Volume 9, Number 1, Jan. 1987, pp.6-7

Travel Weary Art

by Stephen Cristin-Poucher

Among the many functions of a museum is the lending of parts of its collections to other institutions. Often, after all of the labor of organizing an exhibition, the entire show then travels to several institutions, or venues, to be exhibited for short periods of time. Each venue involves the handling of the art in unpacking, installation, maintenance, de-installation, repacking and, depending on the nature of the piece, sometimes several handlings during transit. This causes accelerated wear and tear on works of art. This is a recognized fact and it is usually an accepted risk. Having the organizers plan ahead in conjunction with conservators, packers and shippers can minimize such risks.

Still, there comes a time when certain pieces cannot take it anymore. When a person is travel weary, he or she can rest and the self-healing process will (somewhat) take care of itself. Art work, however, begins an invisible process of deterioration the day it is finished by the artist, if not before. The speed of deterioration will vary, but never reverses its direction, and entropy will not be fooled by our best restoration efforts.

It is a difficult and heavy day when it becomes the responsibility of someone to say "no" to an otherwise legitimate request to borrow "the most important, monumental, critical (you select one) piece of a particular artist, period, style or epoch." This is most disturbing when the art works are contemporary or of the twentieth century and it is especially so when the artists are still alive. Sometimes the artists are directly involved with the exhibition and are not always initially receptive to the idea that their choices of materials and/or techniques have condemned their art to a restricted life.

Each institution will have its own way of dealing with the problem, once it is aware of it. At LACMA there is a fairly well defined process that screens the loan request well in advance. Certain popular works of art are listed by the curator concerned as being ineligible for loan. As the list grows, pressure builds to identify what is lendable. Identification involves making uncertain predictions which make, or should make, the conservator uneasy.

The solution is to educate all those responsible for the final decision and to carefully evaluate the pieces on an individual basis. Being firm and reasonable is difficult (and lonely) when the conservator seems to be the only one concerned with the safety and longevity of a work of art. The conservator's ability to converse and convince without sounding too hysterical varies; as does the conservator's level of interaction with the loan process and the amount of his or her involvement with the work of art.

It is, however, worth the effort. Once the concept finally takes root, it is a much easier endeavor to undertake the next time it becomes necessary to say "no."

Stephen Cristin-Poucher
Objects Conservator
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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