Conservators in the Wild: Collaboration with Art Studios, Galleries, and Collectors

Rachel M. Ward
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020


This work extracts the meaning, nuances, and implications of my year-long research and time-based media art conservation training as a National Digital Stewardship Resident (2018–2019). For this stream of my research, I used field-based, ethnographic research to explore the broader ecosystem of contemporary media art today. Specifically, it focused on the path of a time-based media art piece from artist’s studio to gallery to private collection, looking for the problems the piece faces at each stop along this trajectory—inclusive of the interstitial spaces between. To do so, I conducted nine interviews, one to two hours long, on average, with artists, studio staff, gallery owners, directors, international private collectors, and collection managers in an attempt to construct a comprehensive overview of this ecosystem. This research was presented at the American Institute of Conservation in May 2019, which concluded with four recommendations based on the needs of the stakeholders. The title of this talk—Conservators in the Wild: Collaboration with Art Studios, Galleries, and Collectors—was meant to call attention to the conservation needs of time-based media art that exists outside the walls of institutions (i.e., in “the wild”) in the contemporary art market—much of which is still being negotiated and standardized. In other words, the world of contemporary art is often referred to as “the Wild West” (a phrase that also came up many times in the session). 


The past 12 months represented my immersion into contemporary art spaces in contrast to my prior work in the disciplinary spaces of cultural anthropology, ethnographic objects, and Indigenous rock art conservation.1 Although the art world has “practices, rituals, and customs” that are unfamiliar, the methods remained the same: observation and interviews in the field. These are often the only tools that anthropologists have in exploring new cultures in order to create primary source materials based on their independent research. Whereas my past fieldwork was conducted in literal fields and escarpments, here, being “on the ground” equated to NYC Chelsea galleries and the contemporary media art world—and my interviews were with emerging media artists, gallery owners, and private collectors. These interconnected spaces are what will be referred to from here as the “ecosystem of contemporary time-based media art.”

Within this ecosystem, the concern is the path of a time-based media art (TBMA) piece from artist’s studio to gallery to private collection (fig. 1), while looking for the problems it faces at each stop along its trajectory. This work also examines obstacles in the path’s liminal spaces (fig. 2) and the broader ecosystem that grows over many years in terms of obsolescence in private collections, reiterations in gallery spaces, and new editions from the artist (fig. 3). As time passes, the spaces between these move farther apart—galleries close and artists retire—while complexities grow, particularly for the private collector.

Fig. 1. This research explores the path of a time-based media artwork (TBMA) from the artist’s studio to gallery to private collection.
Fig. 1. This research explores the path of a time-based media artwork (TBMA) from the artist’s studio to gallery to private collection.
Fig. 2. A TBMA piece may encounter issues in distinct locations (studio, gallery or collection), but may also face problems in its transition/transportation to each new space.
Fig. 2. A TBMA piece may encounter issues in distinct locations (studio, gallery or collection), but may also face problems in its transition/transportation to each new space.
Fig. 3. The ecosystem of TBMA extends and entangles as the artwork ages, while the distance between stakeholders increases. A gallery may close or an artist could become unreachable, which complicates its repair and maintenance in private collections.
Fig. 3. The ecosystem of TBMA extends and entangles as the artwork ages, while the distance between stakeholders increases. A gallery may close or an artist could become unreachable, which complicates its repair and maintenance in private collections.

This leads to the following question: When time-based media art in private collections no longer functions, who is responsible for conservation—the artist, gallery, installation team, or private conservation practice (if a collector is even aware of such services)? Within museums, established protocols and processes are in place, but where should one turn without this system of defined support? Artists often pass their work directly from studio to gallery to private hands. Yet these important, complex media pieces are stricken with the same inherent dilemmas as those safeguarded within institutions: obsolescence, demands for migration, repair, and preservation.


To unravel this theme, direct quotes parsed from stakeholder interviews present firsthand experience rather than post-interpretation. Each stakeholder operates in a unique space within the ecosystem—for instance, when an artist’s work enters the gallery, when the collector reaches back out to the artist if a piece is not working, or instances of reiteration for new shows in galleries or museums. Overall, my attempt was to include a broad spectrum of viewpoints to construct a more comprehensive understanding of this ecosystem: from established and emerging artists; to small collectors and investment collectors; to the most serious, professionally managed private collections.


Introducing artists’ needs is a quote from a conservation interview conducted by my colleague in August 2018 (I took notes as an observer) with an emergent iOS app artist. He said that it would be ideal to have someone to preserve an in-situ snapshot of how his work functions and looks today. He explained: “Something that could emulate the current snapshot would be great. And then, if I’m updating it, can you also preserve my updates? You can preserve the original, but if I send you new files and versions, can you can file those away too?”

Lastly, he asked: “Yeah, if my computer gets destroyed, can I talk to you guys and get my file back? Or is that treating you too much like a backup server?” He also said it would be useful if his gallery could keep previous versions that would be available for download. This was something he was thinking about but had not brought up with them yet. This point will be returned to when at least one gallery director interviewed was contemplating this very concept.

The next conservation interview was conducted in May 2019 with a contemporary virtual reality (VR) artist, who similarly indicated that having someone to maintain their archive would be of great value. Based on the rapid development of VR, the artist is constantly updating artwork based on new releases of software. With each new Unix platform release, the artist needs to create and save the updated artwork, project file, and new version of the software used to export it. The artist said, “So I need to archive both of them. What I’ve been doing a poor job of is archiving the software used to execute the file and creating a really neat structure for this.” In other words, the artist would like someone to design a storage system based on these specific needs. The artist also mentioned that with an increasing number of “long-term museum shows with hundreds of people every day […] the survival rate of a headset is about three months […] they burn out.” The artist contemplated this for a moment, saying, “Imagine in 10 years.” The artist is constantly creating new artworks and, in terms of perpetually returning to old work, the artist said “I cannot afford this in terms of time.”

Next, in my October 2018 interview with the technical director of an internationally renowned installation artist, the discussion surrounded the process and path that a piece takes as it leaves their studio and enters into a gallery or, often, directly into a museum or private collection. When the studio could not send its own software and electrical engineers for the install, he explained, “it’s hard to hire people to handle that kind of stuff.” When he has to resort to hiring audiovisual (AV) technicians locally, he said, “they can introduce more problems.” He used an example of one international installation when a word was lost in translation: “They were, like, pushing these fiber optic video cables to the wall, messing them up … I would ask a translator to explain it to them … I ended up having to go there and cut open the cable and say ‘look, fiber optic? fiber optics?’ And they were like ‘ohh….’”

He said that when the pieces are in private collections, he generally travels there or the work is shipped back. If it is fixed locally, the contractors first need to submit a proposal for approval. Then, he or the artist flies out to inspect it and certify authenticity. Thus, he said, it generally takes more time to train someone to fix it than just doing it yourself. Rather than continually being called in for conservation, he said that the artist wants to focus on new artwork, not so much on the nitty gritty details, such as creating an archive. However, when it comes to repairing the work, the archive is fundamental. He said that he wastes a lot of time “sifting through old data to figure out how it works and who made it because a lot of TBM artists collaborate with many different people.” 

There was a trend that developed in the artist interviews, who all said that they want to focus on creating new work rather than repairing old work. They said that a solution could come in the form of someone to redundantly store and manage their archive, containing not just the master file but a library of all versions and associated software releases. The archive should also provide comprehensive documentation, such as who created or repaired the work and when. In summation, the artists need help in the development of bespoke storage and long-term archive management.


The gallery owners and directors that I interviewed are all based in New York City and work with contemporary media artists in the middle market. The galleries shared many of the same perspectives and complications in terms of what it meant to deal with pieces that are not fixed, static, or wholly tangible. They were probed to consider aspects beyond displaying the work in the gallery, such as the transitional space the piece lives in when going into and out of the gallery.

Beginning with the same desire as put forth by the VR and iOS artist, one gallery director said in May 2019: “I’ve been obsessing over the idea of offering storage to our artists. Like, here’s the back end to our server, and here’s your 20 terabytes of space, put your whole studio up here.” He went on and explained, “I think financially and mentally it’s really hard for artists to think about this. I can’t tell you how many times I have dealt with an artist who was having a hard drive problem.” The discussion then turned to the selling of a piece that had only previously been shown in museums. He said, “We had to get a lot of information about how to prepare people’s homes directly. We know how it plays back in the studio and in a museum environment. But how does it play back in a client’s home?”

He went on to say, “If there were parameters set by a living artist for the future, it would make sales, maintenance, and conservation easier, then going online and into a museum much easier. But that element of sales is one that’s not typically ever discussed in conservation.” Further, he said, “I’ve heard museum professionals, both curators and conservators, talk about how there’s an ethical gray area with telling an artist these things […] and putting this fear of the future in them […] you might affect their output.” In these regards, another interview in December 2018 with a long-established gallery spoke from this perspective as well: “Everything has a life cycle… every medium. Everyone realizes the fragility of the pieces: Some pop artists used house paint. Entropy is part of the thing. Things should die after a while. Artists used to destroy their old work. The whole avant-garde is based on ‘out with the old and in with the new.’ It’s not a new idea.”


Lastly, I attempted to integrate perspectives from three levels of collectors. First, I spoke with a serious collector (via his full-time collection manager) who has a lifelong passion for media art and cares deeply about his collection. For instance, he has spaces built and designed for every new acquisition. Another person I interviewed collects as an investment—he is buying multiples to sell. Another collector falls halfway in between; it seems to be an enjoyable and technology-themed interest of his. He generally buys directly from galleries or fairs and is not talking to art advisors. In the interviews, all collectors were asked about problems that they encountered in bringing the piece from the gallery into their home and where they turn if it stops working. In my interview in October 2018 with the “techie” collector, who mainly collects VR, I asked him what the process looks like when he buys a piece from a gallery. He responded: “The gallery will typically send me a kind of physical presentation box, with, you know, a couple of stickers on, a bit of glitter, and the certificate of authenticity. These works, they’re not particularly high res or HD. Typically, it will just come on a USB memory stick.”

He explained that when something goes wrong with the piece, he generally tries to fix it himself. He said that he has a few nonfunctioning pieces stored in his closet but that he intends to “tinker with” them. The most difficulty he has had was with DVD pieces; with these artworks, he was left to “unpack them and strip out the codec.” Another piece that was internationally shipped to him was “basically, a high-end gaming PC” that generated the work. When he opened the box, he saw that “it had just gotten shaken to hell. It wouldn’t even turn on.” Clearly, the main issue here had to do with the interstitial space—that lacuna between gallery and collector’s home—specifically, in this case, due to the need for international shipment of a physical object (as opposed to a digital transfer).

Another conversation was with a midlevel collector in July 2018: a commodities trader, who often collects multiple editions of the same piece, ultimately to resell on the secondary market. Within moments and without hesitation, he emphatically pronounced: “There is nothing more difficult for a collector than when he’s having a dinner and goes to put on this thing and it doesn’t work […] and you think, oh man, I wish I just had a painting.” In order for collectors to continue collecting TBM pieces, he explained, “The idea is to make it easier for collectors so they can rely on the works.” He remarked that issues like this in art and technology pieces are “creating distance” from collectors, although “if collectors believe in, trust, and have someone behind them, then it will be much easier.”

Shortly thereafter, I conducted a two-hour-long interview in August 2018 with the full-time collection manager for a large private collector who predominately buys from blue chip galleries. She explained, “Sometimes it takes years to install and we don’t want to wait this long to find out something is wrong or missing.” They have a personal installation team in New York City; however, for remote work, they often have to hire outside services. Further, she explained, the “burden of care often falls on the artist when no one else can find solutions.” For instance, one piece arrived without installation instructions. She sent a list of questions to the artist, but she got no response. She asked, “What should the collector do then?”

The manager said that there is a general lack of understanding in buying and selling TBMA. She often has to personally ask a gallery for documentation at sale. There is also the “perception that once it’s sold, they aren’t responsible.” Often “problems arise with installation or display settings […] a museum always documents this but not the gallery.” Even the most basic things are not mentioned to collectors. With astonishment, she divulged that “they never even told us to use a write-blocker!” This is an established best practice for TBMA acquisitions in museums.


In my interviews with media artists, it could be surmised that concerns often stem from their old pieces in private collections that require repair. In these regards, they expressed the need for outside assistance as well as creating comprehensive archives, documentation, and customized storage systems based on their medium (such as iOS apps, VR, or installations). For the galleries, their needs mainly focused on a simple and easy way for them to safeguard their artists’ work; storage that would be synced with the artists’ studios for new versions and updates; and a way to document the artist’s specific parameters for iteration, installation, and repair. Lastly, in my interviews with private collectors, it was apparent that they desired a change in the viewpoint that once they buy a piece, they are the sole party responsible—or, at the very least, standards of documentation and installation instructions. Often the most basic things are not mentioned when they purchase a piece from a gallery (such as the collection manager’s write-blocker debacle). Finally, collectors want to trust that if something goes wrong, there will be a defined system of support.

In looking forward to collaboratively develop recommendations for these problems, it was clear that many of these issues would have established standards of protocol and systems of support within museums, such as on-staff AV teams and conservators. However, when these problems arise “in the wild,” new strategies must be conceived, often “on the fly” (as one gallery director put it), to address these urgent and, what could be very expensive, concerns. It seems that needs occurring outside the walls of institutions could be provided as a service, such as managed archives and storage (e.g., a simple and affordable monthly subscription for management). For current and future collectors of TBMA, there needs to be this type of trust that there is a system of support to safeguard their investment.


1. This is also the focus of my doctoral research in an attempt to renegotiate the traditional canons of cultural anthropology to that of digital anthropology, media archaeology, artist archives, and media art.


With sincere gratitude to the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR Art; funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services), my host site Small Data Industries, the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA), Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), Karina Wratschko, Kristen Regina, Ben Fino-Radin, Lorena Ramirez-Lopez, Erin Barsan, Nick Kaplan, Farris Wahbeh (ARLIS/NA mentor), Molly Szymanski, Cristina Fontanez-Rodrigues, Jean Moylan, and the many others that facilitated and contributed to this invaluable opportunity.


Rachel M. Ward
Ph.D. Candidate in Interactive Arts & Technology
NDSR Art Resident (2018–2019)
New York, NY