To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We kicked off the series with Chinese and Japanese Painting conservation, and now we are focusing on Electronic Media Conservation (EMG). These conservators work with time-based media, which is characterized by artwork with durational elements, such as slide, film, and video, analog or born-digital materials, performance, light or kinetic art, sound or software-based art. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.
In the first interviews for this series, we spoke with emerging conservators starting in the early stages of their careers working in time-based media, which included Alexandra Nichols, Nicholas Kaplan, Brian Castriota and Yasmin Desssem. In this interview, we hear from Christine Frohnert, a conservator who graduated in 2003 from the University of Arts in Berne, Switzerland, where she majored in the Conservation of Modern Materials and Media. Prior to establishing a private practice for Time-based Media (TBM) with colleague Reinhard Bek, Christine served as chief conservator at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany for twelve years and as chair of the AIC Electronic Media Group from 2008-2012. In 2012, she was named the inaugural Judith Praska Distinguished Visiting Professor in Conservation and Technical Studies at the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University (CC/IFA/NYU), where she now serves as the Time-based Media Art Conservation Curriculum Development Program Coordinator.
ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your current position.
Christine Frohnert (CF): I am a conservator of contemporary art with a specific focus on technology-based art. Reinhard Bek and I founded Bek & Frohnert LLC in NYC in 2012- a conservation studio in private practice specializing in the conservation of time-based media (TBM). We are both German, have been trained in Europe, worked in leading positions in museums, and have been involved in international research projects.
Bek and I focus on the conservation of artworks with a durational element in our practice—such as sound, moving image, performance, light, or movement, that unfolds to the viewer over time via slide, film, video, software, or the internet. Since the studio’s inauguration, we have responded to individual needs for both TBM conservation treatments and consulting requests. However, over the last several years, we have experienced a rising demand to serve as consultants for different U.S. institutions without time-based media conservators on staff, as well as for collectors and artists. As many TBM art collecting institutions are facing rapidly increasing needs to adequately acquire, preserve, exhibit and store TBM works, we are responding to this development and our work is more geared towards long-term collection care and the development of preservation plans, as well as education.
ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, what contributed to your decision to specialize in time-based media, and why has been your training pathway?
CF: As with most of my colleagues, I started conservation being exposed to more traditional media such as paintings and sculpture. About 20 years ago, I realized that technology-based artworks can be seriously harmed or lost without a new conservation specialty being established. I became fascinated with TBM, and I learned about the newly established program ‘Conservation of Modern Materials and Media’ at the University of Arts, Berne, Switzerland. I graduated from there in 2003.
ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
CF: A complex range of skill sets are needed, which should be solidly grounded in the conceptual framework of contemporary art conservation as a whole. It requires knowledge in electrics/electronics and programming, and an in-depth understanding of each media category, technology and its preservation, documentation and digital preservation needs. As our profession is highly collaborative by nature, soft skills are equally important to collaborate with all the stakeholders in the institutions involved, as well as with affiliated external professionals such as engineers, computer scientists, and technicians. This is important when defining, communicating, and verifying goals with vendors.
As many museums recently formed or are currently forming ‘Media Teams’ in their respective institutions to tackle their individual TBM collections needs, we have witnessed a rapidly increasing need for skilled labor, dedicated TBM lab space, equipment, and the trustworthy storage and management of huge amounts of born-digital or digitized artworks.
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
CF: Currently our recent projects include consultation with several institutions to analyze their TBM collections and develop custom-designed conservation strategies according to their individual collections needs and skill sets of staff. These consultations may include surveys, assistance with media acquisitions, exhibitions and artwork documentation, storage, and migration. Bringing in external expertise often provides the bridge that many museums and their TBM stakeholders do not find in-house or do not have the capacity to coordinate. This work helps to identify and structure these needs more clearly and often provides the basis for institutional development and the implementation of larger collection care projects.
Recent and current treatment-based activities range from analyzing the ‘mechanical’ programming of a light-based work, the conservation of a seven channel-video wall from 1998 consisting of 207 Cathode Ray Tube monitors, digitization of analog video, and the reverse engineering of custom-designed large format slide projectors, to name a few.
ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important need in your specialization?
CF: the most pressing need is education. Technology-based art is considered to be very sensitive to damage, loss, misinterpretation, and incorrect installation, due to its very specific and sensitive relationship to time, space, and concept. Damage or loss of a TBM work cannot be seen by simply examining the physical material and may not be immediately apparent unless the individual has received specialized training.
TBM conservation has been identified as a priority by many museums, collectors, and funding agencies. However, the educational opportunities are still limited, and there is currently no U.S. graduate program offering a degree in this specialty (but this will change soon!). As a result, a huge amount of our most recent cultural heritage is at risk, in an unknown condition, and/or not sufficiently integrated into museums’ missions of collecting, exhibition, conservation, research, and education.
However, thanks to the generous funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, started the TBM art conservation curriculum planning project in 2016.The new TBM specialization will be integrated within its current curriculum starting in fall 2018. This will be the first conservation program offering this specialty in the U.S. and the graduates will receive a dual degree: an MS in the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and an MA in the History of Art and Archaeology.
ECPN: Have you been involved in any advocacy, outreach, teaching or professional service roles in your specialization?
CF: During my time as EMG (Electronic Media Group) board Chair from 2008-2012, we received numerous request from the membership to offer continuing education opportunities, and in response EMG launched the conference series entitled TechFocus in 2010. The series is designed to provide hands-on guidance and systematic education on different media categories (TechFocus I: Caring for Video Art, Guggenheim Museum, NY, in 2010; TechFocus II: Caring for Film and Slide Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2012; TechFocus III: Caring for Software-based Art, Guggenheim Museum, NY, in 2015). In addition, the first periodical worldwide that focuses on TBM art conservation was launched by the EMG in 2012, The Electronic Media Review.
At the (CC/IFA/NYU) I have offered instruction in TBM conservation art in different capacities, including the course Art With A Plug: The Conservation of Artwork Containing Motion, Sound, Light, Moving Images and Interactivity (Fall 2012 and Spring 2015).
Several professional organizations and initiatives have created additional targeted educational opportunities and collaborations. However, despite all these good developments, further training is needed at the graduate level, as well as in continuing education for professionals, to address the fast-increasing demands of TBM conservation.
Under the leadership of Dr. Hannelore Roemich, Professor of Conservation Science and TBM program Director, I have also served as TBM Program Coordinator to assist in identifying skill sets and core competencies of TBM conservators that translate into the educational needs to develop a TBM curriculum. In the fall of 2016 the Conservation Center offered the course and public lecture series Topics in Time-based Media Art Conservation, which included ten lectures by leading art historians, artists, computer scientists, and conservators. These events were an important outreach component of the curriculum development project, and they created the opportunity to promote the field, foster the dialogue between TBM professionals, and build a community.
We are now organizing the upcoming symposium It’s About Time! Building a New Discipline: Time-based Media Art Conservation to be held in May 2018. The two-day symposium will provide a forum for educators, artists, art historians, museum curators and directors, collectors, gallerists, engineers, computer scientists, and conservators to promote TBM art conservation as a discipline on an international level and will conclude the TBM curriculum planning phase.
ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
CF: While I am not comfortable issuing general advice, I can say that I personally appreciate working with students and colleagues in our field, and that this has shaped and enriched my professional life. If you are a strong communicator who is interested in the intersection of art and technology, art conservation, and art history– and maybe you even have a background in one or more of the related media fields–why don’t you join the EMG sessions at the AIC annual meetings and/or attend the upcoming NYU symposium to engage with the TBM community and find out if this specialty may be just the right fit for you?
ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.
CF: We currently see an extremely high demand for trained TBM conservators. This can be measured by the exponentially increasing job offers worldwide and the challenges many institutions face to find qualified candidates. So, it is safe to say that this is the best moment in time for becoming a TBM conservator in this country. If you are interested in pursuing a career in TBM conservation- check out the new TBM curriculum page at the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts at NYU.