State of decay: The challenge of art preservation in the 21st century

A curator  of  prints  at a major American gallery once compared art preservation to  the Titanic sinking in that  “some people  get  in  the  life  boat,  some don’t”.  Whilst there is a more democratic approach to the preservation of artistic works in the 21st century than compared to even forty years ago, this change has brought the debate full circle. Where once intellectuals battled in backrooms over departmental funding for their latest acquisition, increasingly in a user pays/user dictates arts environment are we once again facing a similar predicament?

Since  the  1970’s  there  has  been  a  change  in  the  way  institutions  view  preservation.  At  this  time  museums were  debating  their  then  current role as “storehouses”  for  artefacts. Collections were considered  mainly  for  academic  purposes , the  public was allowed  access  to select  parts  of  collections  deemed  worthy  by  curators. Even in those halcyon days of museumship it was predicted that the era of museums being solely the domain of academics was at an end. This was to prove in some respects a good cultural move for many traditional museums. Cultural stewardship had in many instances a departmental bias developing an  ad hoc  approach to preservation.  Based  on  department head  interests  rather  than  an institutional   strategy , items  that  were not  covered  by  specific  disciplines  were frequently left  uncatalogued in  store  rooms. In the 1980’s Thatcher’s Britain did force cultural institutions to develop unified preservation and display policies. As visitor numbers dictated government funding, what institutions had in their dusty repositories became increasingly important as did their preservation.

It could be argued that the worldwide shift in power away from academics to public accessibility in the 1980’s was a good result for preservation; however, it is a double edged sword. The  choice  of  what  items  to  save  is  a  delicate  balancing  act.  Not all items worthy of preservation are palatable to all the public.  The  destruction  of  a  Banksy  in  Melbourne  in 2013  highlighted  the fragility of  the  preservation process. Viewed by some as graffiti, valued at potentially $50,000 by others and unintentionally destroyed by a builder. The third of a handful of rare works by Banksy to be destroyed in Australia, illustrates that even the public has the same difficulty in discerning what cultural property should be preserved. Perhaps the old guard were right to hold on to their departmental ideals. In those halcyon days of the 20th century they realised better than most, that not everything can be preserved and that what is saved has to be fought for.

The ongoing alignment of cultural institutions with commercial enterprise is an important fact of arts life. Preserving, maintaining and rejuvenating collections does not come without a price tag. The renowned institution of the BBC has begun utilising the economics of consumer demand to help conserve its collections. In 2012 they began the process of making available their entire archive available online via a “user pays” basis.  In  this  way  programs  that  are  not  deemed  economic  for a  wide scale  DVD  release  are  still  available  to  the  public.  This  is  in  sharp  contrast  to the BBC   of  the  1970’s  which  routinely ‘junked’  or  taped  over  programs  that it  deemed  of  no value. The bootlegs of these programs featuring the Beatles or Dr who are now in high demand from financially well-endowed private collectors. The public culture based in accessibility during the 1980’s and 90’s has moved up a gear. This is the era of the intergenerational user. A whole new stakeholder, whose rights are still yet to be defined, and yes they are very powerful. The rise of consumer awareness by cultural institutions has created a new form of preservation program, one dictated not by what academics feel illustrates the human condition, but by what the public wants to see. Despite the PR reassurance, the risk of prioritising the preservation of artefacts that keep the turnstiles moving rather than a holistic story is very real. Arts institutions need to be savvy in their thinking. There is nothing wrong in responding to public demand, but institutions still need to be able offer the element of surprise in their answer.




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