol, and to try to answer what Weir called “a world of nerdy conservation questions,” such as: what kind of staples should be used? What kind of stapler? Do the staple bands need to come into contact with the paper? Should existing staple holes be used? The same two-person team traveled to all exhibition venues to carry out the installation, and an agreement was reached to station a guard in the gallery at all times, to compensate for the lack of a physical barrier. While the protocol was largely successful, Weir noted that it is often the case that “once you go there, you can’t go back” – stapling is now considered an option for other exhibits.
The next case study was installation of large, unglazed wax pastels for AGO’s 2015 exhibition Stephen Andrews POV, which were hung using a temporary tab of sheer polyester attached to the work using Beva and heat, and stapled to the wall. The artist liked this system so well that he requested that the tabs be left attached to the works he loaned for the show. Low platform barriers were used for this exhibition, but AGO staff noted the presence of footprints on top of the platforms, suggesting that the barrier was not entirely successful.
Throughout her presentation, Weir emphasized the importance of dialog between conservators, curators, and artists. Natural light presents a special set of challenges. Weir cited an exhibit of Marcel Dzama’s work, in which over 100 works were rotated into 33 frames to minimize individual light exposure. She also described a large watercolor on canvas by Silke Otto-Knapp, which was shown unglazed in a gallery with uncovered windows. In that case, the artist shared information about the materials used to create the work, allowing conservators to determine that it was likely to be stable in the gallery conditions.
Through these examples, Weir made a compelling case that our job as conservators is to adapt to changing conventions and exhibition practices, while still ensuring the safety of the artwork. By engaging in early, frequent, and open communication with stakeholders, including the artist, and by thinking creatively about solutions to exhibition challenges, conservators can be good stewards not only of the physical object, but of the artist’s conceptual intent.
*I am not a legal scholar, and I apologize if I mischaracterized the implications of Canadian copyright law!