Master thesis: Managing the Conservation of a Contemporary Art Collection - Problems and Solutions (2001)

Posted on Fri, 09/05/2008 - 07:33
Master's thesis by Louise Cone
Statens Museum for Kunst and Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi/Konservatorskolen
Copenhagen, Denmark 2000-2001
Contact: Louise Cone
'Managing the conservation of a contemporary art collection - problems and solutions' is the title of a Master's Thesis by Louise Cone. Focus of attention is the collection of Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and the main purpose is to develop an applicable system for the conservation of a contemporary art collection.
About the collection
Statens Museum for Kunst is Denmark’s national gallery. Traditionally, Statens Museum for Kunst registers, maintains and researches in Danish and foreign art dating from the 14th century to the present. The museum’s collection is represented by nearly 9000 paintings and sculptures, approximately 300,000 works on paper, as well as more than 2,600 plaster casts. The major part of the museums older collection originates from the Danish Royal Collection.
Statens Museum for Kunst has recently expanded, adding on a new wing to their original building. This new wing is home for a growing and increasingly notable collection of contemporary art. This collection will provide the empirical material for the project.
Central questions regarding the conservation of contemporary art
Contained within the walls of a museum, contemporary art is subject to the same conditions as traditional art. They are subject to many common procedures having to do with the function of the museum. There is an exhibition space with climate control and lighting, there is the public, and there are archives for storage. And once an artwork enters the realm of the museum, it will also at some point in time end up on the conservator’s table.
Can we approach contemporary art using the same rules of thumb which apply to traditional art? What are the problems explicit to the conservation of contemporary art? How do we address these problems? The specific challenges concurrent with contemporary art need to be addressed already upon incorporation of a work of art into a museum collection. This project will address the issues specific to the conservation of a contemporary art collection, while trying to provide some practical solutions.
Conservator’s issues when dealing with contemporary art
Some of the challenges facing the conservator of contemporary art are, for example:
1. The durability/quality of the materials.
  • Many artists make use of materials, which degrade quickly.
  • The choice of materials is often subordinate to the expressive qualities of the work.
  • Many artists mix various, often times new materials together, creating works with “inherent vise”.
  • The materials often are imbibed with meaning that is specific to the individual artist.
2. Issues such as “artistic intent” need to be addressed.
  • It is important to have an active dialogue with the artist, where specific questions are raised regarding their intentions with a specific artwork. For example artistic intent is often discussed when restoring older art, but this discussion is often based on historically established references and previous conservation work with that artist. In contemporary art, however, there is no point of reference, no historicity. Artistic intent is not a given factor. There is no established framework for dealing with contemporary art.
3. The contextual aspects of the work need to be understood.
  • A thorough understanding of the context of the work is often necessary to understand the work. For example, many artists’, such as Eric Anderson’s “The Hidden Painting” in Statens Museum for Kunst, use the framework of the museum to develop their concepts.
4. Works often have specific exhibition/installation needs.
  • The temporality of works such as performance, installations, and continuous art processes challenge the autonomous art object.
  • Careful documentation is necessary to re-create installations, perhaps involving the use of video taped recordings.
5. The concept of the artwork may supercede the actual material art object in importance.
In addressing those issues central questions are: What information do conservators need to have? And what resources need to be available to do this? How can we create a workable framework for the conservation of contemporary art within the museum structure?
Purpose of the project
The purpose of the project is to develop an applicable system for the conservation of the contemporary art collection found in Statens Museum for Kunst. To do this, the following will be undertaken:
  1. A partial analysis of the contemporary art collection, concentrating on works made after 1960, and works which reflect varying aspects of conservation problems. From this, a number of works will be chosen to serve as “case stories” in the project.
  2. International and national research to gain knowledge from other museums that already have established procedures for the care of their contemporary art collections.
  3. Work for The International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA), an initiative of 11 international museums of modern and contemporary art, universities and research institutions. The object of the network is to maximize the exchange of information on the preservation of modern and contemporary art and to support international collaboration. Konservatorskolen has been invited to participate as a partner in the INCCA project. I will be working for the school as an assistant for the INCCA project, which will also be an integral part of my masters studies project at Statens Museum for Kunst.
  4. Ethical considerations specific to contemporary art.
  5. The development of a standard form, to help structure the gathering of information specific to an art work. (see below)
  6. The development of a standardized artist interview, to help in gaining as much insight, and information as possible from the artist. (see below)
  7. The development of analytical models, which can be used to help clarify the many different considerations when the need for conservation arises. (see below)
  8. Case stories. Contemporary art works reflecting various problems/challenges specific to contemporary art will be used to put theory into practice. The case stories will be used to “test” the standard form, the artist interview, and the analytical models. (see below)
Results of the project
The project will be realized by developing and implementing the following:
  1. A standard form To be filled out upon the purchase of a work of art (or at a later date for works already in the collection). The form will be divided up into sections, relating to the various areas of expertise at the museum. For example, there will be a section concerning the art historical aspects of the work. The curator/art historian who has knowledge of this particular artist would fill this out. A conservator would naturally fill out a section dealing with materials.
  2. An artist interview To gain as much knowledge as possible concerning the specific work. This should be done upon the purchase of a work of art. The goal of the artist interview is to gain as much precise information as possible concerning a specific artwork. Questions specific to the conservation of contemporary art will be posed. Such as: “What importance do the various materials used have for the meaning of your work?”
  3. Analytical models To aid in the decision making process in contemporary art conservation were first developed by Isbrand Hummelen, head of the Department of Conservation Research of the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, Amsterdam. These models will be adapted to relate specifically to the needs of Statens Museum for Kunst. The models will be used to aid in the decision making process when discussing possible conservation treatment.
  4. Case stories A number of art works reflecting various problems specific to contemporary art will be chosen to illustrate how the three points outlined above will work in practice.
Supervisors Statens Museum for Kunst: Conservator, Troells Filtenborg and Curator, Marianne Øckenholt. Konservatorskolen: Head of Department, Monumental Art, Bent Eshøj and Head of Department, Fine Arts, Mikkel Scharff.