Fitting the Pieces Together: Moving Towards a Collaborative Approach to Time-Based Media Conservation

Kristin MacDonough
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020


With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Art Institute of Chicago has, in the past three years, undertaken to build up our practices regarding the exhibition and conservation of time-based media art. In that time, we have progressed very quickly, striking a fine balance between becoming more proactive in our manner of care while remaining flexible and responsive to new developments. The museum has found equal success by both marshaling the expertise of existing staff, as well as through the pairing of two fellowship roles, one in curatorial and one in conservation, each devoted to the questions around time-based media art and co-organizers of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Time-Based Media Working Group. This paper shares both the intended and unexpected outcomes of this approach, and explains how the museum has changed its overall strategy in areas such as staffing, media acquisition, and preservation procedures. Our Time-Based Media Initiative has also established the Midwest Media Arts Consortium, a community network committed to field testing best practices and addressing challenges related to time-based media installation and preservation. This paper also outlines the development of the consortium and next steps for its continued growth.


In 2017, the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute) commenced a multiyear program to develop the museum’s internal practices in collecting, conserving, and exhibiting time-based media (TBM) artworks. An interdisciplinary working group was formed to take on these challenges, and those involved were essential to the substantial growth of the Art Institute’s program. Working groups (or task forces) are often formed for a short period of time to address a specific area of need within a larger group or an organization. The discussions or outcomes of a working group can be used to further advocate for that area of need, both internally, such as within an organization’s administration, and externally, such as to grant-funding institutions. Providing space for discussion is critical; this includes not only physical or virtual space but also intellectual and subjective space that allows for time to express ideas and share experiences. Formation of these working groups are common strategies for a museum or other arts organization focusing on and devoting resources to TBM art, for which installation and conservation are often inherently collaborative efforts. If the group’s members have different areas of knowledge and diverse experiences in handling or researching TBM art, a working group meeting can be especially vital in communicating complex ideas and information around an artwork and establishing shared goals to move forward. This article focuses on the development and impact of the TBM Working Group at the Art Institute.

Art Institute Working Groups

Before delving into the current TBM Initiative and the TBM Working Group, it is necessary to recognize the work of the Film, Video, and New Media Task Force, which was the first iteration of a cross-departmental group at the Art Institute focused on TBM. The group was created by staff members—not museum administration—and was active from June 2011 through 2013. It was the first to study the special considerations or requirements specific to TBM at the Art Institute and to begin advocating for internal support with a unified voice. They created the first purchase agreement for media art and wrote an early guide to documenting and cataloging the artworks. In 2013, the group also developed a report on the challenges the museum faced regarding media artworks along with a proposal for a collection survey and institutional assessment. Unfortunately, at that time, museum priorities were not in harmony with those of the task force and they disbanded to focus on other activities. However, their work laid the foundation for TBM efforts by identifying the high risks to many artworks in the collection and demonstrating that future endeavors were more likely to be successful if they were cross departmental and were to receive support from the museum’s leadership. 

The next version of the working group started in 2017; it included many people who were part of the 2011 task force, and there were also additions and other changes due to museum restructuring and staff promotions or turnover. Members included up to 30 staff from Conservation and Science, Registration, Experience Design, which includes the audiovisual installation team, Academic Engagement and Research, External Affairs, General Counsel, and three curatorial departments: Modern and Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design, and Photography. Since the structure was designed to be collaborative, the new initiative was directed by three principal museum leaders from different departments: Francesca Casadio, then Grainger Executive Director of Conservation and Science; Ann Goldstein, deputy director and chair and curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; and Sarah Guernsey, deputy director of Curatorial Affairs. 

The project gained further momentum when the museum’s leadership established two fellowship roles to enhance the dialogue between departments. The first position was in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art through the Chicago Objects Study Initiative, which was created to take place from September 2017 to June 2018, and was occupied by Solveig Nelson. The second position was the Grainger Fellow in Time-Based Media Conservation in the Conservation and Science Department which would last for at least two years beginning November 2017, for which I was hired.  

The two roles worked in concert to identify the most pressing issues around TBM at the museum and organize the TBM Working Group meetings where these issues could be discussed by all. The meeting provided for increased participation and greater investment from staff who, in the past, may have been limited in opportunities to contribute to TBM due to their position and/or the absence of a centralized group.

Case Study 1: Gretchen Bender, Total Recall

One of the earliest acquisitions during this new initiative was Gretchen Bender’s (1951-2004) Total Recall (1987), an ambitious installation of 24 monitors and three projections, displaying commercial images and sounds that the artist had recontextualized for a theater-like setting. Planning and implementation of this installation was led by Robyn Farrell, assistant curator in Modern and Contemporary; Jason Stec, who was then the film and video specialist for Modern and Contemporary; and Nelson, who previously received a Warhol Arts Writer Grant for her scholarship on Gretchen Bender. During its exhibition, Total Recall was selected as the 2018 purchase by an auxiliary group, the Society for Contemporary Art, which then provided the work as a gift to the Art Institute. This installation demonstrated the necessity of clear lines of communication and the pooling of knowledge for the proper care of individual artworks. We connected externally as well, reaching out to our colleagues at other museums and then internally consolidated the information we gathered. It was also the first time a role in conservation was actively involved in such an installation, one which could advocate internally for video and digital preservation. This installation was a key demonstration of what the team could accomplish with the people and resources at hand. Strategies for finessing that process were beginning to take shape.

Additional Activities

In early 2018, as the TBM Initiative was beginning to take shape, the initiative’s leadership also received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a two-and-a-half-year program, with funds to support curatorial staffing for the initiative. To that end, Nelson shifted to the role of Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Time-Based Media in 2018. In addition to staffing, the Mellon grant also provided funds for conservation activities and supplies. A space was identified for a media lab, which was to be a shared space for TBM-related meetings, inspection and conservation work, and equipment testing. Funds from both Mellon and Conservation and Science went toward refitting the space and equipment purchases. The Art Institute also hired consultants, all veterans of the media conservation field with different areas of expertise. The consultants included Jeff Martin, consulting media conservator for the Kramlich Collection; Christine Frohnert of Bek & Frohnert LLC; and Erin Barsan and Rachel Egan, then consultants with the firm Small Data Industries. Each provided valuable and directed advice regarding the media art collection and changing practices at the Art Institute.  

One goal of the Mellon grant was to develop the Midwest Media Arts Consortium, a regional network dedicated to the exchange of knowledge on topics related to TBM preservation and installation. To get started, the Art Institute hosted a series of symposia and workshops, the first being “UNFIXED” in summer 2018. The museum invited representatives from Midwest institutions and also welcomed colleagues beyond the region. Participants and guests included artists, curators, collection managers, audiovisual specialists, conservators, and people in many other roles that bridge these disciplines. Various members of the TBM Working Group contributed their time and knowledge to developing these programs. Using feedback from “UNFIXED” and a 2019 spring workshop on installation and exhibition, Maria Kokkori (an associate conservation scientist), Nelson, and I programmed the second symposium, “UNFOLDING,” which also addressed diversity and social justice, and included a workshop co-organized by me and Martin. Video recordings of the symposium panels are available online (“UNFIXED”:; “UNFOLDING”: 

During the Mellon-funded part of the project, I conducted a survey to evaluate both artworks in the collection and also the institutional environment supporting the documentation and installation of these works. A total of 188 artworks were included in the survey and reviewed case by case; the evaluation encompassed each work’s existing components—with the exception of some equipment—and all related documentation, such as acquisition or installation documents. A total of 68 artworks were determined to be at high risk, lacking either preservation materials or information crucial to their conservation. Additionally, all digital artwork files were considered to be at high risk due to their storage and accessibility. 

This survey has been essential in laying the groundwork for addressing both the conservation concerns of individual artworks and the necessity for overall better ecosystems for management and care of the collection as a whole. For example, it was discovered that curatorial departments were defining ”dedicated equipment” differently: either as dedicated to an artwork or dedicated to a department, a small but significant confusion in terminology. This finding has contributed to a reevaluation of how equipment is described and managed across the museum, a project spearheaded by Kristine Scott Schultz, now associate director of the AudioVisual Solutions (AVS) Department, and Stec.

Case Study 2: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well

Another show representative of the TBM Working Group’s efforts is the Art Institute’s exhibition of Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, a retrospective of the artist’s multidisciplinary practice, curated by Stephanie Snyder, director at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College. The Art Institute exhibition, realized in close collaboration with the artist (b. 1964), took place April 4 to July 14, 2019. Co-curated by Farrell and Nelson, the show was a media-dense display and included video works, recordings of live performances, and selections from the artist’s personal archive and library, such as books and paper ephemera. Four viewing chambers were designed within the exhibition space to present four separate video works, some projected and some on monitors. Diagrams developed by Samantha Grassi, the exhibition designer, and Stec, in his new role as the TBM exhibition designer, were used to communicate plans and address technical issues. Conservation worked with the team to gather the digital video files, courtesy of the artist and Video Data Bank, and help prepare them for the Art Institute’s installation. AVS also added closed captions to the files, and we provided copies of these files to Video Data Bank as part of the video collection for the artist.

Building Workflows Through “Habit Formation”

Among our many goals throughout the TBM Initiative was a focus on raising conservation questions earlier in preacquisition discussions. We have also worked to organize more audiovisual tests to facilitate the sharing of knowledge across expertise and to discuss goals as a group by evaluating equipment and mocking-up various exhibition techniques. But in a large team, where everyone is pulled in many directions for multiple projects, and where information between departments is often siloed, how are new practices to be introduced? And, just as importantly, how do we ensure they are adopted and remain flexible to changes? 

Here, it helps to consider habit formation. Many goals or systems are accomplished by making things automatic—like automatic deduction of taxes from a paycheck or setting the coffeemaker on a timer so coffee is ready in the morning. Psychology has taught us that habits are mostly unconscious routines that are built into people’s daily lives, “cued by aspects” of the context in which they’re being performed. A Duke University study from 2006 determined that “approximately 45% of everyday behaviors tended to be repeated in the same location almost every day” (Neal, Wood, and Quinn 2006). In the article, the authors determined one of the methods for incorporating a new habit was by relating it to an existing one—a finding popularized by authors Charles Duhigg and James Clear. Translating this to a larger scale for the TBM Initiative, the working group looked for opportunities in existing practices to introduce new steps or moments for conversation, ones which would lead to immediate and long-term decisions that were better for individual artworks and the collection overall.  

For example, the media purchase agreement was redesigned to include a list of deliverables as an appendix, one which could be easily edited. This serves as a reminder to curatorial staff to reach out to conservation or audiovisual specialists to discuss the deliverables an artist or the artist’s representative might provide for an artwork. Conservation is now often brought into TBM acquisition discussions well before the paperwork is drafted, a process that did not take place for media artworks before the initiative.

Evolution of the TBM Working Group

As mentioned in the introduction, working groups are shifting bodies. Over the course of the Mellon-funded part of the initiative, the museum underwent staffing changes and department developments. One of these, mentioned earlier, was Jason Stec’s promotion to TBM exhibition designer, a new role that is within the exhibition design team responsible for the design of TBM exhibitions in the museum. This shift has had a ripple effect: the Modern and Contemporary Art Department exhibits the most media- or electronic-based works in the museum, so responsibility for installing their TBM works shifted to AVS. This team was already responsible for installing TBM artworks and didactic media for other curatorial departments, and this shift roughly doubled the workload for them. This in turn led to steps for improving installation workflows and digital artwork file management. In addition to the establishment of new roles and shifts in responsibilities, there were people who had been very involved with the initiative who moved on to pursue other opportunities. New people transitioned into the vacant roles and brought new perspectives to the project.  

As the changes to staffing and systems were taking place, the TBM Working Group as a whole continued to evolve, notably in our patterns of communication. At first, the group met weekly for open discussion about TBM-related topics, but the group soon found that the same conversations were being repeated and there was no sharing of new knowledge or finalizing resolutions. After about six months, the group shifted to meeting every two weeks for a focused discussion on predetermined topics. There was still room for organic discussion, but it was structured in a way that brought unexplored ideas to the table. About a year and a half later, toward the end of 2019, members realized that a lot of the discussions taking place in the meetings were continuing outside of them. This was a fantastic development—further evidence that communication was improving through a common vocabulary and the group was raising awareness of TBM in the museum. Questions about acquisition, conservation, or installation were being asked earlier and of more people; proof that progress does not always require a working group meeting.

Case Study 3: Vaginal Davis, The White to Be Angry

The success of these objectives is evident in a final case study: the installation of a recently acquired artwork, Vaginal Davis’s (b. 1969) The White to Be Angry (1999), co-curated by Hendrik Folkerts, Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Nelson. 

The work was recorded on Hi8 video in the 1990s in an intentionally “low-fi” aesthetic. Prior to installation, the group experimented with various ways to translate between low-resolution analog media and current digital presentation, exploring how different technological methods produce different aesthetic effects. All technical options were discussed collectively; each participant provided an individual perspective and knowledge, and brought up questions and solutions.  

Again, conservation played a greater role in decision making than in earlier exhibitions by engaging with the artist on options for masking the video that maintained the analog, low-fi aesthetic and for creating the exhibition video files. These extended discussions had the added benefit of creating better documentation about how the files were transcoded for display. When Davis and her technician came to view the exhibition, she fully approved of the final result.


In any field or specialty, it is one thing to create a working group and quite a different thing to sustain it. Early on, when enthusiasm and momentum are high, many goals can be accomplished—attention is on the project, and those involved make time and energy to move it forward. When the museum was temporarily closed in spring 2020 due to COVID-19, working group meetings were paused as the museum and departments regrouped to address new priorities. Around the same time, the Mellon Foundation and other funders allowed grantees to redistribute remaining project funds to general operations, with the exception of salaries. Mellon’s support for this part of the project ended in June 2020, and the museum restructured again, due in part to the effects of COVID-19.  

Although staff were not meeting regularly as a working group during this time, conversations around TBM still occurred during closure since there were many acquisitions and exhibitions involving TBM artworks on the horizon. In fall 2020, after this presentation was given at the AIC Annual Meeting, the TBM Working Group evolved once more to become the TBM Forum, which will continue to provide a space for dynamic, cross-departmental conversations around TBM. Suffice it to say, the working group has served its intended purpose of advocacy and information sharing.


One voice can never fully represent a collective whole. Many Art Institute staff members contributed in some way to building up our recent practices and raising awareness for the needs of media artworks at the museum. Much of the information shared was from the perspective of a conservation-based role, and it is likely that each person’s perspective would highlight aspects different from the ones described here.  

The Art Institute is not the first to establish a TBM initiative, or a working group, or to evaluate its own practices, and the organizers learned much from others in this field. Thank you to colleagues in the Electronic Media Group and time-based media conservation who have shared their experiences and other information with me as the Art Institute moved forward with its program. Thank you to Solveig Nelson and Dan Erdman for assistance with the presentation. 

The Art Institute of Chicago is located on the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi nations. Many other tribes—such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Sac, and Fox—also called this area home. Today, one of the largest urban American Indian communities in the United States resides in Chicago, in part due to federal urban relocation policies. I would like to acknowledge the members of this community who continue to contribute to the life of this city and to celebrate their heritage, practice traditions, and care for the land and waterways.


Neal, David T., Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn. 2006. “Habits—A Repeat Performance.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 (4): 198–202. Available at: