Overview

The Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative is a multifaceted, long-term venture focused on the many and varied conservation needs of modern and contemporary art. With the myriad of new materials and technologies being utilized by artists, the lack of established conservation treatments, and complex potential conflicts between an artist’s concept and the physical aging of works of art, conserving modern and contemporary art is widely recognized as having some of the most difficult and pressing challenges in the field.
The initiative consists of a number of different research strands and activities. Currently, there are three major research projects addressing conservation issues of modern paints, plastics, and outdoor sculpture. These are complemented by research into new documentation challenges of light-based art, an endeavor to further the discussion on ethical/philosophical aspects of conservation, the development of workshops into specific areas, and an active dissemination program of publications and web-based information.

Background

Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative was launched in 2007 in recognition of the critical need for attention and coordinated work on this subject. With its mission to advance conservation practice, the GCI is well placed to participate in this area, with excellent resources in its science laboratories, in-house conservation knowledge and skills, strong and established links to the profession worldwide, and programs for developing workshops, education guidance, and dissemination. Viewed as a whole, it is hoped that ModCon will make a significant and lasting impact on the field in this area.

Conservation Needs of Modern and Contemporary Art

There are many reasons the conservation of modern and contemporary art needs significant research and focus, some of the more salient include:

  • The range of materials used by artists is almost limitless. Each new material is likely to have a unique aging behavior—for example, how it changes over time in color or flexibility— and to require different methods of conservation.. Much work is therefore needed to gather fundamental information on each of these new materials from which improved approaches to their conservation can be developed.
  • Many modern materials are commercial products and their formulations are carefully guarded by their manufacturers. Extra effort is needed to understand the nature of these materials are and how they will perform, especially once they cease production. This proprietary status also highlights the need to collect reference samples so the materials can remain accessible to conservators and researchers once they are no longer commercially available.
  • A number of modern materials are inherently unstable and quickly show signs of deterioration. In some cases, this degradation becomes so catastrophic that works of art made with them can no longer be displayed after a relatively short period. There is therefore an urgency to discover how best to minimize the rate of aging in these materials and to establish more thorough documentation protocols.
  • Works of art that incorporate new or novel technology, such as electronics, video, or software, present additional conservation dilemmas, as much of this technology quickly becomes obsolete. Expertise in these technologies from other fields must be solicited and/or new approaches, such as replacement of components or migration to digital format, be further considered.
  • Modern and contemporary works of art are often based more on concept than on physical aspects, so established conservation ethics may need reconsideration in light of this paradigm to ensure relevance and use. More discussion is needed within the field to determine how best to approach and balance different values that are often in conflict.
  • There is currently significant debate on the ways opinions of an artist , or his/her estate should be incorporated in the conservation of the artist’s work. Artist intent is an oft-cited concept, but in practice is hard to quantify and can change considerably over time. This issue has physical, ethical, and legal implications for contemporary works of art, and each of these aspects need further consideration and study.

Aims

Responding to these needs, ModCon is implementing a broad portfolio of research projects and activities, which together aim to:

  1. Increase our understanding of the behavior of modern materials used in contemporary works of art, via in-depth scientific studies into certain synthetic materials.
  2. Develop and evaluate new materials and approaches to specific conservation treatments, via a combination of scientific testing and critical assessment
  3. Establish knowledge and expertise on the materials and working methods of particular artists, via case studies that draw on the collections of our partner Institutions
  4. Facilitate the transfer of scientific and empirical information into practical conservation knowledge, via workshops aimed specifically at the practicing conservator
  5. Advance the discussion on ethical and philosophical issues being faced by conservators of contemporary art, via symposia, debates and publications
  6. Enhance the dissemination of conservation research and information in this area, via publications and web-based distribution to the field.