Conservation of Contemporary art: Do we care? Should we care?


Hiscox Royal Institute debate

“Restorers have done more damage to art in the UK than Luftwaffe.” Robert Hiscox, honorary president of Hiscox and a contemporary art collector was happy to wind up an audience largely comprised of conservators at the Royal Institution Annual Hiscox debate.

Mark Lawson, a UK journalist, writer and broadcaster, also played devil’s advocate and kept discussions light. The panel was made up of a diverse mix from across the art industry: Sir Christopher Frayling, professor emeritus of Cultural History at the RCA, visiting professor at the University of Lancaster and a fellow of Churchill College Cambridge; Kenny Schachter, writer, curator, lecturer and dealer; Sandra Smith, head of conservation at the V&A museum; and Gary Webb, a visual artist.

The main question was who is responsible for conserving contemporary artwork? Is it the artist or the owner?

The debate opened with a short video featuring several industry professionals discussing issues that arise in conservation of Contemporary art. This included ArtTactic’s Anders Petterson who commented on how over the last ten years there has been an almost uninterrupted boom in the art market, stating that even when there was a drop in 2009 it recovered very quickly unlike other markets. Petterson then went on to add that we are seeing a new type of market which is “changing the notion of what art is, as it becomes an asset”

Hiscox said this was not new: “Art has always been an asset. The rich have always bought art.” He added: “You wouldn’t spend millions on a Richter if you thought it was going to go down in value.”

Frayling’s opinions were clearly influenced by his time as Rector of the Royal College of Art. He championed young artists saying: “they have enough on their plate without having to worry about the longevity of the materials they are using.”

Sandra Smith, head of conservation at the V&A countered this, suggesting that students should at least be taught about the materials they are using so that they can make an informed choice before creating an art work. Her opinions often centred on what could be done to help manage the conservation of contemporary art for its durable life span, reflecting the opinion of someone whose key responsibility is to conserve the work in their collection.

Schachter was by far the most controversial – saying: “I always say a fake painting is like a fake orgasm, as long as nobody knows, everyone is happy.”

His reaction to the suggestion that artists should be accountable for conserving their works was that although this is a nice idea and it would be great if a living artist would help fix a damaged work, it is not always achievable and that many artists do not want to do that.

Hiscox agreed with Schachter saying that: “80% of the time when you ask an artist to replace something they say no.” He then added “If you find your work damaged or needing work with its best if you can come to an agreement with the artist – but some are more agreeable than others”

Hiscox Luftwaffe comment clearly annonyed the audience. One member of the audience countered with: “There’s been 80% more damage to art over last 25 years because of poor packaging, handling & shipping”

One issue that was reoccurring throughout the debate was the medium. No one knows how materials being now will last. As well as degradable materials how do you deal with the art if the theme is decay? The work may be designed to comment on the world in which the artist lives in at the time of creation, so conserving it may go against that. Smith said that the focus should not be on preventing the decay but rather on managing it so it can be enjoyed throughout the process. “It may be wrong to assume artists working 300 years ago wanted their art to last,” she said. “The best approach to conservation is to do as little as possible.”

Frayling added: “What about the pleasure in ruins? Would you put arms on the Venus de Milo?”

The last question – which clearly surprised the panel – was: “Can you describe your emotional connection to contemporary art in one word?” faced with this questions the panel seemed noticeably panicked.

Hiscox chose “Visceral.” Webb picked “Power.” Frayling decided upon “Poignancy.” Smith picked “Challenging.”