Reach 07 - Conserving Contemporary Art

Visual Arts | Na h-Ealain Lèirsinneach

The conservation of contemporary art, its challenges and complications, is a rapidly growing research field. Dr Erma Hermens, head of the Technical Art History Group at the University of Glasgow, and international partners have secured funding for fifteen PhD students, who will look at some of the specific issues involved.

The project has grown out of NeCCAR, Network for Conservation of Contemporaray Art Research, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. The network partners successfully applied for a Marie Curie Innovative Training Network grant with the European Commission. This innovative research and training programme, New Approaches in the Conservation of Contemporary Art (NACCA), was initiated in June by lead partner, Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Other partners include higher education institutes and museums from the UK, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Poland.

Traditional artworks are difficult to conserve, as they are often delicate and fragile, but their treatment is firmly placed within ethical frameworks which help
curators and conservators to approach conservation problems. In contemporary art conservation however, a new challenge is created by the huge range of
unusual materials and techniques employed, such as multimedia technology, which quickly becomes obsolete, and materials including chocolate, cotton wool and lipstick to name but a few. These materials confront both conservators and curators with complicated conservation issues, both practical - such as how to preserve chocolate in an artwork, and theoretical – should we conserve such materials at all? Such interventions might involve remaking or reinstalling the artwork, or aspects of the artwork may have to be altered in some way.

As the artists are often still alive to answer questions about how they would like their artworks to be conserved, their opinion may play a crucial part in the decision making. Again, this could pose challenges as curators, conservators and artists may have different ideas about the lifespan of an artwork. “So far it has turned out to be a really complicated but also incredibly exciting discussion about, for example, what is to be considered authentic and what is the artist’s intent”, says Dr Hermens, “which are the same questions we ask for traditional work, but they get very different answers in contemporary art.”

Two PhD students will join the project in January, with the prospect of funding, paid travel expenses, training and a prestigious six-month internship each, at the Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh and the Glasgow School of Art, and at Contemporary Conservation Ltd, New York City. To enhance their research, Dr Hermens would be interested to speak to conservators and curators who have experience of these problems, or artists that are willing to be interviewed. Please contact the College of Arts ( for more information.




If you wish to find out more about this article or about how you can progress your ideas (i) as an academic wishing to engage with a non-academic organisation or (ii) as a non-academic organisation interested in engaging with the academic knowledge base, please email the College of Arts KE Team.


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