One doesn’t usually think about art conservation and humor having anything to do with one another, but today’s article in the NY Times on the subject elicits more than a few chuckles, mostly thanks to the wit of Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the Whitney Museum’s Director of Conservation. It’s an interesting article, exploring issues surrounding the conservation and preservation of contemporary artwork, and the role of the living artist in determining how their work should be taken care of, and, if necessary, restored. Some artists have very specific views on the matter:
“Recently, she said, she interviewed the young artist Dario Robleto, who uses materials as exotic as mammoth ivory, whale-bone dust and homemade crystals. She asked him whether a delicate antenna for a butterfly was made from vinyl, and he said it was, adding that it could never be just any vinyl. “He was adamant that it had to come from a copy of James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ album,” she said.
“And I thought, oh great, now I’m going to have to go to eBay and track down copies of this damned record. What’s next?”
As a bird-nerd, of course my favorite part of the article involved an owl:
“Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro recalled, she was talking to Charles Simonds, whose tiny model of a village, called “Dwellings,” has been permanently installed in the Whitney’s stairwell atop a window ledge. Many museumgoers are unaware that the work includes two other miniature models, made of clay, sticks and other materials, that rest on parts of a building across the street, visible from the museum’s windows facing Madison Avenue.
As Mr. Simonds and Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro looked out the window that day, they saw what looked like a statue of an owl very close to one of the outdoor pieces. “I asked him what the owl meant, and he said: ‘That’s not my owl. I don’t know whose owl that is,’ ” she said, laughing.
It turned out to be a common plastic owl, installed by the owners of the building to repel pigeons, oblivious to the artwork they were obscuring. A Whitney conservation assistant, Heather Cox, was quickly dispatched across the street and managed to persuade the owners to retire their owl.
“I consider that a victory for conservation,” Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro said, beaming.”
[Actually, birdie-doo would be far more caustic and physically damaging to the piece, but we'll acknowledge she still took appropriate action!]
But really, this is serious business. Many artists feel very strongly about their work lasting longer than they will, yet a tiny minority of the artists I know have any knowledge about archival practices, or if they do, they don’t worry about practicing them, and even fewer give a moment’s thought to the longevity of the work that’s taken so much sacrifice and effort to create. It’s an odd paradox. Perhaps we’re all just too busy trying to pay the bills!