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«Article: Living artists and the conservation of contemporary objects: Preserving an aesthetic of decay Author(s): John T. Campbell Source: Objects ...»

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Of course, not all artists are as interested as Magee in embarking upon a collaborative process with a conservator. Indeed, in the author’s experience, some have claimed not to care about the conservation of their work and responded to inquiries regarding different treatment approaches with, “I don’t know, aren’t you supposed to be the expert?” Such comments originate from different places, one being that the direction of the artist’s work has shifted significantly and earlier pieces are no longer of interest. In such cases, the collaborative process may be minimal or have different goals than with an artist who is more keenly invested in the process.

Tact is crucial when engaging in preliminary discussions. Education and training provide conservators with a technical perspective that may directly contrast with that of the artist. It is important to avoid making assumptions about the extent of an artist’s technical knowledge of specific techniques or materials used. A lack of information may be due to a practical reason rather than a reflection of the value the artist places on the work. For example, it may have been a long time since the artist thought intently about the work in question, or if the artist was not present for the manufacture of works constructed by fabricators he/she may not have firsthand information about process and materials.

3.1.2 Assessing Knowledge To further set the stage for a successful collaboration, it is important to gauge an artist’s knowledge and understanding of conservation and the role of the conservator. Magee’s prior experience with conservation gave him a firm understanding of the field. This minimized the need for preliminary explanations and allowed more time for the development of a working relationship and the assessment of works.

However, not all artists have such experience or understanding. To determine artists’ perceptions of the conservator’s role, it can be helpful to first identify their expectations and goals for the treatment of specific artworks. For example, as a graduate student, the author had interviewed the late artist, Alena Ort, who had no prior experience with conservation. When asking the artist for her recommendation regarding the treatment of a minor, but noticeable, loss to the large stone used in her 1997 work Treasure Rock, she suggested covering the loss with a patch constructed from rusted steel bands and hammered rivets, similar to those already wrapped around the stone (fig. 6) (Ort 2001). In this case, the response highlighted a limited understanding of what conservators do and the need to provide more basic information before discussing treatment approach. Following a discussion regarding the role of the conservator, the artist amended her original suggestion and recommended that the repair be made invisible (Ort 2001). This demonstrates that a small investment in education can produce satisfactory results for both conservator and artist.

In addition to a general overview, the conservator also contributes knowledge of materials and experience in the ethical treatment and preservation of artworks. Educating artists in a user-friendly way about the tenants of the AIC Code of Ethics may be helpful in this regard.

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Even with a constructive initial dialogue, the interview process can still be challenging for artists, forcing them to contemplate and articulate aspects of their works in a foreign mindset with unfamiliar terms. It may take time to arrive at a common language. Artists may also have difficulty offering input regarding the preservation of the aesthetic aspects of their work. For example, Magee attributed initial challenges to an inability to “stand outside his work” (Magee 2010). Thus, even when an artist is interested in collaboration, challenges persist.


After assessing the artist’s interest and knowledge, the next step is to determine the scope of the collaboration and set agreed upon goals. The scope is generally determined by whether the collaboration is focused on one work, multiple works, an exhibition, or an entire body of work. In the author’s experience, most artist/conservator interactions focus on a single work. Often the goal of such collaborations is to answer a question about a specific issue, such as color, finish, or an appropriate replacement for an outdated component. In such cases, documentation of the collaboration may consist of e-mail correspondence, a note in a treatment report, or a memo in the artist’s file.

Granted, a single work can consist of multiple components, such as sound, light, and audio.

In such cases, it is ideal to sit down with the artist and clarify as many variables and outcomes as possible.

Not surprisingly, the greater the detail that goes into the discussion of an object, the more likely the original aesthetic of the piece and the voice of the artist will be preserved. That said, it is often beneficial to consider the necessary scope of collaboration and weigh the time available against desired results to ensure a constructive interaction.

Campbell AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Vol. 20, 2013 The purpose of the author’s trip to El Paso was to prepare for an exhibition of 16 of Magee’s works. Working in the role of exhibition conservator, the author’s expectation was to utilize the object cut-list provided by the curator to assess 36 prospective works in the studio, assessing overall condition, documenting hanging requirements, and identifying vulnerabilities associated with packing, shipping, and exhibition. In contrast, however, Magee’s primary concern was obtaining feedback on recent condition changes to works at The Hill. Thus the overall scope of the collaboration during the trip became one of compromise between artist and conservator.

Both armed with their lists of questions, the conversation took place during artist-guided tours of The Hill and the studio rather than as a formal interview. With a digital recorder in hand, Magee introduced his work, discussing materials, techniques, trials (both successful and unsuccessful), artistic goals and intent, as well as issues of concern related to conservation and preservation. This informal process allowed both parties to focus on various issues, highlighting what was essential and less critical for the overall aesthetic of Magee’s work. Although the visit to The Hill took time away from specific exhibition-related responsibilities in the studio, the result was to gain additional insight into the artist’s process and intent that greatly informed understanding of his work.

Magee was specifically interested in developing a “maintenance manual” for The Hill (Magee 2010). Balanced between creation and destruction due to its desert location, maintenance is a continuous battle, making The Hill a constant work in progress. Since lack of resources (i.e., time and money) often hinder the development of a conservation protocol for ongoing maintenance on such a scale, the transcribed digital recording was offered to the artist as an interim measure until a more formal document could be developed. The 102-page transcript contains significant insight regarding the material aspect of Magee’s art and will encourage correct condition assessments and possible treatments for future conservators.

4. CONCLUSION Artist/conservator collaborations can be invaluable to the process of preservation and treatment by providing insight into artists’ intentions and preferences regarding their work. Investing the time to prepare for collaborations in a systematic and thoughtful way can increase the potential for successful outcomes. Artists will have varied levels of interest in the conservation of their work and may have limited experience with the field of conservation. Conservators can avoid misunderstandings and limit barriers by meeting artists where they are, gauging their interest, knowledge, expectations, and goals before engaging in more technical discussions.

James Magee’s aesthetic of decay created a conservation challenge by needing to differentiate between intentional vs. unintentional degradation. In collaboration with the artist, valuable insight and knowledge were shared that helped not only support a specific exhibition but also the preservation of Magee’s work for years to come.

This case study of the initial discussion and beginning of an artist/conservator collaboration provides a rich example of how artist interviews can enhance the success of conservation documentation and treatment. This article contributes to the ongoing effort aimed at developing a comprehensive framework to assist and guide conservators through artist/conservator collaborations.


The author wishes to thank James Magee for his generosity of time and his hospitality during the initial visit and numerous later visits to El Paso; and Jed Morse, Chief Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas Texas, for his leadership and vision of the Magee exhibition.

Campbell AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Vol. 20, 2013 NOTES

1. A surge of interest in the development of both theory and practice related to the conservation of modern and contemporary works of art occurred beginning in the mid 1990s, leading to numerous symposia, research projects, and publications.

One such research project, initiated in 1998 and continued until 2005, provided the foundations for the pioneering text The Artist Interview: For conservation and preservation of contemporary art guidelines and practice, published in 2012. A hands-on textbook providing guidelines for a structured approach to the most extensive form of an artist interview, “the oeuvre interview,” as well as several examples of actual artist interviews taken directly from the research project noted in this article. This text also provides an excellent selected bibliography.

In addition, an earlier 1997 symposium Modern Art: Who Cares?, organized by the Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art and held in Amsterdam, inspired the formation of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA) in 1999. Subsequently, regional groups were established, including INCCA-North America (INCCA-NA) in 2006. Dedicated to the preservation of modern and contemporary art, INCCA-NA provides education programs, such as their Artist Interview Workshops, of which the author was a past participant, as well as invaluable resources such as the Artist Interview Resources page on their website (www.incca-na.org).

2. During the author’s employment at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, conservation staff were faced with the challenge of preserving existing dust on the surface of artist David Hammons’ work, High Falutin’, when deciding where to brace the work in its shipping crate. Preservation of the dust was mandatory as the artist considered it integral to the piece.

REFERENCES Magee, J. 2010. Personal communication. Artist.

Ort, A. 2001. Personal communication. Artist.

Scheidemann, C. 2007. Material and process: Gordon Matta Clark’s object legacy. In Gordon Matta Clark: You are the measure, ed. E. Sussman. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art. 119–23.

Wharton, G. 2009. INCCA: A model for conserving contemporary art. Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter 24.2 (Fall 2009). The Getty Conservation Institute. http://www.getty.edu/conservation/ publications_resources/newsletters/24_2/incca.html (accessed 03/06/15).


Beerkens, L. ed. 2012. The artist interview: For conservation and presentation of contemporary art.

Guidelines and practice, trans. J. Peeters-Huybrechts. Heÿningen: Jap Sam Books.

Brettell, R. R., and J. Morse. 2010. James Magee: The Hill. New York: Prestel.

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Cornudas Mountain Foundation. 2014. The Hill of James Magee. http://mageehill.com/ (accessed 03/06/15).

Dieter Roth Foundation. 2015. Schimmelmuseum 1992-2004. http://www.dieter-roth-museum.de/ the_schimmelmuseum/ (accessed 03/06/15).

Dobke, D., and B. Walter. 2003. Roth time: A Dieter Roth retrospective, eds. T. Vishcer and B. Walter, trans. C. Schelbert. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

JOHN T. CAMPBELL is a sculpture conservator specializing in modern and contemporary art. He is currently in private practice and sole owner of Campbell Contemporary Sculpture Conservation based in New York City. Prior to starting his private practice, he served four and a half years as head of the conservation department at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. Before this, he spent five years as a modern/contemporary objects conservator in New York City, first as an intern and fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, and then as a conservator at a New York-based private conservation studio. He has extensive experience in the maintenance and treatment of large-scale sculpture, including works by Calder, Cragg, di Suvero, LeWitt, Moore, Oldenburg, Picasso, and others. He has also worked collaboratively on large-scale works with multiple institutions, including the Getty Conservation Institute, Meadows Museum, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Rijksmuseum.

He received his master’s degree in art history and a certificate in art conservation from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts in 2004. He holds a bachelor’s of art in art history and a bachelor’s of science in materials science and engineering, both from the University of Washington. Address: 21-55 45th Ave, Long Island City, NY 11101. E-mail: john@CCSConservation.com

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