Art Conservators Share their Best Advice for Collectors
Installation view of Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1960–66 in “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017, 2017 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo by Ron Amstutz. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The best art is often made from idiosyncratic materials. While few collectors have to deal with the particularities of collecting a work by, say, an alchemist like Ad Reinhardt—who was known for his complicated paint recipes—many do have to contend with the fact that artists have not stopped experimenting with unusual materials to make their work.
Even without any experiments, art is a high-maintenance artifact that requires attentive care to ensure its long-term viability. Professional art conservators largely work at high-profile institutions where they can prioritize the longevity of artworks in the collection, often collaborating closely with artist estates or artists themselves. The average collector, however, lacks these highly skilled and expensive resources to preserve their art, and thus run the risk of damaging or diminishing their collection’s durability based on how works are stored or displayed.
Artsy interviewed three conservators at the Whitney Museum of American Art—assistant conservator Margo Delidow, associate conservator Matt Skopek, and project manager of media preservation initiative David Neary—to understand some of the potential difficulties collectors might encounter with the preservation of their works, and ways they can safeguard them without having to hire a full-time conservator.
Installation view of Frank Stella, Getty Tomb, 1959, Bampur, 1966, and Rozdol II, 1973 in “Frank Stella: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” 2019 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. © Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
There are some notable examples of high-profile conservation crises—for instance, Frank Stella’s psychedelic minimalist painting Bampur (1966), which is renowned for its use of Day-Glo’s Saturn Yellow. Bampur was initially a hypnotic, headache-inducing, neon nightmare that has now faded into a dulled, yet still colorful, work. During that time, Day-Glo reformulated the color, so the company couldn’t be relied upon for restoration supplies. While conservators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (led by Kamila Korbela), where the painting is held, continue trying to invent a new pigment for future use, Bampur losing its luster reminds us of how little we know about the long-lasting effects of non-oil paints and the challenges conservators at even the most resource-rich institutions face.
“Different paints have different qualities,” Skopek wrote. “For example, we know that oil paints can last for many hundreds of years, but they can also suffer from a wide range of characteristic condition issues over time.” Those characteristics—as any fine arts museum visit will reveal— include chipping, cracking, and the transformation of vibrancy, with some colors changing over time, such as green turning brown. “Acrylics are too new for us to know for certain how they will age on that timescale,” Skopek added. “To date they don’t appear to suffer from the same types of condition issues as oil, but they also present their own challenges as they age.”
Collectors can curtail damaging effects to paintings by taking care of how they store and display their work. An evergreen piece of advice—minimizing the amount of light a work encounters—was restated by all of the conservators, with Skopek further advising that pieces like paintings and photographs be protected by museum-grade UV glass.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (America), 1994. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.
Another factor to mind is the climate in which the art is stored, as humidity plays a massive role in the degradation of any work of art, especially painting. “We keep the museum galleries and storage around 68–72 degrees [Fahrenheit] and 40–60% humidity,” Skopek said. “Wide fluctuations in either, but particularly in humidity, can cause condition issues. This is primarily because the canvas will relax/contract in response to those changes, while the paint film will remain relatively fixed and rigid.”
Further challenges that complicate the longevity of an artwork include the materials that artists incorporate. Collectors of modern and contemporary sculpture should be particularly cognizant of the “ready-made” materials some artists use, as these everyday items are only “everyday” in the time in which the artists create the work, and can become obsolete over time. As an example, Delidow cited the Whitney’s difficulties in preserving Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1994 sculpture Untitled (America), which is made of lightbulbs and usually hangs in the museum’s center stairwell.
Delidow stated that while the work’s materials are simple enough (light strings, rubber sockets, and 42 45-watt lightbulbs), the specific items that Gonzalez-Torres used no longer exist (or are being phased out, like incandescent bulbs), and that the Whitney is working to find alternatives to maintain the integrity of the work. For collectors who are acquiring works by living sculptors, Neary recommends establishing a connection with them to receive a backup of alternative materials that may be used in case the work is ever damaged.
Installation view of Nam June Paik, Fin de Siècle II, 1989 (partially restored, 2018) in “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018,” 2018 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Nam June Paik Estate. Photo by Ron Amstutz. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Film and video—known as “time-based media” by conservators—carry their own quirks for collectors as the art is beholden to the technology available at the time of its creation. Film can degrade or combust, VHS tapes can become warped, and digital files can become corrupt. Many artists working in digital media often support the upgrading of their files to whichever format and resolution is most current. In these cases, collectors simply have to follow the changes in technology to maintain their work. In cases where artists work with 16mm film or other analog formats, collectors should inquire if a hi-res digital scan of the work is available.
“If an artist stipulates that their 16mm film can only ever be exhibited projected on film, the Whitney will ensure that we have, or have access to, negative elements or an approved digital scan that new prints can be struck from,” Neary said. “Similarly, if an artist creates a software- or web-based artwork using now-obsolete applications, it will be through discussion with the artist and conservators that we decide how best to replicate or document on video the experience of the work.”
Ultimately, collectors should establish a dialogue with artists or estates about their time-based works upon acquisition, as this will spare the future headache of trying to make legacy media work with the hardware of tomorrow. As Skopek put it, “Any media can have condition issues, and nothing is exempt from the effects of the passage of time, but with proper care many of those issues can be avoided. It’s more about how you take care of it than what it’s made of.”