What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

Alexandra Nichols is a graduate fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation with a special interest in the conservation of modern and contemporary objects. She is thrilled to be interning this summer at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas and the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark, and to finish her third year of graduate school at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For the Electronic Media Group / Objects Specialty Group / Voices in Contemporary Art joint session at AIC’s 43rd Annual Meeting in Miami, conservators from around the globe spoke about their experiences interviewing living artists as part of their work. No matter the institution, artist, or artwork, from the preservation of modern art collections to Buddhist monasteries, there was a common thread in each case: the importance of establishing trust between artist and conservator.

In order to form this bond, conservators must be able to convey their department’s goals and establish how they plan to use the recorded interviews. In a video clip, the artist Tasha Ostrander spoke about how conversations with Crista Pack and her team at the Museums of New Mexico taught her how much conservators care about the artworks and the issues associated with their preservation. Ostrander’s subsequent participation in the restoration of her artwork Seventy-three in a Moment (1996), an artwork consisting of 26,645 Xeroxed paper butterflies mounted to masonite, was “a leap of faith,” she said, that wouldn’t have been possible without the mutual trust between her and the conservator. As Pack and private practice conservator Celine Chrétien pointed out, involving artists at an early stage can educate them about how their artworks have aged and the possibilities for restoration.

Tasha Ostrander, Seventy-Three in a Moment (detail), 1996, 26,645 paper butterflies on Masonite, 10 feet in diameter; Photo courtesy of Margot Geist

Tasha Ostrander, Seventy-Three in a Moment (detail), 1996, 26,645 paper butterflies on Masonite, 10 feet in diameter; Photo courtesy of Margot Geist.

The term “artist interview” can be misleading, however, as it suggests there are easy answers to the ethical questions raised by preservation, and that any issues can be resolved in a single session. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Chief Conservator Gwynne Ryan argued that collaborations between institutions and artists should be thought of as ongoing projects, and that conversations should take place in a variety of settings. Some of the most rewarding insights, she said, can be gained from less formal interactions. The relationship that develops through these ongoing conversations strengthens the trust between the artist and institution. Kate Lewis commented that after observing the care and interest conservators took to ask about nuances in his work, the conceptual artist Charles Gaines expressed how he now feels confident that issues of obsolescence in his artworks involving 16:9 monitors can be appropriately addressed in the future.

Charles Gaines. Manifestos 2. 2013

Charles Gaines, Manifestos 2, 2013, Four-channel video; Photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

Moreover, institutions must recognize that what is appropriate for an artwork at a given moment may not remain static, as an artist’s views or the field’s methodologies shift. New York University Clinical Associate Professor Glenn Wharton warned against taking information from a single interview as gospel for how to approach the treatment of an artist’s entire body of work. He advocated for an abandonment of the phrase “artist intent,” proposing instead the adoption of the term “artist’s sanction,” as coined by Sherri Irvin, a Princeton professor who specializes in the philosophy of art. He explained that while “sanction” and “intent” are similar terms, the sanction is the artist’s response to the questions presented to them within a specific conversation. As time passes, it is only natural for an artist’s opinions to evolve, so it is essential for the relationship between the artist and institution to be maintained.

As with any pairing, trust acts as the cornerstone of a successful long-term relationship, in which both the artist and institution feel comfortable raising questions and continuing the conversation.

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