Saving the Now: Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works

By Sarah Hillary, Principal Conservator, Auckland Art Gallery. Sarah attended the IIC (International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) Los Angeles Congress, 12-16 September 2016, and reports on what she learned.

The conference was held in downtown Los Angeles at the grand old hotel, Millennium Biltmore.  Built in the 1920s with lavishly decorated interiors, it was an early venue for the Academy Awards.  Further up the road is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Grand Avenue and the new, ‘The Broad’, which houses the Eli and Edythe Broad collection of contemporary art.


Carol Mancusi-Ungaro from the Whitney Museum of American Art gave the Forbes Prize Lecture and asked ‘what are we charged to conserve?’  In contemporary art, the concept is often more important than the physical object, so an understanding of the conceptual framework is essential to determine a conservation approach.  In addition, artists rarely relinquish intellectual control of their artwork and their estates retain an ongoing authority. Documentation, consultation and collaboration are a major part of the contemporary art conservators’ role.  Today conservation of ‘the object’ is the minority, replicating and co-producing are becoming the norm, which is a shift away from the traditional approach to conservation – even a conflict in some cases – when it involves painting over the original artwork for example.

The conference included two keynote addresses, 44 papers, 51 posters and several panel discussions over 5 days.  Topics ranged from theoretical perspectives, new needs and approaches, to treatments and replicas. There were several functions at museums – MOCA, The Broad and LACMA – giving participants time to look at the displays, plus a variety of tours.  Around 500 people attended the conference.

hillary-2 The Broad Museum

The conference topic was explored widely and the standard of presentation was excellent.  I will report in a little more detail about four presentations.

Keith Haring in in Pisa and Melbourne: Controversy and Conservation by J Dickens, A Rava, MP Colobini, M Picollo and W Shank.


Collingwood Mural before treatment

There was a high profile and emotive campaign to have the outdoor Collingwood Mural in Melbourne repainted.  Haring made a brief visit to Australia in 1984, and the mural was the largest survivor of a number of works created during his visit.  By the 1990s, the Collingwood Mural had become deteriorated and appeared to be faded.  Efforts were made to have it treated, but conservators were heavily criticised for supposedly ignoring the artist’s wishes for repainting when necessary. However this approach was at odds with the views of the Haring in another interview.  He spoke of his distress at the number of copies that had been made of his work and said ‘the very essence of my work rests in this concept of the ‘gesture’ and the ‘spirit of the line’ to express individuality.’  He also said ‘Your line is your personality…’ and when redrawn it doesn’t have this ‘character’.


 Detail of deterioration

Having weighed up the options, Heritage Victoria recommended conservation treatment rather than repainting.  Analysis of the paint layers identified titanium dioxide had migrated to the surface of the yellow paint but could be removed.  The red line was flaking but could be consolidated and then retouched.  The treatment was very successful and the mural remains the work of Keith Haring, not the restorer or repainter.


Mural after treatment

The Collingwood Mural case was compared with a restoration of a Haring mural in Pisa, Italy, which had similar treatment outcomes.  But in the Pisa example, the spokespeople for the project had succeeded in gaining public support early on in the process.

Conserving a boundary: The conservation and management of a Berlin Wall mural by K Graves and K Corda.


Berlin Wall installed outside in New York

In 1991, five segments of the Berlin Wall that had paintings by contemporary artists Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny, were bought at auction, transported to the USA and placed in an outdoor environment that caused accelerated deterioration.  These segments are part of the wall that was installed between 1975 and 1980.  The side facing West Berlin became a place for artistic and political expression in the 1980s, but the side facing the East, was inaccessible and so unpainted.  The artists intended to voice protest by making large colourful marks on a major symbol of the Cold War and they hoped this would help ‘to destroy it’.


Restored Berlin Wall in the foyer

A description of the treatment was given and the justification for moving the wall inside the building lobby for further protection from the environment.  At the end of this talk there was quite a discussion initiated by some of the German members of the audience.  The mural was being treated as a two-dimensional painting when in fact it was an ‘object’ – there was no consideration being made to ensure that the east-facing side could also be seen and the lives of those people who experienced the Cold War from that side, acknowledged.  There was also criticism about the relocation, as the artists had never intended that their work would be viewed in this context.

Walking the walk and impact of space and place on new media art by A Paterakis, A Price and H Kapan.


Janet Cardiff Taking Pictures 2000

Taking Pictures by Janet Cardiff is a site specific work in which the artist guides the participant on a 16-minute walk from the Saint Louis Art Museum to a nearby Forest while listening to a recording played on a Sony DiscmanTM, and occasionally prompts the viewing of four colour photographic prints.  When acquired in 2000 the artist had already emphasized the importance of working with the conservation department as they would be involved in up keeping the piece.  By 2015 the landscape had changed making the walking route unrecognisable, and the artist wished to upgrade the work but was also interested in changing the technology to an iPad with GPS tracking.

Currently the museum is in negotiation about how often the work should be updated and what conditions would define that it was obsolete.  This would include the path configurations and technology used.


One of the authors re-enacting the walk in Taking Pictures, 2015

 Migrating facsimiles: When copies disappear from conservation control by Alison Norton


The facsimiles on display

A 2014 exhibition of Meric Algin Ringborg at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, exploring identity, involved making facsimiles.  Exhibition copies were made of personal letters that were on open display and not supposed to be touched, but were constantly handled by the public.  The copies were well made but differentiated by a blind embossing ‘Reproduktion Moderna Museet’ on the reverse to make sure they were easily identifiable.  At the end of the exhibition the work was returned to the artist and she requested the facsimiles.

The conservators were concerned about these items as they were only intended as exhibition copies to be destroyed at the end of the showing, but now they were having a new life.  Norton writes that the conservators’ role in contemporary at practice is seen as a facilitator and documentator, but by making the facsimiles they had become a co-creator or artist’s assistant.


Facsimiles (left) and originals (right)

I would like to thank the Auckland Art Gallery, the Regional Facilities Auckland and Te Papa’s National Services Te Paerangi for making it possible for me to attend the IIC Congress.  It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with international colleagues and to hear the most recent work in the contemporary art conservation field from a wide range of specialists.  For me the greatest shift in approach has been that conservators are becoming more comfortable working in the conceptual sphere, and there is a greater acknowledgment that collaboration with fabricators and artists can produce an appropriate outcome.  However it was also reassuring to hear of successful traditional treatments of ‘objects’, and to know that this approach still has a part to play in conservation today.

My intention is to give a presentation about the conference at the Auckland Regional Group of the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Material (NZCCM), and for interested staff at the Auckland Art Gallery.  The conference preprints will be given to the E.H. McCormick Research Library as reference material.

Sarah Hillary

28 September 2016