How can art be kept alive in museum collections? Tate Conference to share its findings

In 2002, two years after it first opened to the public, Tate Modern announced “a radical new location for collection, curation and display” – the outdoor space. The director of this brave new frontier, Tate in Space, was the artist Susan Collins. A Tate-owned satellite, she said, would orbit the earth. On board, guests would be invited to take part in a bespoke educational programme.

None of them, in fact, were true. “Many believed in fiction,” says Pip Laurenson, professor of conservation at University College London. “Including the British authorities, who wanted to check that she had the right permissions to launch a satellite.”

Collins’ project turned out to be visionary because it explored a trend that is increasingly present in contemporary art – the way in which the functioning and role of a museum itself can become an artist’s main focus. But how can these works, often referred to as “time-based media” for the way they organically respond to a moment in time, be preserved in a museum’s archive and made accessible and comprehensible to future visitors?

This discussion will be reviewed in Reshaping the collection: Learning through changean international conference organized by Tate Modern (14-16 September), during which leading curators will debate the questions – both ethical and technical – surrounding the preservation and management of time-based media, performance and so-called “art live”. in museums and institutional collections.

Time-based artworks are often created to exist in a single dimension or form. They live for a precise period of time and are meant to be experienced only for that specified duration. Their existence naturally defies the conventions of a museum’s collection structure and display. Therefore, their conservation presents conservationists with many challenges. “A curator understands that the form of the artwork can take on a new life in the museum, which may be very different from the way it was first presented,” says Laurenson, project leader for the conference. . “There are works of art entering the collections of Tate, MoMA and Pompidou that challenge the very idea of ​​a museum object. The artists whose work comes into these collections can have a profound impact on the way conservators think, so these collaborations offer opportunities for museums to re-imagine themselves.”

Care for material culture

Kate Lewis is the chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and oversees its conservation department. Her work focuses on accessing and displaying MoMA’s collection. “How do works created and performed for the first time six decades ago remain vital and seen? How can we ensure that their integrity is preserved?” Lewis asks. “These are fundamental questions for museums when acquiring time-based, live, performative and digital artworks.”

“Decades of research have focused on the care of material culture, which has focused on the care of objects,” says Lewis. “But contemporary art is a rapidly evolving arena of new mediums and new practices that delve into very pressing issues.”

As part of a 2018 research grant from the Mellon Foundation, curators at Tate revisited Tony Conrad’s experimental music and film work from 1972. Ten years alive in the endless plain. They worked closely with those who first performed the work and collaborated with Conrad to better understand how it should live in the Tate collection, creating guidelines for future activations of the piece.

Louise Lawson, interim head of conservation at the Tate, sees the conference as an opportunity for those involved in museum conservation to “look again at how we think and do our work”.

“A great breadth and depth of expertise is needed to manage forms of live practice that emerge from very different roots and traditions,” says Lawson.

“The world has changed tremendously since Conrad’s project was first conceived,” says Laurenson. The new research will be presented at the conference, using Conrad and Collins as case studies. Perhaps one day, the conference could be archived on a satellite, radically curated and displayed, then sent into outer space to orbit the earth.

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