Monday, November 30, 2009

Conservation of contemporary art – any clues?

Nothing to my mind as a conservator seems more problematic at present than the conservation of contemporary materials. I think of deteriorating David Hockney paintings covered in yellowing news print or desiccated rubber elements on artifacts, slowly shrivelling up and becoming embrittled. I was at the Australian National Maritime Museum a month ago, and they told me that their entire collection of rubberized bathing caps are melting before their eyes. Despite their being stored in optimum conditions, they are in significantly worse condition than they were 5 years ago to the extent that they will shortly be undisplayable.

The conservation profession has gamefully tried to tackle these issues, with research reported through a number of conferences and publications, particularly over the last ten years. Whilst these have tended to concentrate on the high value area of contemporary art (because this is where the potential diminution in value is greatest), there has also been extensive work undertaken in modern materials ranging from the many types of plastics to soap and chocolates. For a quick resume of what is currently going on, there are a couple of good sites to look at, namely the ICOM-CC Modern Materials and Contemporary Art Working Group and INCCA, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.

So I turned to the latest edition (Fall 2009) of the attractively revamped Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter entitled Conservation Perspectives – Modern and Contemporary Art with heightened anticipation that there might actually be some treatment solutions being discussed. Well there is lots of interesting chat of high calibre as one expects from the GCI, and some useful hints on cleaning acrylic paintings from Australian trained conservators Alan Phenix and Bronwyn Ormsby now respectively at GCI and the Tate. But the material problems remain with, by way of example, some horrendous photos of a 1926 artwork made of cellulose nitrate on copper with iron demonstrating extreme warping, cracking, discolouration and corrosion (who in their right mind chooses such combinations of materials anyway??!).

Tom Learner’s lead article does however contain some interesting food for thought, which I paraphrase:
· Today’s society requires us to deny any signs of ageing, putting considerable pressure on conservators to consider intervention in outwardly pristine contemporary works earlier than would traditionally happen.
· Perhaps contemporary art loses so much relevance within ten years of creation that it should be actively displayed and experienced, and allowed to deteriorate with a detailed record of its existence of its early life kept.
· Conservators are often required to carry out treatment on contemporary artworks without the desired level of understanding of the materials or knowledge of the long term consequences of the treatment. In such cases conservators are increasingly reluctant to execute treatments leading in turn to fewer case studies and less knowledge.
· The role of living artists in dictating conservation treatments is fraught with issues: their views need to be taken into account but we need to recognize that artist’s attitudes change throughout their lifetime, and materials available to them also change.

So I am not sure I am much further on, beyond being slightly better informed about the issues.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Anish Kapoor

I have been (sort of) aware of the work of the UK sculptor Anish Kapoor through the copper coloured polished curved mirror in the Art Gallery of NSW permanent collection, but his work was highlighted to me by a paper given at the Sculpture by the Sea symposium held at the Art Gallery on 2nd November. At it Noel Lane talked about the extraordinary Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park in Kaipara Harbour, New Zealand of which he is the director. It’s difficult to explain the sculpture park and it has no website so you need to google Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park to get a feel for it. But it is the brainchild of one of New Zealand’s wealthiest men and long time patron of the arts, Alan Gibbs.

I met Alan in unusual circumstances when he visited Shackleton’s Hut in Antarctica in 2004, where I was undertaking a conservation survey of the artefacts. Alan distinguished himself by finding and then eating a small piece of dried parsnip that had fallen out of a corroded food can and blown across the site to the edge of a melt pool and become rehydrated. The parsnip was a revolting grey colour and had, if I remember rightly, a small piece of penguin guano that needed removal before Alan gave it the taste test. I was convinced he was going to die on the spot, but he lived to tell the tale.

Anyway back to his Farm, and on it he has commissioned Anish Kapoor to design a quite amazing, 84m-long, twisted, red cone. It cuts through a ridge like some celestial megaphone, its sheer size being just astounding. Fabricated from wires and red fabric it sways in the wind. Since then, being now somewhat fascinated by Kapoor’s work I have realised that the enormous stainless steel form outside the Chicago Art Institute is also by him.

So being in London last week, I was delighted to find a temporary exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy (and incidentally everyone talking about it and him). It certainly is quite an exhibition. Apart from more mirrored stainless steel forms and some new experiments in piles of concrete excreted from a computer- controlled three dimensional printer, the shows stars are both made from red pigmented wax. The first involves a cannon which fires 20 pound blocks of wax into a wall in an adjoining room every 20 minutes, which will result by the end of the exhibition in over 30 tonnes of wax accumulating and progressively melting out through the doorway. The second is even more extraordinary taking over 5 whole galleries. It involves a vast chunk of wax weighing over 30 tonnes and measuring 8 metres long moving very slowly along a track and being forced to squeeze through four adjoining doorways between the galleries, being sculpted by the doorways as it does so.

If you are in London before Christmas do make the time to see the exhibition.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The efficiency dividend – or not

Working as we do in the private sector, there are various public sector anomalies that we just don’t get. One of these is the so called ‘Efficiency dividend’ that year in year out federal collecting institutions, e.g. the National Gallery, the Australian War Memorial, the National Library etc, seemed to get pinged with. Certainly from our perspective we can’t see any more efficiencies, and all that it appears to achieve is a reduction in staff and services.

Well, now this has been confirmed as told in a fascinating article published in Public Space; The Journal of Law and Social Justice (2009) Vol 3, and available on line.

The article details that the efficiency dividend was implemented by the Hawke labour government in 1986, as a short term budget cut designed to require agencies to look for efficiencies in their operations. But here we are in 2009 with the ‘dividend’ still being ‘paid’ to the government at an average of a budget cut of 1.25% per annum.

And of course as the efficiencies have long since been achieved, what it really means is a budget cut year in year out. The result is what we have been seeing, namely a diminution in staff and services, and this article spells out in graphic detail what these are. The information in it is drawn from a Parliamentary inquiry into the ongoing effects of the ongoing dividend.

Its’ effect crosses many parts of the institutions operations, from reducing and delaying digitisation work, cutting staff (to a level where the National Library states that in 3 years time the effect of the dividend will mean through resulting staff cuts ‘it will not be a viable institution’) , limiting pay increases and thus losing skilled staff, and curtailing touring exhibitions (the National Gallery has reduced theirs from 14 to 9 over the last few years).

It’s a depressing article, the one hope being that the Parliamentarians that heard the evidence at their inquiry are finally going to remove the dividend. Given that Rudd promised as part of his election platform that if elected he would cut an additional 2% from agency budgets to ensure efficiencies, I fear the future for collecting institutions is looking pretty bleak.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Salzburg Declaration on Conservation

There has been a meeting of the great and good in the world of conservation in Salzburg over last week end. This has been a one off forum sponsored by the US based IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) and it has included in its 60 participants from 37 countries three Australian conservators, Vinod Daniel, from the Australian Museum, who was a co-chair, Ian Cook, former director of Artlab Australia in Adelaide and Marcelle Scott from Melbourne University. I ought to state up front that I tried to get an invite myself, but was told that they wanted more people from developing nations and not particularly anyone from the world of private conservation. Fair call, I suppose, when the big conservation challenges are less and less in the developed world!

They met in the stunning setting of Schloss Leopoldskron, better known as a backdrop to memorable scenes in the Sound of Music, which is the home of the Salzburg Global Forum. Check out the programs this place is running. It appears to have been a great success, resulting in the ‘Salzburg Declaration on the Conservation and Preservation of Cultural Heritage’. Whilst this on first reading appears to be full of worthy generalisations about working together to save the world’s cultural heritage, it does on closer inspection reveal some genuinely new thinking on how to achieve a global approach to conservation.

And it has got me thinking that we do need to see cultural heritage as a universal asset and to approach its conservation with universal cooperation. I am reminded of the 18th century concept of wealthy Englishmen undertaking the grand tour and returning with trunks full of 'universal heritage' with which they then proceeded to create cabinets of curiosities, with no delineation between type (e.g. paintings or stuffed animals) or origin (Iceland or Africa).

The International Institute for Conservation has been running a blog throughout the weekend written by Richard McCoy from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The blog has been informative, but it is the response from one Dale Kronkright that sums up beautifully the issue of universality and diversity of conservation work:

Conservation of cultural heritage materials takes place in so many places worldwide and on so many different levels today: in the hands of the preservation practitioner, on the shelves of a museum storage room, in the policies of a collecting institution, in the aims and goals of an organization’s board and philanthropic supporters, in the analytical investigations of a conservation science laboratory, in the public engagement created in an exhibition. I frequently now get the feeling that there is now one worldwide heritage collection, investigated, managed, documented, stored, cared for and exhibited at diverse and unique museums all over the world. Some have stable funding and edifices and exist in secure locations. Some are more threatened. Few actively and meaningfully collaborate for a common purpose. The challenge appears increasingly to be one of creating a global platform onto which any of us can pose questions, carry on preservation dialogues that develop ideas, methods, materials and marshal resources where and when they are needed, while continuing to execute our daily responsibilities and institutional objectives.

It’s a powerful thought of which we who live in the micro world of individual conservation decisions need to be constantly reminded.