Museums wrestle with preserving art that's not made to last
Organic materials and outmoded technology throw curveballs at curators.
As part of the inaugural installation in the newly opened Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), an embalmed lamb stands submerged in a vat of formaldehyde. For every installation of this Damien Hirst work, called "Away From the Flock," workers in hazmat suits must refresh the toxic fluid. Occasionally, the lamb itself must be replaced.Skip to next paragraph
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Half a globe away, at London's Tate Modern Museum, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo recently cracked open the concrete floor of the World War II-era building as part of her work "Shibboleth," an installation piece that required workers to partially destabilize the building's foundation during the run of the show.
These exhibits underline an important concern shared by modern artists who say they are exploring the impermanence and vulnerability of contemporary life. Even as they engage audiences on that topic, works that contain everything from chocolate syrup to exotic Amazon fruits to television tubes and radio transistors often present daunting challenges for museums, collectors, and artists themselves when it comes to preserving their art for future generations.
"There is a wonderful irony in all these things," says Lynn Zelevansky, LACMA's curator of contemporary art, "because on the one hand, many of these artists are commenting in their artwork about the transitory nature of all things, and yet they don't want their comments to be transitory or fleeting."
The issue is taking on urgency as institutions face the passing of many 20th-century artists, and consulting them about their ephemeral artwork is no longer possible.
Many artists have given considerable thought to the contradictions and challenges. Sculptor Ron Klein creates artworks from organic materials collected from around the world, often including such rare and fragile items as a flower from the Amazon or a distinctive fungus on a piece of wood.
"Art responds to its time," says Mr. Klein, who says he doesn't go out of his way to use fragile materials, but maintains that "if someone contacted me about updating a part of a work with a more permanent piece of material, I would say 'No.' I'm just an interruption in the ongoing process of deterioration."
Major institutions such as New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), as well as LACMA, have developed protocols for gathering both the philosophical and practical information from artists to create support materials that will help preserve a fragile object or recreate a conceptual work.
Re-installation presents its own problems, as Ms. Zelevansky recalls from a prior stint at MoMA. Her team was reassembling a Richard Serra "scatter piece" per the artist's instructions. "It really looked not very good," she says with a laugh, and was only brought up to snuff by the appearance of the artist himself, who put on the finishing touches.