Tate Collective event at Tate Britain tomorrow will explore the future and value of art through the lens of museum conservation. 

Tate Debate Banner image

The decisions made about documenting, holding and restoring artworks are complex and this event will polemically delve into the received idea that art needs “saving”, and that “saving” it in a physical form is the only course of action. Speakers from the V&A, NADFAS (National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies) and Tate curators and conservators will explain their practices and debate the issues around conserving works. So we’ve turned this week’s Debate over to Mansour Mansour, Tate Collective member and the chair of the event. And he asks us:

Why save anything?

To restore an artwork is to physically keep it in existence. By doing so, large galleries shackle themselves and their audience to what can and could be seen. No gallery has infinite financial muscle and paying for restoration for a certain work is passing judgement on its existence and the non-existence of others. Furthermore, no gallery has the space to display all the works, narrowing the canon and introducing further bias in what we see. Because of a general preference for Blake or Turner, artists like John Martin are murmured in the margins of art history books. In the public space, the current bias in favour of Banky’s works (by councils who consider the more traditional forms of street art (graffiti) as violent acts against property) actively limits the forms of expressions and social commentary saved for the future; the protection afforded to Banksy prioritises his works over others.
Graffiti by Banksy

Graffiti by Banksy

The first vague image of an artwork we find is mostly likely to be in a book, where a reproduction tells you its purpose and explains the expression that makes you fall for it. It was its ideas of expression that caught you, not its actual physical form in front of you. So why do we need to restore artworks when they exist perfectly in dog-eared books and glowing web pages? These book and web pages compress time and space, allowing a fair chance of viewing works unhindered by geographical locations and cost of travel, as well as curatorial bias. We learn and fall for most artworks through reading about them, not seeing them, so why keep restoring them?

Mansour Mansour, Tate Collective member and chair of the Why save anything? panel.

Let us know what you think.

  • Why should we be saving, documenting and restoring works?
  • Can a digital or printed reproduction take the place of a physical work?
  • Can you learn as much about a work from descriptions as you can from seeing it yourself?

Why save anything? is sponsored by The National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies

Comments

Tate Learning

From the audience...

Despite this sense of responsibility to conserve almost for the sake of conservation, do you not also think there is an argument for letting objects degrade in order to give later generations the opportunity to develop the relationships with the objects through restoration processes that modern conservators experience today?
Holly

Tate Learning

From the audience...

Does conservation dilute/ slowdown/ limit the progression of contemporary art?
Max

Tate Learning

From the audience...

(Question to Natalia Zagorska-Thomas)
What would you say is your most prized piece of textile work? Something you have collected?
Anon

Tate Learning

From the audience...

By saying we should permit artworks/ objects to deteriorate do we not deny future societies and realitites an opportunity to reference past 'knowledge' and 'norms' that can't be observed digitally?
Carlton

Tate Learning

From the audience...

Objects/ buildings which show the effects of time are equally valuable in tracking the history of the world/humanity... Why conserve and ignore the natural process of time?
Jess

Tate Learning

From the audience...

The shark in Damien Hirst's 'The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living' deteriorated within the formaldehyde he thought would preserve it. How will conservators deal with this? Is it the concept that should be preserved - or does the first 'pickled shark' need saving?
Anon

Tate Learning

From the audience...

If you had to conserve only one object, what would it be?
Anon

Tate Learning

From the audience...

With regard to reversible restoration, the restoration itself is an indication to the present values - should it itself be preserved in the future?
Alice

Tate Learning

From the audience...

Do you think that a work can be over-preserved, that people may sometimes admire the presentation more than the artists work?
Finbar

Tate Learning

From the audience...

(Question to Helen Little)
How did you get into curatorial - what kind of degree etc do you need?
Anon

Tate Learning

From the audience...

Do you use special paint on the walls so that paint fumes don't damage the pieces of art?
Allisia

d.mcardle

the Banksy you show was covered with acrylic by a private individual who owns the building,not the Council.We had many early Banksy's here ,kissing cops,little mice etc etc that certainly were painted over both by council and private . One night two local boys stole the grit bin up Ladbroke Grove that had the lovely little bear poem on it - put it in their mum's garden hoping to flog it.Then they got paranoid and cut the side off,feeling"it was too big anyway " ! By this time Christies would only sell with written provenance from Mr.B. so they were stuck. It was so lovely as it was, and of course the grit bin artwork look big in the 70's ! Silly boys ,when the whole point of these pieces is that they are a gift,no ? (that story is hearsay natch)

I went to a great talk some years ago on the restoration of Holbein's " Ambassadors" I think its on 8" oak panels isn't it and they were coming apart etc. Fab work !

Tate Learning

Friday 21st October
Why Save Anything? : Question and Answer Panel
Host: Mansour Mansour (Representative, Tate Collective)
Panelists: Rachel Barker (Conservator, Tate Britain)
Helen Little (Curator, Tate Britain)
Zoe Whitley (Curator, Victoria & Albert Museum)
Richard Woods (Artist)
Natalie Zagorska-Thomas (Artist and textile conservator)

Questions from the audience to follow...

Tate Learning

From the audience...

We've been discussing the importance of retaining/conserving objects and their stories. But which do you think is more important to record for the future; the object or the story?
Philippa

Tate Learning

Regarding digital preservation and transferring 'old' resources onto digital media, should original copies be saved? And why?
Melissa

Tate Learning

From the audience...

Where do you draw the line at what (and what not) to save?
Tom

Tate Learning

From the audience...

History is the product of what is conserved - deliberate or otherwise - so surely we should conserve things for our own futures? We use history to learn about the past; which in turn effects the future, surely this should not be disregarded.
Anon

Tate Learning

From the audience...

(Question to Richard Woods)
Is it important for you that the essence or memory of your work is retained through documentation, despite the temporary nature of the work itself?
And if so, does it concern you that people many not be able to understand or really appreciate your work and its meaning a hundred years from now, if the documentation does not live up to the experience of the work itself?
Anon

Marissa Kurtzhals

Nothing can compare to sharing space with an actual piece of art. We've all seen "Starry Night" a million times in books and on posters, but standing in front of it is a completely different experience. You are able to place yourself in the artists' shoes and interpret the aesthetics on an entirely new level.
Scale is also an important part of the experience and cannot be fully comprehended in a text book.
Contemporary art, however, has become increasingly difficult to preserve since there has been a larger number of sight specific and conceptual pieces. For example, Katharina Grosse's exhibit at MASS MoCA is made up of mounds of painted soil. There will be no way to transport the mounds and keep them intact. Katharina can recreate the concept - but it will never be the same exact piece. Does that discredit the work? Or does it make it more precious?

S

The understanding, protection, and promotion of heritage as fundamental part of national life, depends for its sucess on the support of general public, who must be educated and kept informed, and of the government, which must be encouraged and regularly reminded to ensure that heritage and related issues remain high on its list of priorities.

It is major important to protect and conservate all heritage that has cultural value: archeological, architectonic, art, documents...

It is true that with digital or printed reproduction, galleries, museums, etc can reach more fast to the public in the disclosure of cultural information, however the preservation, conservation and restoration of heritage, in this case works of art, is crucial because they represent a unique testimony to the history of mankind - history of art - in particular of the time it was created: philosophy, socially, economics, and of course its author. So, to have the opportunity to see them "in loco" is really magnificent and the fruition will be much more complete as well as interaction.
Thereby should be a cooperation between entities who hold these artworks with the entities that represent the State to promote it conservation and restoration.

PS. hope you understood my point and hope my english is not too bad. ^^
S

Jennifer Hathaway

I'm put in mind of Robinson Jeffers:
"
Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.
"
As a painter who studied with two American masters, and someone who's spent a great deal of time helping younger artists by setting up off-sites and alternative exhibits, not to mention a mom who's heavily involved with various historical and preservation groups in the Hudson Valley, I have the Doctrine of Preservation firmly ingrained into me.
Yet simultaneously I've spent a couple of decades learning to sneer at the Pathology of Stuff in this society [which I refuse to call a culture at the moment, for a variety of reasons].
When I would walk into the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, past ragged bundles of hungry homeless people [yes, I always wound up handing out my lunches], to look at the chachkas and trinkets of bygone days, or when I brought food to a young "starving artist" friend while simultaneously seeing "arts publishers" grow fat on Van Gogh's Starry Nights T-shirt sales and Thomas Kincaid posters, I became very much of two minds about the entire arts "scene", and the ways in which our obsession with commodification decimates that which it knows very little about.
The destruction of our youngers by attrition [there being no room at the table] is to me like watching a rainforest being bulldozed in order for McDonald's to raise cows there. These blind forces have no understanding of what they're destroying for their own interests, let alone how their priorities will fade under the aegis of time.
This is a subject of vital interest to me. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts/ potential solutions.
~Jen

Marie-Therese G...

Hi, This debate sounds really good. It raises so many questions about purpose, authenticity, and relationships between art and society. The JISC funded Kultivate project has been looking at issues around arts research deposit and we had an event in March on 'archiving and curating', there is also a really good case study here about the role of an artist in documenting/recording their work: http://www.vads.ac.uk/kultur2group/casestudies/Bristol2011.pdf

Roz Mita

I find this debate interesting. As a collector of mannequins (that consume a huge amount of space) I battle with choices to sell or hire them. I like to think that such a collection would actually make a magnificent sight at some point in the future for use in creative media or, if I ever get the chance, to show off at an exhibition. It's the real life factor that can be missed through books or web pages. But to see something in real life is an ultimate experience and creates reaction which perhaps stimulates thinking. Long live the collections and those who restore them!

les

just think we are all big fans of art. we need to take care of it for the future we are getting older .Dont forget the young we must keep the past so we can learn ther is nothing more special than the human mind and one thing to me is that it shows what we can do. thing do degrade but not our minds once we see art in any shape or form it makes use think save what we can and hope for the future artist for ther work if we donot keep it WHAT PUT IT IN THE BIN? I would have eyes ful of tears les

Stephen Shires

The only way to appreciate a Reynolds is to see it in its 'original', i.e. timeworn but authentic, form. The colour reproductions are misnomers, they simply cannot reproduce the bravura brushwork and the sheer variety of his portrait work, particularly the costume textures (alright these were typically Thomas Hudson's work but you get my drift). In establishing a studio, known as the Factory, comprising numerous specialist apprentices, each making a contribution to Reynold's sketches, to which Reynolds finally added faces and his signature, he generated portraits by a method that predated Andy Warhol's equivalent method by 170 years.
Without the actual paintings you'd never be able to grasp why they were prized by the collectors, even in his own day, above those of other face-painters. Oddly, the sense of depth achieved by the successive, often vigorously applied, layers of coloured paint is more apparent in high definition black and white photos of his work than the unreliable colour prints. That's why we need originals produced by original artists (with help).