Notes from Gwynne

Is it a coincidence that I’ve heard Gwynne Ryan speak three times in the last six months? I think not–Gwynne is a terrific resource for the conservation of contemporary art, and she makes a genuine effort to share information and her experiences. Gwynne is currently Sculpture Conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C., but worked previously in the Conservation Department at SFMoMA, which is why I got a little nostalgic every time she used an example from their collection. Gwynne has spoken on a range of topics that culminate in the main idea that the role of the conservator is ever-changing, and we need to be flexible in order to respond to the challenges of contemporary art.

As a future conservator interested in works on paper, I know my role with contemporary art will be slightly different than Gwynne’s. Nonetheless, she makes some great, general points that I think apply to all of us, even those that work with traditional materials.

On November 3, Gwynne spoke at the Institute of Contemporary Art  in Philadelphia, in an event titled Conversation on Conservation. Although Gwynne is a conservator of objects, such as sculpture, many other types of materials can fall under that category, including mixed-media installations, and time-based media. Gwynne gave many interesting examples of artworks that posed complications for the conservators, like Paul Sharits’s Shutter Interface (1975; below).
There were two main factors to consider with this video piece: the physical object and the intent of the artist. The projecting equipment itself is becoming aged technology, so if it were ever damaged, it may be difficult to find replacement parts. This is a situation where the conservator must step back from the materials and try to understand what the purpose of the piece is. It’s possible that the physical projector is an integral component to the video, but maybe the real importance lies in the quality of light, sound and motion that the current equipment provides. Even if the aging of the technology were not an issue, Gwynne still has to be sure that the artwork consistently represents the artist’s intentions (e.g. the volume level or speed of projection) every time the video is played.

At the Eastern Analytical Symposium on November 16, Gwynne again touched on “Trends in the Conservation of Time-Based Media.” The forum there was composed of, mainly, scientists looking at the material nature and preservation of digital technology. There were so many interesting talks at EAS, I could write another blog post, but I just want to list the resources that Gwynne suggested on the topic of Media Art: Independent Media Arts Preservation, Electronic Arts Intermix, the Electronic Media Group of AIC, and the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art. There are also many more links on the Digital Art Conservation site.

Finally, on April 20, Gwynne gave the Annual Joanna Rowntree Memorial Lecture at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She presented, what I feel, are two tasks that the contemporary art conservator must take on in response to the challenges I mentioned above: 1. Document everything, and 2. Interview living artists. Documentation is already a job of the conservator, but in a museum setting, where conservation work is largely exhibition driven, it seems there is never enough time to be as thorough as one would like to be. In a circumstance where there are many steps to an installation, notes are extremely important, and will likely reduce work hours in the future because they’ll serve as instructions the next time the piece goes on view.

Another thing to document: all communications with the artist. Here’s another topic worthy of an entire blog! At the time of acquisition is a perfect opportunity to arrange an interview with an artist, but also when there are conservation issues that relate to the nature of the piece. All of Gwynne’s suggestions for staging an interview were insightful, and show that her research time and experience has gotten her very far. You can read another discussion of artist interviews between Glenn Wharton and Richard McCoy on the art:21 blog. I used to think that interviewing artists was just a matter of the contemporary art conservator asking questions about treatment, but I’m beginning to learn just how multi-disciplinary conservation can, and should, be. In preparing for interviews, Gwynne has read a lot about sociology and communications. And it’s not only the job of the contemporary art conservator to conduct interviews; in a symposium I attended last week at Winterthur, called Ethical Issues in Ethnographic Collections, speakers advocated for improved dialogue between conservators and living descendants or tribes connected with the artifacts…again a subject worthy of an entire blog.

Clearly I have a lot say about the conservation of contemporary art, so I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic in the near future. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn a little more about what Gwynne does, watch this video by the Hirshhorn Conservation Department:

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