By Glenn Wharton
The International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA), a network of professionals connected to the conservation of modern and contemporary art, is gaining attention in the conservation community for the innovative model it promotes for conserving the art of our times. INCCA's mission "to develop, share, and preserve knowledge needed for the conservation of modern and contemporary art" is undertaken through the governing values of openness, active participation for the collective good, interdisciplinary collaboration, and recognition and involvement of stakeholders.
At its core, this is a pluralist model of cooperative research. It reflects the need to bring people with various skills and knowledge to the task of conserving today's multimedia art with its conceptual underpinnings. It does so by making use of the networked communities of contemporary arts professionals found across disciplines, institutions, and geographic distances through a new means of electronic communication.
The 1990s was a fertile time for theoretical and practical development in the conservation of contemporary art. During this period, artworks that required an understanding of symbolism and conceptual intent entered museum collections at an increasing rate. These acquisitions compelled conservators and others to consult directly with artists in order to understand the work and develop new strategies of care. Among the conferences and publications produced during this decade, the 1997 symposium "Modern Art: Who Cares?," organized by the Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art and held in Amsterdam, brought this trend to international attention. It was the culmination of a case-study-based research project that put artists together with conservators, art historians, materials scientists, philosophers, lawyers, arts managers, and critics to develop conservation theory and practice.
As a response to this seminal event, the INCCA network was formed in 1999 by a group of twenty-three individuals from eleven European organizations who agreed that international cooperation through a professional network could be a means of continuing the public conversation and sharing information promoted by the project. The Dutch government, realizing the potential of INCCA, offered office space and staff to support network activities, and currently INCCA's office in Amsterdam and core staff are funded by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN). Today there are over two hundred fifty network members from thirty countries. Membership is based on the annual contribution of records to INCCA's databases. Those who are not able to contribute to the databases can assist the network in other ways, such as by organizing events that extend the public conversation about conserving contemporary art or by working with students and interns to help them make contributions to the network.
Many people know INCCA through its dynamic Web site, which hosts pages devoted to current public events and past projects sponsored by INCCA and its members. One of these projects is the INCCA Database for Artists' Archives, an early and ongoing effort of the network. It houses unpublished research on contemporary artists from INCCA members, including project descriptions, analytical reports, student theses, and interview transcripts. Many members contribute their work to the database because they are unlikely to publish results from their day-to-day research elsewhere, yet they want to share these results with colleagues. Some artists have even approached INCCA directly to house documentation of their work.
In addition to the Artists' Archives, INCCA created a Literature Database of published work related to the conservation of contemporary and modern art that eventually grew to over two thousand entries. In 2006, INCCA decided to focus its resources on unpublished research and approached the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) about managing these references. The GCI agreed to incorporate INCCA's Literature Database into its Project Bibliographies and eventually to add it to the AATA Online database of abstracts of conservation literature.
INCCA completed another major project in 2008—Inside Installations: Preservation and Presentation of Installation Art. This project, coorganized by five European organizations¹ and funded by the European Union, involved over thirty museum case studies. The aim was to research complex installation-based works through artist interviews, material analysis, and new forms of documentation. The results of this research, together with the theoretical papers commissioned through the effort, serve as a virtual textbook on conserving installation art. One case study—Tate's project on Bruce Nauman's Mapping the Studio II (2001)—provides museum professionals with an example of how to document installation art. Research from the project is available on the Inside Installations Web site.
Plans are currently under way for another large European project: PRACTICs of Contemporary Art: The Future. PRACTICs will include thirty-four European museums, art institutions, and universities—as well as institutions from North America—and will culminate in an international congress, "Modern Art: Who Cares? II," to be held June 911, 2010, in Amsterdam. Other initiatives currently being discussed include expanding electronic communications—i.e., offering position papers and podcasts to stimulate online discussion on provocative issues and conservation projects.
INCCA IN NORTH AMERICA
Inspired by the INCCA model for collaborative research and public discussion, local INCCA groups began forming in Europe. Today regional groups exist in Italy, Scandinavia, and Ireland. As of this writing, a Central-East European group is being organized. American conservators also took note, and in 2003 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York hosted a meeting to discuss creating a North American group. The GCI hosted a follow-up meeting on the West Coast in 2004. In response to the enthusiasm expressed at both gatherings for bringing INCCA to North America, the GCI offered to provide organizational expertise and support to help create a formal group.
INCCANorth America (INCCA-NA) was launched in 2006 at the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) annual conference. Since the European model of governmental support will not work for North America (the United States, Canada, and Mexico), the advisory committee decided to create a board of directors and a nonprofit corporation in the United States. Guided by its founding board of directors, including Inge-Lise Eckmann Lane, Ann Garfinkle, and Jay Krueger, INCCA-NA is currently obtaining its corporate status and will soon be in a position to raise funds for its own activities.
North American members are committed to maintaining the collaborative ideals of INCCA. Even before incorporation, INCCA-NA organized two panel discussions at College Art Association annual meetings: "Preserving Nam June Paik's Video Installations: The Importance of the Artist's Voice" in 2007, and "The Importance of the Artist's Voice: Conservation and the Work of Liz Larner and Michael C. McMillen" in 2009. Each session focused on specific artists and engaged audiences of art historians and artists in discussion about conserving their work.
INCCA-NA sees the Database for Artists' Archives as central to the sharing of information among artists and professionals. To this end, a training session for posting records in the database was held at the 2008 "Objects in Transition" conference at the Getty Center. Participants learned how to create metadata and upload abstracts from their past research.
To meet the needs of conserving contemporary art, conservators and others need to learn new skills, some of which have been developed in other fields, such as methods for interviewing artists. To fill this need, INCCA-NA organized a workshop at the 2008 annual AIC meeting titled "Interview Methodology for Conservators." Historian Richard Candida Smith from the University of California, Berkeley, led this workshop by introducing theory and practice used in oral history. While honing their skills through interviewing one another, participants learned high-level concepts about the construction of memory and methods of bringing interviewees back to prior experiences—for instance, their art production. In response to requests for another offering, the INCCA-NA program committee is organizing similar workshops at future conferences.
The task of advancing modern and contemporary art conservation theory and practice, as well as education, research, and publication, requires collaboration by many individuals and institutions. INCCA's success in advocating interdisciplinary research makes it a vital part of this effort. INCCA offers a model of collaboration critical for building resources and developing the knowledge essential for this new field of conservation.
Glenn Wharton is the executive director of INCCANorth America.