Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Artwork Health Care : Who's The Best Doctor? Open Thread

As the nation debates what to do about the national health care disaster (and if you don't think it's a disaster, you're a self-centered misanthrope in my book...just saying) , I thought I'd muse a bit about another debate that comes up from time to time in the gallery about the health care of artwork. Namely, when a work of art gets damaged, who's the best person to fix it?

As I noted in an interview recently, one of the most eye-opening parts of the research I did for my book (How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery, yes, I'm still hawking it), was the section on art conservation. In addition to learning how similar art conservation is to medicine (and how much conservators talk about the art they work on like doctors talk about their patients), I was also introduced to a more concrete way to think about who is best suited to fix a work of contemporary art when if it gets damaged: the artist or a conservator. For the book I interviewed Elizabeth Estabrook of New York's stellar firm Amann + Estabrook Conservation Associates, who said it depends of course on the type of problem:
It's a real discussion that the dealer or the owner needs to have with the artist about what they can do to fix the problem, whatever you perceive the problem to be. Artists make things. Their area of expertise is making, not fixing. So, it's just that they may do things that are not terribly appropriate. And in some cases, it doesn't really matter and can be just all kind of stirred into the concept of "this is how this piece is," but in some cases, if it's a painting and it has a tear in it, they can do an indelicate job of repairing it that someone else cannot revisit because they've botched it in a way that you can't undo and start over again.
The other considerations in this decision process though, of course, are costs and who pays, especially if it's unclear whether the damage was inevitable because of how it was made or not. Elizabeth was very frank about the fact that when they analyze a piece they will often present a client with a list of steps they might consider (the total of which is obviously more expensive than a subset of them) and ask them what they wish to do. If the client asks for a subset that leaves the work in precarious condition, however, they'll refuse to work on it at all.

But getting back to the notion that whatever an artist might do to repair a work is merely part of "how this piece is," I have been involved in cases in which I was very happy we hired a conservator rather than have the artist repair the work. It's not cheap, I can tell you, but we're in the business of placing works into great collections with the goal that they'll be preserved for as long as they can possibly last. That demands of us that we're taking every precaution to ensure the work is structurally fit before we place it. If an artist isn't the best person to ensure that, regardless of how talented he/she is in creating the work, well, I don't want them fixing it. We have obligations to the collection as well as the artist. On the other hand, we have artists who are so phenomenally gifted in their chosen media that I'd recommend them as highly as any conservator to other dealers needing a piece repaired. It all depends.

Knowing how protective many artists are about the integrity of the work they create, however, I wanted to open this up to opposing opinions. Is the creator of a work always its best doctor?

Labels: art conservation, how to start and run a commercial art gallery


Anonymous Greg said...

Here's a great article about the challenges that conservators face when dealing with contemporary art, often made with unusual materials, and artists...

Rebecca Mead, Onward and Upward with the Arts, “The Art Doctor,” The New Yorker, May 11, 2009, p. 58

8/04/2009 09:06:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Once I finish a work, I lose my concern for it. All my care, time and energy is dedicated to my next work. So I'd rather a conservator handle difficult or time-consuming repairs. A conservator can be focused and dedicated. He or she won't be pulled away by an extremely strong need to get back to a new work - the way I would be.

8/04/2009 09:07:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Once I finish a work, I lose my concern for it. All my care, time and energy is dedicated to my next work. So I'd rather a conservator handle difficult or time-consuming repairs.

That's fine, but do you assume you're paying for such services?

8/04/2009 09:16:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

I would be responsible for the repair if the problem was my fault. That is, if the work failed physically, in some way, due to my neglect. That's why I do everything I can, while I'm working, to ensure the longevity of each work. I would also be up front with the dealer or collector about possible future problems, e.g., because I could only afford low-cost materials at the time, it might fade faster than a work made with the highest quality materials.

8/04/2009 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Actually, revisiting this (and yes, we've been all over this topic before), I've never quite understood the concept "Once I finish a work, I lose my concern for it." The idea that it's out there in the world on its own and whatever happens to it happens...I really can't relate. I would assume artists would want the work to always look its best.

8/04/2009 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I'd argue that the faulty repair is part of the work. Show me a case where repair has fundamentally altered the effect or concept of the work (for the viewer not the artist) and I'll show you a hamburger I cooked to perfection on charcoal you cant have because I burned it.

8/04/2009 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Repairing a work that is damaged is work, and should be paid for. Some artist may build in serviceable attributes to keep in touch with their work (like a gas tank or turtle wax).

If the artist doesn;t want to service the work (which is different than their usual process -- additive dust, say, rather than subtractive dust -- then I'd say it's understandable that the lack of will is more a matter of personal drive than true moral decline.

On the topic of the last thread, art doesn't always mean moral improvement, and in the same way, for an artist, art is not always a commodity fetish with effects to be preserved for all time. This may not be clear, and that's why we call it the con. Many artists move on to the next work having lived witht he last one for a long time in a very intimate way. Would you ask someone to have sex with an ex for old time's sake?

8/04/2009 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Hey, those jerks at the Brooklyn Museum broke the glass in Duchamp's "Bride Stripped Bare" in 1932. We gotta get that thing fixed someday.

8/04/2009 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Nice to know that art minds are thinking alike. Yesterday I prepared a Marketing Mondays post (to run 8.24) on this exact topic. I've already created a link back to your post.

I think about this issue often because I paint small color fields in encaustic, a medium that holds its color forever but will lose its shape if subject to temperatures over 150 degtrees. Its relatively fragine surface will also crack or ding if the dealer or collector--or, more often, the consultant--is not careful with it. Some surfaces just cannot be repaired, and a dealer's/collector's/consultant's insurance covers the loss. I repair small problems myself (I keep paint chips from each painting for exactly that reason) but museum curators will tell you outright: "We don't want the artists touching the work." The museum conservation stance is not just about encaustic but about any work in any medium.

I work archivally every step of the way, and I send each work out in its own cossetted box--not only to protect the work but to signal to gallerist, collector, consultant that I have taken the utmost care with this work and I expect them to do the same.

The only time I walked away from a problem was when a collector, who had obviously mistreated the work by storing it flat (!) with heavy boxes on top of it (!)--complained to the dealer, after 10 years (!) that it was "damaged." It sure was. There were dozens of stress cracks from the pressure of all that weight.

8/04/2009 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Ed, artistic creation really is like birth (inspiration to do a work), life (making the work) and death (finishing the work). While I don't have any feelings, after a while, for a dead body (my finished work), I care a lot about living persons - in this case, dealers and collectors.

1. If my work is damaged by someone else, they're financially responsible for fixing it.

2. If my work fails physically, I'm financially responsible for fixing it - unless the person who buys it clearly understands it might have problems down the road, and accepts this at the time of sale. (This where I have to be up front with dealers and collectors.)

3. If my work is sold "as is" (written terms of sale), this is the end of my responsibility.

4. Regardless, I will certainly help a dealer or collector by assisting a conservator - sharing my knowledge of my work with them.

5. Despite my feelings and my baseline positions, I just might want to repair sold works myself. I don't know. I haven't run into this yet. (Though, in the past, I've been happy to repair works I've given away to friends and family.)

I'm sure the way artists feel about their finished work varies from artist to artist.

8/04/2009 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I guess what I would expect to hear in all that Tom is that you're upset if your work gets damaged. That it would bother you to know it's out there in the world in a condition that doesn't represent your intent.

8/04/2009 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

From being a university professor, I can tell you that most students graduating w/MFAs are not qualified/capable of repairing their own work properly. Today's art degrees no longer emphasize in-depth knowledge of materials or the importance of creating archival work.

Artists working in strange/cutting edge materials may be the exception to this rule....

Artists who are interested in preserving their work should learn to keep records of what materials they used from start to finish in order to aid a conservator.

Having worked for an excellent conservator as one of my day jobs, I can say that IF they are good, they are going to understand how to repair a work better than the artist because most artists, even if they know their materials, may not understand the effects of aging, exposure of their work to damaging environments, etc.

Finally, really well qualified conservators spend half their time trying to repair damage done by bad conservators... if you want your artwork to last, pay the money for someone to do it right.

8/04/2009 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Ed, I used to get upset about it - even the thought of it. Now I accept that it's almost inevitable. So, instead of getting upset, I ask myself, "What, if anything, can be done about it - and who's responsible for doing it?" My expectation of the care other people will show toward my art is low, based on past experience. But then I've never dealt with real collectors (not to mention that my art never has been assigned any monetary value by others!).

8/04/2009 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Maybe the better question is, should a collector display damaged work?

The older I get, the less I care.
Call it vanity.

I have work that wasn't collected so much as abandoned. I wish I knew where it was. I also have work I wish I could destroy.

ALso, Shouldnt an artist be allowed to buy back work they sold if it doesn't say what they thought it said? Reflects badly on their ouvre? If it is falling apart and no amount of conservation will fix it?

8/04/2009 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Bradley Hankey said...

As a painter, if the problem were related to the paint (a paint chip broke, exposing the underpainting, etc.) I would prefer to touch it up myself, if I were able to. However, if the problem were more complex, such as a tear in the canvas, I would rather a conservator fix the problem. I have a clause in my commission contract that states the buyer is responsible for fixing damage to works they purchase from me, and if they don't, the work is no longer attributable to me. I agree that I want my paintings that are out in the world to be in their best possible shape, because that may be how someone is introduced to my work.

8/04/2009 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Joanne wrote: I work archivally every step of the way, and I send each work out in its own cossetted box--not only to protect the work but to signal to gallerist, collector, consultant that I have taken the utmost care with this work and I expect them to do the same.

The only time I walked away from a problem was when a collector, who had obviously mistreated the work by storing it flat (!) with heavy boxes on top of it (!)--complained to the dealer, after 10 years (!) that it was "damaged." It sure was. There were dozens of stress cracks from the pressure of all that weight.

You would think a knowledgeable collector would never do something like that, but there are obviously plenty of people in this world who haven't the slightest idea how to take proper care of their possessions, be they works of art or other. I have bought work from one artist who included a sheet on "how to care take of your art," and why not? Or perhaps dealers could prominently display a pamphlet on taking care of works of art that they could include with any purchase to an unknown collector. Of course some collectors will feel "insulted," others won't read the thing, but some genuinely don't know the proper ways to treat a work and will appreciate the advice - especially if unusual materials are used.

At the same time, artists and dealers can't realistically expect the average homeowner to have storage conditions comparable to those in a major museum.

8/04/2009 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspe said...

I consider making art as making theatre. It's a theatre of which I don't know the duration, but it is not intemporal. It's a performance. So I prefer documenting the work than focussing on preserving the original (and if other document it, it brings different perspectives and ensures that some documents remain in case mine disappears). I don't mind that the original desintegrates but if I can look at an album in my older years and say "oh I did this, and that", than I'm fine. Art is not very ecological anyways. And documents that are not digital waste too much paper.

Cedric Casp

PS: I'm also leaning toward a "blueprint" philosophy. Such of the Keith Tyson model. I'm not really sure how he figures if the work is the final product or the blueprint, but for me it would be more the blueprint (a la Sol Lewitt).

8/04/2009 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Larry says: "Artists and dealers can't realistically expect the average homeowner to have storage conditions comparable to those in a major museum.

So true. However, I'd wager that most of the problems which occur are not because of less-than-archival-quality storage but because of carelessness. Careless = disrespect. Don't you think?

8/04/2009 02:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be wary of a conservator approximating color and paint consistency for me (like to fix sun or water damage). Even if I couldn't match it, I could approximate the spirit of it better than anyone else. Same with brushwork - even if I couldn't fill a deep scratch as well as a conservator, I could cover it most convincingly. But if there was no evident hand in the work, perhaps a conservator could do as good a job.

A conservator told me recently that saliva is superior for cleaning dirty paintings. Artist's often treat their work more roughly that a conservator would. And if the damage was related to bad practice - such as can often happen when painting over old paintings, a conservator would make that known while the artist would more likely cover it up and hope for the best.

Caring about past work is fraught with danger - it's like reconnecting with an adopted child. If I fixed an old painting for free, I'd want, maybe even demand, to know beforehand the environment it currently occupies.

As someone who buys art from time to time, I like to get ideas from the artist as to framing - information galleries should, but often don't, supply. That also has a lot to do with how the work is perceived.


8/04/2009 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Careless = disrespect. Don't you think?

Not inevitably. When Steve Wynn poked a hole through Picasso's "La Rêve," I wouldn't attribute that to disrespect. Sometimes an accident is just an accident.

8/04/2009 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger batswap said...

The best story I have heard about conservation concerns a Mona Hatoum that was damaged when a collector moved house. The work is a colander from ikea with screws in it. The collector told me how huge the bill was to fix the work, when you looked at it you knew that a new colander was purchased and...well you know the rest. Another was a collector sent Tom Friedmans pillow stuffing to a conservator as it had "lost its fluff". The collector wanted to resell at auction. I would have to go with tose above and the "Ship of Theseus" argument asking when does the work no longer become that work any longer?

You can still see where Wynn poked that hole in his Picasso by the way. Its in Philly now if ya wanna look.

8/04/2009 04:20:00 PM  
Anonymous L.M. said...

For fragile digital projects, because I am one blown fuse away from total irrelevance, I keep source files backed up and detailed software instructions for rebuilding some of my stuff. (I even back up my simple HTML scripts, mostly because I'm a freak.)

I am a future digital-conservator's dream artist.

8/04/2009 05:51:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

The phrase 'inherent vice' is a legal tenet referring to a "hidden defect (or the very nature) of a good or property which of itself is the cause of (or contributes to) its deterioration, damage, or wastage. Such characteristics or defects make the item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice."

8/04/2009 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

OK, so Steve Wynn is the exception. I think there might have been a perception issue with him, as well. And we've all had accidents. But my point is that we do tend to care for the things we care for.

8/04/2009 07:41:00 PM  
Blogger gnute said...

That article Greg recommended really is awesome. The art doctor in question is Christian Scheidemann; I found his attitude to be quite extraordinary; he was sympathetic to the artists' intentions and seemed to know when to stop being precious about the work. On Hirst's pickled shark, Scheidemann said, "What he did with the shark was not very smart, but the artist is always right... I think we would have tried to plastinate the shark - to exchange the bodily fluids with resin. But maybe that's too subtle for him. It would be a totally different work. I think he's more interested in keeping it difficult for a while."

I agree with Tom Hering about being up front with the buyer about possibly future problems. Some people don't know that high humidity affects the work, or that latex will lose its elasticity. Or sometimes the pricetag is lower because it is understood between the artist/dealer/buyer that the work may deteriorate fast.

8/04/2009 09:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

You can still see where Wynn poked that hole in his Picasso by the way. Its in Philly now if ya wanna look.

It was shown at the Acquavella Gallery on E. 79th St. just a few months ago. Yes, you can see - just barely - the remnants of the damage if you know what to look for. But the restoration job was outstanding.

8/04/2009 10:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm of the mind that all material based art will decay/deteriorate at some point in the future. It is inevitable that all creations will have a shelf/wall-life. having said that, artists, collectors, curators and dealers should define their own job with respect to the reality of the situation.

Art is forever, but not individual artworks. Generally, a painting is going to last as long as it is maintaiined and cared for, but it will always undergo a gradual transformation as the material breaks down...that shouldn't surprise anyone. No piece of matter in existence is eternal, so this ideal of preservation into perpetuity is a bunch of foolishness.

Personally I long to see the day when the Mona Lisa flakes away, but conservators will keep bandaging the work until no one knows what is real and what is a conservatory mirage.

May art survive even as pieces of it pass away!


8/05/2009 01:47:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Edward said, "I've never quite understood the concept 'Once I finish a work, I lose my concern for it.'"

I'm sure it's not the same for all artists, but for some, finishing a work is a cause of depression (which may be too strong of a word to use). The high experienced during the creative process has ended.

This down feeling can be mixed with feelings of failure. The finished work really isn't what the artist had in mind when the artist began, and the finished work is filled with countless flaws (visible only to the artist). It's best to just forget it and move on. (The need to do better with the next work is what drives the artist to start the next work.)

When the artist has to revisit the work to repair it, the artist sees all its flaws again, plus all the ways in which it is less accomplished than the artist's current work. It's not a happy reunion. (And the temptation is there to not just repair the work but also improve it.)

All of which might explain why the finished works in some artists' studios are stored facing the wall. Anyways, I would say that the higher the demands an artist makes on himself or herself, the less willing they are to revisit finished work. Which is not to excuse any refusal to repair old works, but just to explain what might be going on with some artists.

8/05/2009 11:11:00 AM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

What I don't understand is why Ensor's painting "Christ's entry in Brussels" was deemed too fragile to travel to MoMA from the Getty. It's a sturdy oil on strong flemish linen, I suppose. It's not some fragile van Eyck or Memling oil painted on wood.

8/05/2009 04:33:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Delucci says: "Personally I long to see the day when the Mona Lisa flakes away, but conservators will keep bandaging the work until no one knows what is real and what is a conservatory mirage."

Dude you're being selfish and naive. For 500 years we have had this painting. Why should others not have the same opportunity 500 years from now? Feel however you wish about your own paintings, but leave other artists out of it.

As for conservation, good conservators are committed to intervening as lightly but as effectively as possible. Conservation science makes this possible. They are highly ethical, with a strong understanding of their role as cultural caretakers.

8/05/2009 07:46:00 PM  
Blogger Visual said...

Generally the job of the artist is to work on their projects. Who has time for anything else?
In certain cases they may like to mend their broken art. But, no, I don't mend art.
It's a different set of eyes needed for restoration. Part of the creative act is to move on. The whole of the restoration is to bring it back.
I've remade work, and charged heavily. But even before agreeing to do this I make it very clear that in remaking the work it isn't a case of replication, it is the case of new art.
Love is when you are happy.

8/05/2009 07:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like saying ridiculous and harmlessly inflammatory things to stir the pot sometimes. I actually hold many conflicting views about this issue, so I happen to agree with you quite a bit, despite my previous comments.

I may be a bit unorthodox in my thinking, but I would also like to see a work of art follow its natural and inevitable conclusion. This is probably why Andy Goldsworthy is one of my favorite artists.


8/05/2009 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

I've heard the argument that artists are the last person that should restore a damaged work. This is because the owner wants to restore it to how it was, whereas the artist will want to improve it to how they now think it should be.

And this is the way it should be: artists should focus on the future rather than the past, on what they will do not what they have done. Bollocks to making the same bloody work over and over.

I wish I had a button I could push to remotely destroy old works. Though I take comfort that they'll all end up in the rubbish bin fairly soon.

8/05/2009 09:46:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Oh, and can I be a self-centred misanthrope and still think you should fix your health system?

8/05/2009 09:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

++Ensor's painting "Christ's entry +++in Brussels" was deemed too ++fragile to travel to MoMA from +++the Getty

Oh no! Not another retro missing all the important works! Stop it, please! It's so painful. Cheap ass museums!

Cedric Casp

8/06/2009 06:43:00 AM  
Blogger Tina Mammoser said...

I can't believe I missed this thread when you first posted it.

As an artist who is happy to repair work, and I try to work with materials with the future in mind, I agree that my skills are mainly in the making. Often small damage is something I know exactly how to fix, knowing the layers involved in the painting. But I do think that if someone feels a conservator would do a better job (in future, my work isn't at that point yet!) I'd be happy that they make the best decision for the piece.

Unfortunately I know far too many artists who never learned how materials interact, don't care even if they do know, and even a few who have said once it's sold they don't care if it falls apart tomorrow. That attitude shows a complete lack of respect for our own work (which is an aspect of ourselves) and for the person buying and supporting our businesses.

8/24/2009 06:11:00 AM  

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