AIC 41st Annual Meeting – Objects Session, Friday, May 31, 2013. Preserving an Aesthetic of Decay: Living Artists and the Conservation of Contemporary Objects by John T. Campbell.

Disclaimer: I am not the fastest note-taker, and may have misspelled some names or gotten some of the concepts a bit wrong.  If something I say is critical for you, please check directly with the presenter(s) for corroboration. 

The purpose of this presentation was to present a framework for collaboration between the artist and the conservator.  Of course, this is only possible with living and still-cognitive artists.  If you are working with such an individual, do not delay as the opportunity may close at any time without warning.

The presenter broke the process into two main areas.  The first is artist education – enhancing the likelihood of a favorable outcome.  The second is documentation – facilitated through an artist interview.  The anecdote presented was the work The Hill near El Paso, TX by artist Jim Magee.

Decay happens to all object with only a very few exceptions, especially those exhibited outdoors.  Complicating this fact is that some artists intentionally use decay (or “patination”) as part of their art.  What is intended, and what is not, that is the question.  And then there is the million dollar question, if decay is intended to be arrested at a certain point, can that be done, and how?

In order to even get to the artist documentation stage, it is necessary to foster a level of cooperation with the artist.  In some instances, this will be easy.  They will know about deterioration, conservation, maintenance needs, and so forth.  In other cases, they will be oblivious, or even worse, will have had a bad experience with conservation/conservators.  This requires diplomatic skills to foster a common ground that allows effective communication to occur.  At this point of common listening, it is possible to educate the artist, and of course the conservator as well.  The interview becomes possible.

Ideally, the interview will be in person.  Long-distance interviews are very difficult, especially if the object has not been examined in person by the conservator.  First, determine the artist’s expectations, then help manage their expectations.  Ask questions such as is deterioration wanted or not?  Entropic art desires deterioration as part of its evolution.  Is dirt/dust considered part of the object or an unwanted intrusion?  Is maintenance intended/desired or not? 

If time allows, create a manual of care for the object.  This will incorporate and memorialize in writing the intent and desires of the artist, as well as the recommendations of the conservator.  Of course, as with any written document, its presence must be kept in the consciousness of the responsible entity, or it essentially does not exist.  This is a HUGE problem.  How many of us have done CAPs for an organization, and five years later, no one there knows it exists, much less is following its recommendations?  It has happened to me probably a dozen times.  This problem alone could be the subject of a future AIC conference.

What was not discussed was how to affect arrested decay.  If layered on top of this is that the artist states they do not want any changes or alterations in appearance, the conservator is in an impossible position with our current technology.  Perhaps deaccessioning/selling is the best ethical solution? 😉

In my own practice, I did treatments for a California State Park where their park ethic and even motto was “arrested decay.”  Literally!  They were a mining-era ghost town supposedly left the way it was when abandoned.  In reality, a good deal of “interior decorating” was done in the 1940s and 1950s before it became a park, including cutesy furnishings of rooms, and decrepit horse-drawn vehicles in the fields.  But they wanted arrested decay, so they did not fix the holes in the roofs.  Not that long afterwards, the roofs began to collapse.  But they did not want to repair or fix anything, and no modern materials were supposed to be visible.  That had to change, obviously.  Now, they repair roof and other leaks, but still do not treat the exterior siding of the buildings.  I am sure their policy will have to change again.  Decay can be “arrested” perhaps for the memory of an individual, but not for centuries or millennia, at least for outdoor objects. 

My project at the park was to preserve several of the horse-drawn vehicles with minimal effect on their appearances.  The park staff wanted them to be continued to be exhibited in the fields, which was actively contributing to their deterioration.  But they did not want anything to change in their appearance.  The compromise reached was that some of them got moved to interior spaces in barns and sheds and their stabilization could be less invasive, but some were kept outside and had more aggressive treatments that altered their appearance a bit (but much less than what had happened because they had previously had no treatment).  But this treatment is destined to fail in a relatively few years, and hopefully the park will have awakened to a painful reality.  Arrested decay outdoors currently is not possible.

AIC 41st Annual Meeting – Discussion Session, Friday, May 31, 2013. Then vs, Now: Fundraising for Conservation Isn’t What It Used to Be by Susan Mathisen.

Disclaimer: I am not the fastest note-taker, and may have misspelled some names or gotten some of the concepts a bit wrong.  If something I say is critical for you, please check directly with the presenter(s) for corroboration. 

While this presentation concerned itself with changes to fundraising needs in the conservation and preservation arena, it is simply a small subset of changes that have occurred in the much larger global non-profit funding mentality.  The old model of funding that we as conservators were trained to do is object-centric.  We write reports on the existing condition of the object and its treatment needs.  Funding requests are centered on the individual object(s) and the benefits of funding to it/them.  There may be some small discussion of how the better preserved object will benefit museum visitors.  But the general approach is introspective – how the museum would be better served.  This approach is comfortable for many older conservators and funders.

The new model is about personal connections.  It is about stories.  It is about community engagement.  It is about meeting the needs of constituents in the society.  The general approach is extrospective – how the outer world can benefit.  This is a comfortable view for many younger conservators and funders.

The challenge is not only how conservators can begin to think in this more extrospective manner about their treatments, but how conservation in general can be viewed by funders as benefiting society outside of usual museum visitors.  The presentation offered some suggestions, but also made it clear that much further reflection and brain-storming is necessary for designing conservation projects that meet the requirements of the increasing numbers of funders that have implemented the new model.

Several additional presenters offered anecdotal projects in which they had been involved.  These were interspersed with the main presentation.  Following are some more specific points brought up by the presenters.

Funding by individuals has advantages.  They are not under funding restrictions, many do not have caps on the amount they can give, and during the downturn of the last several years, their level of funding has been the most stable.  There are two general reasons why individuals give – for personal benefit, such as name recognition or for a tax deduction – or for altruism, they want to see effects or results.  Generally, individual donors to museums are interested in the art.  They are not interested in conservation or preservation.  We as conservators need to tell our stories about the art, not the care of the art, in order to engage them.  Most have personal connections or stories that motivate them, and we need to tap into these.  We need to engage them in a two-way dialog to let THEIR story come out.  Along with this, we need to focus on individual objects, not large numbers of objects, as in general funders find big groups hard to grasp and relate to personally.

There are a number of different approaches to crowd funding, which is an emerging and highly effective method of fundraising.  These are discussed in many places in books and the web, and can be explored individually.  A general concept is to empower your supporters – get them excited and wanting to spread the word about your campaign.  Have the full message of your campaign written in advance and ready to go before launching it.  Send frequent information/reminders/updates – it is recommended weekly.

One presented fundraising option that is very interesting is to create a mechanism to give money electronically right in the exhibition gallery.  This can be facilitated with information placed right at the object, or in place of the object if it is too unstable to exhibit. The visitor can give their $1 or $5 or more live on the spot through a card swipe or text.

The key to fundraising is engagement, which is a mission strategy.  Engagement with the community is essential.  Activities grow out of this relationship, articulating the values of the community, rather than out of the needs of the objects.

A growing interest with funders it collaboration between organizations.  This is not just between museums within an area, but between diverse organizations in different sectors, sometimes spread throughout the world.  Such projects have a collective impact and give the funders more reach for the same amount of funds.  It also reduces the funders’ costs, since they have to administer only one grant/project rather than possibly a dozen of them. 

Collaboration on a large scale is reflected by creative placemaking, a term with which many conservators may not be familiar.  Essentially, it is planning a geographical area around a mix of artistic, cultural, residential, and business functions designed to be symbiotic with one another.  In my opinion, good examples of this are the River Walk in San Antonio, and the Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain (if you want instant creative placemaking, simply have Frank Geary design you a building, and you will put millions of tourism dollars into your local economy).

This last sort of tongue and cheek comment is actually very important in project design with funders – the economic impact of the project.  According to the presenter, Stephen Shepherd wrote an interesting paper on the Economic Impact of Museums that had some interesting findings (the specific citation was not provided, so do your homework).  Economic impacts may be job creation, increased tourism, reduced utility expenses, increased tax revenue, greening of the environment, or many other outcomes. 

The following are tips for foundation and government grants.  Understand the funder’s mission.  Read the guidelines – give them their own language.  Pick up the phone and call – the representatives are there to assist YOU in meeting THEIR mission.  As mentioned, collaboration is desirable.  IMLS has an online course “Shaping Outcomes” that can be very helpful in transitioning to the new approach to funding.  Debbie Hess Norris mentioned a web site designed for a worldwide photograph preservation project but also helpful for general fundraising and partnership education: .

It is a real challenge for me to transition my conservation thinking to this social engagement and emotional connection model.  I am not a fan of social media, at least not in my personal life.  I do not want everyone to know what I am up to, and I believe that social media is making life more complicated instead of more simple (KISS).  However, from a marketing/fundraising perspective I can see how bigger organizational objectives can be met through little contributions of individuals.  Howard Dean showed this to be effective a number of years ago.  The trick for me in private practice is how to make this new approach work to bring conservation projects into my door.  My business is designed around working exclusively for museums, and I can’t see that social media will have a significant influence on their decision-makers coming to me.  Heck, it is really difficult for ANYTHING other than word-of-mouth to be effective.  However, I certainly can see how I can work with museums to help fit the conservation projects they need to be done into the new model of thinking, and then THEY can fundraise with social media or any other method they wish.  The bottom line is that without collections, museums would not have an audience and they could not offer social value to meet their constituents’ needs.  They would not exist.  WE as conservators have done a poor job of making that emotional connection with our museum communities.

I was reminded of a TED talk I heard a few weeks ago on NPR radio.  I don’t recall the speaker’s name, but he felt that the non-profit world had the wrong model of fundraising.  He did not like the model of granting agencies disdaining what they termed “overhead” costs and wanting to limit them to a very small part of the overall budget.  He felt the profit-making business model of marketing was more appropriate – you spend as much as you need to on marketing as long as each $1 of marketing cost generated more than $1 of net profit.  If it did, spend more until you reached the breakeven point, since you were still making more money even though you were spending more.  So, he went out and formed a company to fundraise for non-profits on this model.  His anecdotal client was breast cancer research.  They started a fundraising campaign that in something like it’s fifth year raised over a net $100 million that year alone, but spent something like $40 million to do so ($140 million total).  Some in the non-profit world, the funders’ world and the media began to complain and the noise became so loud that major donors began to back out.  He had to terminate his involvement with the campaign.  The next year, once the fundraising had been returned to the old model with limited “overhead,” net funds raised for breast cancer fell nearly in half.  They never returned to the previous level.  A challenge we have in the museum world is how to change the perceptions of the “old” limited-overhead funding believers into the “new” marketing-heavy realities.  This is a big a shift for them as for us conservators to move away from our object-centric view into the newer connections-centric view.  But it is at least as important, and possibly more important in terms of dollars that can be raised for conservation and museums in general.