Putting Artists at the Center of Conservation

Artist Richard Tuttle with SFMOMA Conservator Amanda Hunter Johnson. Photo by James Gouldthorpe. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

Robin Clark looked up at the video screen and saw her own feet on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) sprawling new wing.

Captured by a nearby camera in video artist Julia Scher’s Predictive Engineering installation, Clark’s feet formed a kind of “Dorothy in Oz” image, leading into a time and space maze the artist strung through multiple galleries. The piece combined live footage and recorded surveillance tapes with staged videos of museum nudity and other subversive behavior, real-time and archived sound, and plenty of new and boxy outmoded hardware.  First commissioned and mounted by SFMOMA in 1993, when the museum occupied a different building, the piece was revisited in what the artist calls new “episodes” in 1998 and 2016.

Layering together these three iterations of the work as Predictive Engineering, which addresses the warp-speed changes in the technology, politics, and human experience of electronic surveillance over the past two decades, posed formidable challenges. Those challenges were met and then some, says Scher, owing to the museum’s highly collaborative, multifaceted Artist Initiative. A mutually reinforcing approach to curating, conserving, and displaying Scher’s Predictive Engineering evolved through hours of close work with museum curators, technical installers, consulting programmers, and others. Visits to art and technology conferences at the Tate Modern and the Harvard Art Museums supplied further insights and enhancements.

“This is one of the most powerful experiences of my life,” says Scher, praising a process that respected the various components of her work and “a whole new group of people who were able to bring their generous membrane of openness and understanding.”

Julia Scher discusses the impact of the Artist Initiative on documenting and understanding her work. Video courtesy of SFMOMA.

Funded by a five-and-a-half-year, $1.75 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the Artist Initiative deploys the principles of integrated curatorial and conservation enterprise in five distinct engagements with each artist. In addition to Scher, they include the abstract painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly; the photorealist Vija Celmins; a group of 1970s-80s photographers; and a broad assortment of Bay Area tech designers and web artists.

“The grant is giving vitamins to things the museum was already going to do,” said Clark, the Artist Initiative director, of a funding stream that runs from 2014-2019. “But this enables them to happen in a much deeper way.”

SFMOMA director of collections Jill Sterrett underscored the point.  “What’s really exciting is that this builds on decades of experience here,” she said, “in the way we work with artists, our conservation program, interdisciplinary research, and the way we publish. The grant pushes us to take risks and move beyond our comfort zones.”

It was a match meant to be. Under a new strategic plan that merged Mellon’s performing arts program with that of art history, conservation, and museums, the foundation was drawn to SFMOMA’s artist-driven orientation.  

“It opened up a dialogue internally,” said Alison Gilchrest, Mellon program officer for arts and cultural heritage. “How do we, in a funding program fundamentally oriented toward institutions, begin to work with artists more directly?  SFMOMA was doing just that.”

Sterrett and Clark both point to a 2002 Eva Hesse retrospective as a key inflection point. Hesse’s fragile latex pieces spurred “one of the first projects at SFMOMA where we had the opportunity to delve deeply into the work of an artist collaboratively across departments,” said Clark. Conservators wrote essays that appeared at the front of the catalog and not just as appendices. Curators had full access to all the research.  “It was a much more holistic presentation than was common at the time.”

The Artist Initiative builds on the idea, as Sterrett put it, “that the artist is at the center of what we do when it comes to conservation. It’s not just about the material he or she uses, but how it maps to the artist and all the aspects of legacy.  The transformative nature of this grant is that these practices get five years of fuel.  My hope is that we emerge changed on the other side.”

For Gilchrest, SFMOMA is already leading the way on conservation, “which often gets relegated to the margins. In fact, it’s an intellectual core issue. The modeling function of that for other institutions can’t be underestimated.”

The currency of this thinking is apparent at the High Museum’s Atlanta Art Conservation Center.

When young artists visit, Conservator of Paintings Larry Shutts often shows them contemporary works undergoing repair. “It starts them on a whole different avenue of thinking,” said Shutts. “They might want to know if putting a layer of tempera down under oil is a good idea, or if a certain ceramic technique is going to last.  They begin to consider, in a way they may never have before, their choice of materials and how to use them. This is the kind of thing that’s not taught to a lot of art students.” 

Joan Weinstein, deputy director of the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, affirmed the importance of the ideas and practices the Artist Initiative pursues. 

“At a time when artists use such a wide array of unorthodox materials,” she said, “some of the most interesting work in modern art comes at the intersection of art history and conservation. One of the hallmark aspects of the Artist Initiative is how closely and carefully they are working with the artists themselves.”  

Bracketing the opening of the SFMOMA expansion in May of this year, the  Initiative is ideally timed in several ways. First and most visibly, it taps the Donald and Doris Fisher Collection of Contemporary Art, which catalyzed the SFMOMA expansion when the Fisher trove was acquired by the museum, in a long-term partnership arrangement, in 2009. The deep holdings of Ellsworth Kelly’s work constitute one of the great strengths of the Fisher-SFMOMA marriage.

“I’ve always lived in the present—the present tense—and I think I’d like my paintings to be in the present tense,” said Ellsworth Kelly in a 2014 interview. Video courtesy of SFMOMA.

Displayed in five spacious galleries, the artist’s shaped canvases and earlier abstractions deliver impacts that are by turns dynamic and serene, served and supported by the Artist Initiative. Before his death in 2015, Kelly worked closely with SFMOMA staff on the installation and conservation of the pieces.  The artist’s own notes on the backs of certain paintings, about how to handle and hang them, got close scrutiny and attention.

“Kelly had long been a supporter of conservation research,” said Clark, standing in front of one painting to admire its subtle brushwork. As cool and composed as Kelly’s abstractions can seem on a casual encounter, what Clark calls their “charisma” emerges when both the viewer and exhibiting museum pay close attention to every aspect of the work.

SFMOMA’s opening will showcase the principles of the Artist Initiative in a second important way, by opening up some of the conservation and curatorial processes to the public. The new Collections Center contains a gallery. A section of the sunlit conservation workroom can be screened off for classes and public demonstrations. On one recent afternoon, hay was being treated there for application to an Anselm Kiefer work that had done some shedding. 

“Museums are always learning,” said Sterrett.  “We want our visitors to be learning right along with us.”