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In conjunction with the Getty Conservation Institute's Museum Lighting Research (MLR) project, eleven watercolors from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, arrived at the Getty Center in November 2008 for microfading assessment. The MLR project seeks to reduce the damage to works of art on paper caused by museum lighting through the reevaluation of current illumination guidelines and the testing and design of new lighting. The O'Keeffe Museum was selected as the demonstration site for the implementation of lighting filters to reduce the rate of color fading in light-sensitive objects. The filters were designed under joint research with Carl W. Dirk of the University of Texas at El Paso, a partner in the MLR project. This demonstration is coupled with light sensitivity assessment of selected artifacts from the O'Keeffe Museum's collection, including the eleven watercolors brought to the Getty Center.

Georgia O'Keeffe painted with watercolors her entire life but focused on this medium during two particular phases: between 1916 and 1918, prior to moving to New York at Alfred Stieglitz's invitation; and between 1976 and 1979 when, with failing eyesight, she returned to complete abstraction and compositional minimalism.

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A major element of the O'Keeffe Museum's institutional lighting and exhibition policy is to assess the light sensitivity of these watercolors using current microfading techniques. At the Getty Center, GCI staff carried out microfading testing and analysis of colorants using Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to complement the microfadeometry investigation. Working for two weeks, staff from GCI Science—including Jim Druzik, Catherine Schmidt, Michel Bouchard, Christel Pesme, and Herant Khanjian—as well as Dale Kronkright, head of conservation at the O'Keeffe Museum, successfully completed work on ten watercolors dating from 1916 to 1918 and one watercolor from the 1970s.

The most significant outcome of this investigation is the way in which assumptions about the composition and sensitivity of these works were challenged—expectations about which colors were sensitive and which were not proved to be incorrect for most watercolors upon examination. The combined use of microfading testing and analytical spectroscopy gave the investigators information on the regions most sensitive to change and set the stage for development of a long-term monitoring policy for these works that will target resources where they can be of most benefit.

The goal of the O'Keeffe Museum is to carry out this work on all one hundred watercolors in its collection; it also intends to institute a broader plan to improve exhibition lighting filtration.

For more information on the Museum Lighting Research project, visit the project Web site.