Report by NACCA researcher Aga Wielocha
For more than 20 years, the care of contemporary artworks and issues related to their preservation have been subjects in a debate between museum professionals from all over the world. Yet, the field is still developing. Although approaches and procedures are rapidly being discovered and implemented, art practices are constantly changing and new problems continuously appear. The 26th Biennial Congress of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC), entitled Saving the Now – Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works, was held between 12 and 16 September in Los Angeles. The congress was a great platform to discuss what has been achieved in the conservation of contemporary art thus far, and to propose what needs to be accomplished in the future.
In his opening speech, Tom Learner, head of contemporary art research at the Getty Conservation Institute, recalled an anecdote related to the first IIC conference devoted to the preservation of twentieth‐century artistic production, which was held 12 years ago in Bilbao. The 2004 IIC congress was entitled ‘Modern Art, New Museums’. The second part of the title was added after the organizing committee showed concern that problems in the conservation of modern art would not be acknowledged as enough of an issue by members of the conservation community to fill the programme of an entire congress. Undoubtedly, much has changed since then. Almost 500 professionals from about 50 different countries came to LA to attend the conference and listen to more than 40 presentations. The history of the field and the evolution of standards and practices were briefly summarized by Lydia Beerkens during the first session. Her presentation showed clearly how the conservation of modern art developed from a case‐by‐case approach into an independent specialization with its own theoretical and ethical framework. The absolute highlight of the first day was the keynote lecture: ‘The falsification of time’ by Carol Mancusi‐Ungaro, who was awarded this year’s Forbes Prize, the highest honour of the IIC. Her presentation was a personal reflection on the philosophical and ethical nuances of conservation from her point of view as one of the pioneers of the field. Many attendees, including myself, are looking forward to reading the lecture on the IIC website.
It’s important to note that, during the conference, the balance between a theoretical approach and material science was aptly maintained. On one hand, Muriel Verbeeck’s lecture, building on a fascinating story of transformations of Anish Kapoor’s Versailles sculpture, presented new conceptual tools for conservation practice. On the other, Yvonne Shashoua summarized the long history of the struggle to preserve artworks with plastic components. There was an opportunity to learn about the application of new mediums in practical treatment, such as agarose gels for cleaning modern paintings in a case study presented by Samantha Skelton. A set of papers was dedicated to exploring the similarities between the conservation of modern and contemporary art and other conservation disciplines, with ethnographic objects and architecture among them.
One of the most anticipated lectures was by Robin Clark and Michelle Barger on the complex new research undertaken by SFMOMA entitled ‘The Artist Initiative’. In this presentation, we heard how issues discussed in the field for so many years have inspired practical solutions in the design of a new museum building. The space between its two‐story conservation studio will serve as an artist archive – a collection of materials and objects used in artist practice related to the SFMOMA collection. The studio includes a special space designed for artists to work together with conservators and curators, equipped with a transparent ‘viewing’ door that can be accessed by the public. Located outside the main museum campus, the Collection Center – a storage place for most of the collection – hosts a workroom, where researchers and the public can study artworks which are not on exhibition. The Mock‐Up Gallery is a life‐size model for a gallery space in the new building, where curators can work together with artists on the design of new shows. Undoubtedly, the SFMOMA project redefines standards in institutional thinking about conservation and documentation of contemporary art. Organizers also invited guests from outside of the conservation microcosm. A stirring lecture on the challenges of collecting and preserving diverse objects, including artworks and memorabilia related to 2014 Ukrainian revolution, was given by Ihor Poshyvailo, the director of The Maidan Museum in Kyiv. The panel on the ‘Influence of the Art Market on Conservation Decisions’ gathered together in one room some of the most prominent representatives of the LA art gallery world. Unfortunately, since the panelists did not attend other lectures, it was more a kind of single‐sided monologue than a real discussion. However, the issue is highly important and under‐debated, and it likely deserves a separate conference.
Besides fascinating lectures, the congress provided countless occasions for intense networking. The daily breakfast allowed attendees to have a morning coffee and make plans for the day together with other colleagues. The welcome reception gave an opportunity for an after‐hours visit to the newly opened, and very impressive, Broad Museum. The emblematic installation of Chris Burden, discussed during the afternoon session, was an extraordinary background for Wednesday’s Grand Event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Besides enjoying delicious food, congress participants could learn about the history of famous Los Angeles print workshop in the exhibition ‘The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.’ and enjoy fabulous works by the most influential American artists ‐ Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella, among others. LACMA’s exhibitions were a great introduction to one of Thursday’s tours, entitled ‘Making The Artist’s Vision’. Participants had the unique opportunity to see the facilities of two studios responsible for the fabrication of sculptures by Jonathan Borofsky, Jeff Koons and Ellsworth Kelly. The owners of both companies started their careers in the art world working at the Gemini G.E.L. We were able to see the amazing machinery that allows them to build complicated large‐scale metal constructions, and hear about how important the relationship of trust is between artist and fabricator. Interestingly, one of the most rapidly developing sectors of the field – the conservation of time‐based media – was clearly underrepresented. No lecture was dedicated to the largely unknown territory of born‐digital art. Although object‐based conservation is still a main focus in museums, we should not forget about other artistic practices, especially due to the common fundamental questions concerning the identity and authenticity. Fortunately, this absence had been balanced by lectures on the preservation of other relatively new collectibles, like performance and participatory art. Sill, we have to be careful not to create new boundaries while crossing others.
The congress ended with a pleasant farewell reception at the conference venue. Participants flew home tired but with plenty of new ideas, and their pockets full of business cards from newly met colleagues.
I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Brommelle Memorial Fund, which enabled me to attend the conference.