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Subject: Site-specific art and conservation ethics

Site-specific art and conservation ethics

From: Elizabeth C. Welsh <aaphw>
Date: Sunday, August 22, 1993
A West Coast paintings conservator has been accused of unethical
behavior and the "destruction" of artwork in an interesting case in the
state of Washington. Under contract with the state, the conservator
removed site- specific contemporary mural panels from the state capitol
building in Olympia so that they could be placed in storage
indefinitely. (Removal was prompted by complaints about the murals'
style and imagery. The 12-year history of the installation,
curtaining-over, uncovering, and removal of the murals is fascinating,
but too long for this posting.) The murals, by Michael Spafford, were
titled "The Twelve Labors of Hercules."

"Destruction" is alleged because the murals were designed for the
setting in which they had been installed--the shape of the panels and
the meaning of the images were conceived for one site only:
architectural lunettes in the capitol's House chambers. The artwork, it
is said, did not consist solely of the painted panels, but of the
painted panels in a particular arrangement in a specific place.

Unethical behavior is charged because of the destruction as defined
above, and because removal of the mural panels was contrary to the
wishes of the artist, Michael Spafford. Spafford understood in his
contract with the state that the murals would be permanent, and he
stated publicly that he preferred to have them destroyed rather than
removed and exhibited elsewhere. However, after years of costly
litigation and flip-flopping by the state legislature and courts, I
infer that Spafford did, in the end, agree to removal, crating, and

The draft revision of the AIC Code of Ethics (Section II) states:

     "All actions of the conservation professional must be governed by
     an informed respect for the aesthetic, conceptual, and physical
     character of cultural property and the people who created it."

and the standing Code reads:

     "All professional actions of the conservator are governed by
     unswerving respect for the esthetic, historic and physical
     integrity of the object" (Part One, IIA).

The contention of those accusing the conservator of unprofessional
behavior is that the job was done simply for the approximately $100,000
fee, disregarding the ethical and fundamental art-protection issues of
the situation.  The conservator said in interviews that the controversy
surrounding the mural removal was "political" and that his concerns were
for the artwork.  His accusers replied that he did not understand the
artwork if he thought dismantling it was protecting it, and that he
should not be working on art he did not understand.

Reactions, please!  Were conservation ethics violated?

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:22
                  Distributed: Monday, August 23, 1993
                        Message Id: cdl-7-22-001
Received on Sunday, 22 August, 1993

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