Ethical Dilemmas in the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art
We live in a society that does not always value the signs of age. Many modern and contemporary works of art were either intentionally meant to be ephemeral, or were made from new and untested materials that have turned out to be dramatically unstable. The resulting deterioration of these objects raises difficult questions about their conservation.
Should the preservation of such works focus on maintaining the original materials, or place more emphasis on the work's original appearance? Should we attempt to prolong the life of ephemeral pieces if the artist's intention is subsequently compromised? Should components in a work that deteriorate beyond a certain point be replaced, or should the work be declared dead? Is the making of a replica a valid solution, especially if the work can be recreated by the artist? What happens if an artist or owner changes his or her mind about the appearance of a work? And is there a danger that early intervention would eliminate interpretive possibilities for works?
On April 29, 2009, in an event organized by the Getty Conservation Institute, a panel of experts charged with the display, management, and conservation of modern and contemporary art discussed these and other dilemmas that are frequently posed by the conservation of works of art from this period.
Edward Goldman (moderator) is the host of KCRW's Art Talk. He immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union, where he worked as an art educator for the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He came to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and quickly joined the arts community as a teacher at Art Center College of Design, as a curator of exhibitions, and as a writer for various catalogues and publications. In addition to academic pursuits, Goldman established a career as an art advisor for major American corporations and private collectors.
Matthew Gale is an art historian specializing in the twentieth century and is head of displays at Tate Modern. As one of the curators intimately concerned with Tate's collection, he worked closely with Tate's Sculpture Conservation and Conservation Science departments in developing Tate's research project on the replication of modern sculptures that are subject to unforeseen degradation. This culminated in the cross-disciplinary workshop, Inherent Vice: The Replica and its Implications in Modern Sculpture, held at Tate Modern in October 2007.
Susan Lake is the director of collection management and chief conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where she has worked for more than 25 years. She holds a PhD in conservation research and has written on the techniques of Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, and Paul Thek.
Jill Sterrett is the director of collections and conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). She joined the Museum in 1990 as conservator for works on paper and photographs. Prior to her SFMOMA appointment, Sterrett served in the conservation departments of a number of distinguished institutions, including the Library of Congress, the National Library of Australia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Last updated: March 2014