June 20, 2013
Artworks either hang on the wall or sit on the shelf, so by and large, you wouldn’t think that they would require much in the line of maintenance aside from the occasional cleaning. Not so. Art pieces can be made from a wide variety of materials, each one with its own set of potential care and maintenance issues. But even a well meaning cleaning job can ruin an object or devalue it. Countless episodes of Antiques Roadshow bear witness to that catastrophe. The value of bronzes and Tiffany lamps are decimated once an overzealous polishing job removes the original surface quality of the work.
While garments come with tags that instruct you on how to launder your clothes and tech companies offer help desks for when your gadgets malfunction, but rarely does an artwork come with an instruction manual for how it should be maintained. This kind of knowledge belongs to the pros, like those at the Lunder Conservation Center, whose counsel I sought recently.
A recent purchase of a vintage poster on eBay from the 1950 Judy Garland/Gene Kelly musical Summer Stock arrived in my mailbox with more than its share of issues. The gauzy photos used in the auction listing hid a lot of the stains, the severe creases, and on taking the poster out of its grungy wood frame, I discovered packing tape patches on the back that had me feeling a little ill at ease. While still the perfect pop of color to brighten the living room wall, this poster was one sick puppy. It was time to contact Lunder.
Kate Maynor, who has been a conservator at the American Art Museum since 1986, greeted me at the Lunder Conservation Center’s paper lab. As I laid my poster on a table for examination, Maynor began by explaining the nature of the beast.
“Paper,” she said, “is a very open and porous. It makes works on paper very vulnerable to agents of deterioration.” She began by examining the back of the poster, and immediately pointed to the packing tape patches. It turns out that they were much worse than a merely inelegant repair job. Maynor explained that adhesives can cause an alarming amount of deterioration because the adhesive can migrate into the paper, causing it to stain or turn transparent. The other problem was surface grime—and the poster had plenty of that—which can also migrate and effect the aesthetic quality on the reverse side of the artwork.
Turning the poster over, Maynor brought over a halogen lamp and illuminated the poster from the side. While not a lighting choice for standard display purposes, it revealed tears and silverfish damage I never noticed when examining the piece at home. She then pointed brown acid stains caused by a bad frame job, explaining that, before the advent of acid-free and archival-grade materials, framers would use whatever was on hand to prepare an artwork for presentation. She had even seen cases where wood roofing shingles were used to back paper pieces, and over time, imparted wood grain-patterned acid stains onto an artwork.
Now that I had seen the poster, warts and all, it was time to brace myself for Maynor’ diagnosis. “What I try to do in order to discuss this is ascertain which of these conditions are contributing to the deterioration of the artwork and which conditions are stable,” she said. “And we have to weigh the effect of those condition problems. Some kinds of disfiguring stains might not be as important in an archival piece as opposed to an artwork where aesthetics are important. We have to be mindful of the original characteristics: is it glossy, is it matte, etc. All those characteristics need to be noted and maintained during treatment.”
Thankfully, the poster’s condition is unlikely to get worse, she assured me. The tape should be removed sooner than later and the piece should be surface cleaned. When re-framing, I should make sure that I use a mat board, so that the paper can breathe, and consider having a professional framer do the job since tapes are usually used to affix an artwork to the mat board in a DIY frame job. Before leaving, she wrote down a list of conservators in the area I could contact, and I was able to leave the museum with a game plan for how to ensure that Judy and Gene can beautify my walls for years to come.
March 17, 2011
Here at the ATM blog, our St. Patrick’s Day celebration this year is all about snakes and serpents. For it was these slithery reptiles that St Patrick was supposed to have driven into the sea, banishing all of that nation’s snakes from the land. Turns out, though, there are lots of snakes at the Smithsonian Institution.
1. Get up close and personal with St. Patrick, or at least with a wooden figure of Ireland’s best-known patron saint, in the collections of the American Art Museum. The statue of St. Patrick holding a snake was carved by artist Frank Brito sometime in the 1960s.
2. As difficult as it would be to chase snakes out, what kind of person would it take to charm them into behaving? Dennis Burlingame’s 1935 painting entitled “Snake Charmer,” also from the American Art Museum, appears to have the answer.
3. Over at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi illustrates another way to rid oneself of a menacing reptile in the woodblock print, “Eight Hundred Heroes of a Japanese Water Margin, All Told: Ogata Shuma Hiroyuki.”
4. While not everyone is fond of snakes, most people can at least appreciate the use of their likeness in design, especially when it comes to adornments. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum showcases a bronze door knocker, while the American Indian Museum has a gold labret in the shape of a snake head.
7. There may not be any snakes in Ireland (outside of zoo animals and family pets) but we’ve got plenty here. If snakes are what you want to see, slide on over to the National Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center and see if they really are as menacing in person.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Additional reporting by Jesse Rhodes.
March 16, 2011
If you grew up with video games, and have piles of cartridges, diskettes and CD-ROMs lying around your home, you’ve more or less been curating your own personal exhibition of video game art in the comfort of your own home. But in your esteemed opinion, what games stand out as testaments to technological innovation or spectacular design? Coming to the American Art Museum next year, The Art of Video Games will be an exploration of how gaming has evolved as an art and entertainment medium over the course of 40 years.
But is it art? Can games seriously make the leap from toy store shelves to a museum? The answer is a qualified “yes” as far as exhibition curator and video game collector Chris Melissinos is concerned. “Video games allow for self expression, social reflection, intent and observer insight,” he says. “Due to its interactive nature, video games are an amalgam of art styles and mediums that allow for exploration, by the player or observer, of the artist’s intent or message. This exploration allows the player to internalize the message in a very personal and unique way. There is no other form of media, books, music, movies, or painting, that affords this opportunity. None. I have spent time in front of the paintings of Jackson Pollock and, while interesting, I found no self reflection or intent in them. I understand his technique, understand his intent, but it fails to move me at all. However, in the game Flower, there was a moment in the game where the music, visuals and actions transported me back to when I was a child growing up in New York that was so profound, it caused me to well up. It so happens that my personal reaction was in line with what the designer intended to convey. Between the two, Flower stands, for me, as a work of art.”
And for those of you who were similarly impacted by gaming, now is your chance to help decide which games will be included in the show. The games selected by the curators were milestones of a particular era or genre, received worldwide recognition and were innovative on a technical and visual level.
“I wanted the people who would come to see the exhibition to experience the reflection of their desires in the materials,” Melissinos says. “Not just the voice of the designers, artists and myself. Having the public vote on materials that we selected allows their participation and sense of community.”
And what’s Melissinos’ favorite game? “If I had to pick one, it would probably be Robotron 2084. In the Robotron world, robots and computers have become self aware and realize that humankind is the most destructive force against human existence. In an attempt to save the human race, the robots take over and control the population. You are there to save the last human family from this prison.”
While Robotron 2084 isn’t among the 240 game titles you can pick from, you have until April 7, 2011 to cast your votes and winnow down the list to 80 games. The Art of Video Games will open at the American Art Museum one year from today on March 16, 2012.
February 18, 2011
Friday, February 18: Historic Theater: Join the Student Sit-Ins at the Greensboro Lunch Counter
In this piece of interactive theater, learn what it was like to take part in a sit-in—a form of peaceful protest that was a hallmark of the Civil Rights movement. Meet a civil rights activist and take part in a training session to prepare for your first sit-in and decide if you would have the courage to fight for justice. These 15- to 20-minute performances reveal the people behind the objects on view and the emotions in their stories. Free. American History Museum, 11:30 AM. This event repeats today at 1:30 PM, 3:00 PM and 4:30 PM.
Saturday, February 19: Annual Day of Remembrance at the Smithsonian
Today marks the 69th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing order 9066, which effectively forced almost 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to relocate to federal detention camps. In the throes of World War II, these Americans were assumed guilty of disloyalty solely because of their racial background and had to live behind barbed wire for the duration of the war. See the film, 442: Live with Honor, Die with Dignity, the story and legacy of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an Asian-American unit that became the most decorated U.S. regiment in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces. The film features archival footage and interviews with several surviving veterans, including United States Senator Daniel K. Inouye and George Sakato. Both veterans were recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government. A forum with director Junichi Suzuki follows. Free. American History Museum, 2:00 PM.
Sunday, February 20: Portrait Story Days: George Washington
In anticipation of Presidents’ Day, drop in to see a portrait and hear a story about founding father George Washington. Afterward, you will get to create your own special piece of art. Ideal for young visitors with adults. National Portrait Gallery, 1:00-4:00 PM.
For updates on all exhibitions and events, visit our companion site goSmithsonian.com
January 21, 2011
Friday, January 21: Painting Techniques of Henry Ossawa Tanner
Museum conservators Amber Kerr-Allison and Brian Baade present findings of their recent study and analysis of six of Tanner’s works in the permanent collection, including the newly conserved Flight into Egypt. Learn how Tanner’s documented painting recipe, preserved in the Archives of American Art, contributed to their understanding and analysis of this artist’s technique that produced some of the most vibrant paintings at the turn of the 20th century. Free. American Art Museum, 4:00 PM.
Saturday, January 22: Washington’s Dance Party
Narrated by Martha Reeves—known for hits like “Dancing in the Street” and “Heatwave“—this documentary takes a look at Washington DC’s 1960s television show “The Teenarama Dance Party.” The program allowed black teens to dance and socialize together and provided a place to relax while the fight for civil rights raged around them. After the screening, stick around for a discussion with the film’s producer, as well as people who were involved with the original Teenarama show. Free. For reservations and information, call 202-633-4844. Anacostia Museum, 1:00-3:00 PM.
Sunday, January 23: Artist Talk with Mark Sfirri
Wood artist Mark Sfirri, the 2009 James Renwick Alliance distinguished educator, whose work is on view in A Revolution in Wood, explains his passion for wood turning and the artistic process. Join Sfirri as he discusses his body of work and current projects. Free. Renwick Gallery, 2:00 PM
For updates on all exhibitions and events, visit our companion site goSmithsonian.com