Letter to the Censors was initially created for a particular exhibition, in response to a particular space. When it entered Tate’s collection it entered a new stage in its life…
There are different ways in which an artwork is affected by coming into a museum collection.
There initially has to be a process of formalising the artwork. As an installation with potentially variable elements, the parameters for the future display of Letter to the Censors had to be decided and defined so that museum staff knew which aspects of the work were fixed and should be preserved to ensure that when it is displayed in the future, the essence and meaning of the work remain true to the artist’s intention.
Viewing an artwork within a museum context also has an effect on how it is seen and read – particularly in the case of work by artists such as Carlos Garaicoa who, especially early on in his career, chose to exhibit outside the museum in less formal spaces.
A process of collaboration
The transition of Letter to the Censors into this new phase of it life and its formalisation as a museum object involved collaboration between artist, curator and conservation staff. Find out about the roles, and points of view, of the different partners within this collaboration:
Curators are aware that the nature of an artwork may change when it enters into a museum collection, and sensitive to the work itself. In this video clip curator Tanya Barson discusses how the context of being part of a museum collection inevitably changes the nature of an artwork, and how she sees her role:
The process by which artworks evolve and adapt to situations, including that of entering a collection, is a phenomenon that challenges eighteenth and nineteenth-century notions of artistic practice and in doing so impacts the organisational logic of the museum. Instead of conservators being focused on finding solutions to slow down or prevent damage to works as they age, they become part of the team developing solutions to enable works to be displayed at the beginning of the life of a work in the museum.
For conservators, like curators, there are ethical and professional concerns about the degree to which one influences the development of work and the decisions that an artist might make. Understanding the boundaries of the conservator’s role can be difficult. As Tate sculpture conservator Neil Wressel has said, in these circumstances, ‘it is difficult for the conservator not to become the artist’s technician or fabricator’. Negotiating the relationship with the artist, while the artist is still very much involved in the work, is one of the challenges of contemporary art conservation. It is a process of detachment, where the artist steps back and gains some distance, handing the artwork on to the museum and allowing it to find its own place as an artwork in the collection.
Carlos Garaicoa is ambivalent about the experience of the work being in the museum. He is happy that it is preserved but also it is strange for him, having lived with the work for so long, that it is now outside his control. For him it is more than an object; it is about the dialogue. He jokes and calls it the ‘Mona Lisa of Havana’ because of the degree to which it has become a controlled and protected museum object. However, as Garaicoa’s studio practice involves collaboration, the notion of collaborating with Tate in making decisions about the work’s display was not a problem, as Tanya Barson outlines in this video clip:
A prototype formalised: Letter to the Censors loan report
Tate collection artworks are sometimes requested as loans for temporary exhibitions or displays in other museums and galleries. When this happens a loan report, created by conservation staff, ensures that the way the work is installed and displayed conforms to the prototype that the museum has established through this process of collaboration and discussion between artist, curator and conservation staff. The loan report outlines everything from the size of gallery space needed to display the work to the technical knowledge required to set up and maintain the installation during its display. It provides a fascinating and definitive overview of the work.