Australian Fine Artist

Made to Last

Conserving Artworks for Artists and Conservators

Venue: McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park

Speaker: Sherryn Vardy (NETS – National Exhibition Touring Support)

The Art Chat at the Gallery for November was presented by Sherryn from NETS. Sherryn has a Masters Degree and a Graduate Diploma in Painting. She has worked for Galleries and has curated. Her education and experience makes her an informed and interesting speaker, especially for emerging artists who may not have learnt how to create and store their work for long term sustainability or future conserving.

The attendance was quite small compared to previous chats I have attended this year, which is a shame, as the conservation of masterpieces in major galleries as well as those by contemporary artists is a major concern for galleries, a little known part of the arts world by most people, and a part of a practising artists business that should be addressed as they create and store their own work.

As a practising artist, the set up of my studio space, the production of artworks (selection of materials included), the storage of materials and artworks as well as transportation should be and hopefully is a part of my business plan to a proper degree. Advising clients on how to care for their artworks once purchased, came out of this chat as an important part of my practice that I have overlooked, but which will be remedied in the coming few months.

Many of us may think about the care of and conserving of a very old painting from the 16th-18th or 19th Century as we look at it in a gallery. The old frames, the cracks in the surface and possible discolouration of the varnishes may prompt us to wonder how these are cared for. It is a science and not merely an artistic endeavour to care for artworks. Training in chemistry is involved in some of the work as well as art history and practical art education. We may not think, however of how contemporary art is taken care of, especially as some travels around the country to regional galleries over several months and through lots of different weather and interior venue conditions.

As conservators, the intent of the artist is very important. Some contemporary art is made to deteriorate and decay. The goal is to see it as this happens and to record the process. In the end the only thing remaining may be the record via for example, photography or video, of the piece having existed. Some art is made for a specific event, or time period so the materials are selected to only last that long. The role of the conservator in these cases is to honour the wishes of the artist and to care for and maintain the work for the time that the artist wants it to and the exhibition organisers need it (hopefully these match).

The use of electronics and computers has added a new dimension to the conserving of an artwork. As we know, electronics go out of use and become redundant quickly. Display screens, monitors, storage via disk or hard drive changes almost yearly so works that relay on a specific technology to work have to have either spare parts to replace anything that may break down, or a way of keeping the intent of the piece but upgrade the technology in a way that is not visible to the viewer. If the artist is still available this can be done in consultation, if not, this is where artists need to document their works and their intent for them. This information will ensure that conservators keep the original creative intent of the artist as close as possible to the original as they care for their work.

For the exhibition at the McClelland Gallery at the moment, which is in conjunction to the art chat, pieces have been created by five current contemporary artists, and they all have their own conservation issues. The stand out ones have lollies as the main part of the work. For these there is a reserve to top them up as required. Long term display is not on the mind of the artist for these pieces, recording of them may be, via photography.

The use of acetate and plastics in contemporary works came into the discussion at this point. These materials can discolour, fade, crack and fall to pieces as they age. Lollies wrapped in cellophane need to be replaced as this also deteriorates. In a lot of cases recording the pieces via photography or video are the only options.

The big message in this talk has been for artists and conservators to document the work. This is especially important when the materials used can not be maintained, kept or restored. If the intent of the artist is for the work to deteriorate then the documenting must start with them so that everyone knows what is expected of them as they handle the work.

Conservators in Australia have a code of ethics (as do members of NAVA for visual artists, of which I am a member). This makes sure that if a trained and recognised conservator is handling your artwork, it is given the best care and you as the artist are always being considered.

Many may not know that when conserving a painting for example, the rule now is to always work so that everything that is done can be undone. For an oil painting this means that a protective barrier layer is put on first and special acrylic paint is colour matched to smooth out the look of a damaged painting. Varnish is very carefully removed and can take many hours, so make sure that none of the underlaying paint goes with it. There is a big difference between conservation and restoration which is not practised by most major galleries today. Work is stabilised rather than interfered with on a big scale. The original intent as far as can be established, is always honoured.

There are still big debates going on all over the world about how far we should take restoration versus conservation, not only in art but archeology as well. There are opinions from very well respected experts on every level from leaving something to naturally deteriorate to minimal conserving to total restoration. The recent work done on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Supper are a couple that come to mind. I only know for myself that losing a great work of art is a tragedy and if we can save them for the future we should try, with our best intentions of honouring the original artist.

For my own practice, this was a very informative chat. I had not thought about helping my clients to care for their purchases other than giving a little advice on where they may hang it so it lasts better and possibly framing information. I am now considering creating a handout with tips and ideas for long term care of their new artwork. Something that will help them to be able to pass on one of my paintings to their kids and grandkids (hopefully) as a family heirloom in good condition. I am also looking at the storage requirements for work that I have on site in my studio for artworks and materials in light of this chat.

As a follow up to the chat, McClelland is holding a FREE clinic on Saturday November 16th starting at 1.30pm.

There will be an hour talking about how to conserve art, focussing on paper in particular. From 2.30pm to 3.20pm there will be conservation advise, so you can take a small piece along to ask about conserving. These can be photographs, books, paintings etc as long as they are not too big. This is a great way to learn more about displaying your paintings, drawings and photos as well as storage of them. Valuations are NOT being offered at this session, so you can’t ask if you have a treasure on your hands, but you will find out how to care for it better! For artists this is an opportunity to learn more about creating art to last, storing your art and advising your clients on making sure they get a lifetime’s enjoyment from it.

If you wish to attend this event make sure you book with McClelland Gallery as soon as possible as places are filling fast.

Phone: 03 9789 1671

Email: info@mcclellandgallery.com

I am only a volunteer in the Educational Department at the gallery so I do not get anything financial or in any other way from promoting this event. This article is written for educational and informative purposes only.

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