The Art of Saving Contemporary Art


Should contemporary art be allowed to rot in peace? Or should it be preserved, regardless of cost, difficulty and the artist's intentions? How about art that's made for the moment, of materials that disintegrate? What's an overworked conservator to do with photographs that change color, paintings that crumble or sculptures made of everything from chewing gum and lipstick to flocked Tupperware?

And, since all contemporary artworks can't possibly be saved, who should decide which ones will survive as a representative sampling from the 20th century?

These are among questions to be addressed at "Mortality Immortality? The Legacy of 20th-Century Art," a public conference organized by the Getty Conservation Institute, today through Friday at the Getty Center in Brentwood. GCI has invited about 40 artists, curators, conservators, dealers, educators and other specialists to the three-day program to consider the dilemma of preserving contemporary art.

"In a couple of years, the 20th century will be history. We need to think about how we want the visual arts of this period to be remembered," said Miguel Angel Corzo, director of the institute.

"In the time of the Aztecs, they probably hoped their monuments would be eternal, but they had no way of ensuring that would happen. Now we have the means to decide how we want to be seen in the future." The issue goes beyond science and technology, he said. "We need to understand what [conserving contemporary art] means."

Today's opening session, "Is Contemporary Art Only for Contemporary Times?," will consider whether art of the present "needs to extend beyond our time," Corzo said. Speakers include Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust; Bill Berkson, director of the San Francisco Art Institute; Robert Storr, curator of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and artist R.B. Kitaj.

In "The Challenge of Materials," a panel discussion scheduled for Thursday afternoon, artists David Hockney and Bill Viola and Guggenheim Museum video and film curator John Hanhardt, among others, will explore conservation problems posed by new media, including photography and electronic forms of expression.

The conference will end with a session on "Who Is Responsible?," which will include Agnes Gund, president of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Isbrand Hummelen, head of Conservation Research at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage.

"Our aspirations are to create a sense of urgency about the need to debate these questions, and to trigger a dialogue on a scale that goes beyond scientists, technicians and conservators," Corzo said. "We want to create awareness of the issue of conserving contemporary art among artists, curators, collectors, dealers and the wider community."

Although GCI is best known for conserving the cultural heritage of past centuries in distant locations, the conference is only the latest of the institute's efforts to make its work relevant to Los Angeles and art of the 20th century. GCI's local conservation projects include ongoing work on Watts Towers and a mural by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros on Olvera Street. The institute also has helped preserve "Olympic Gateway," a sculpture by Robert Graham at the entrance of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; and Edward Kienholz's sculpture "Back Seat Dodge," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"There aren't a lot of ancient monuments in Los Angeles. We are facing up to our context here," Corzo said.

The conference runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. A $100 fee covers admission and lunch for all three days. Information: (310) 440-6849.

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