Call the tech squad

Special to The Times

IN the late 1980s, Pamela Kramlich saw a work of video art by Peter Fischli and David Weiss titled "The Way Things Go." The 30-minute piece shows a perpetual-motion machine built by the artists: A car propelled by a kind of firecracker bumps into a bowling ball, which hits a piece of cardboard, which somehow leads to the ignition of a flammable substance in a saucepot -- and on and on.

Kramlich loved it. So she and her husband, venture capitalist Richard Kramlich, bought it for $350, their first video art purchase. "I started showing it at dinner parties," Pamela Kramlich says. "People loved it. Especially young people. I said to Dick, 'We should do more of this.' "

They have. The Kramlichs' video and new-media art collection now numbers about 300 works -- which has led the couple to consider some problems: How should they conserve this art? How could they ensure that the technologies on which it is shown don't become so outdated that someday the work might not be viewable?

In Southern California, the Long Beach Museum of Art had long been home to one of the world's richest archives of early video works: 492 boxes filled with more than 3,000 tapes and archival documents. It too was facing a set of problems -- problems remarkably similar to those the Kramlichs were considering.

Independently, the couple and the museum settled on entirely different solutions: The Kramlichs formed a nonprofit devoted to the preservation and conservation of video and new-media works and to forging key ties with major museums. Called the New Art Trust, the San Francisco-based organization also owns a portion of the Kramlichs' media art collection.

The Long Beach museum took another approach: It transferred its early video collection to the far-better-equipped Getty Research Institute, which is cataloging and conserving it. According to the Getty, it will also eventually exhibit the work.

Although disparate and organizationally unrelated, the New Art Trust and the Getty nonetheless are creating a West Coast locus for video and new-media works. Combined, their holdings span the history of video art in America. Perhaps more important, their efforts show promise not only for setting the museum-world standard for conserving fragile video and new-media works but also for making the art available to the widest possible audience.

"All in all, I think California has probably the greatest concentration of video in the country," says David Ross, who as a curator in the mid-1970s built the Long Beach Museum's video art collection. Later, as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Ross helped expand that institution's focus on new-media work.

Christopher Eamon, director of the New Art Trust (and its only staff member), maintains that institutionally, California has "the highest concentration of media art anywhere -- I think it already is in terms of museums. SFMOMA is one of the leaders, certainly almost as much as Tate" in Britain.

The New Art Trust

THE New Art Trust has one of the most powerful boards of trustees in the art world. In addition to the Kramlichs and Judy Holme Agnew, director of the Bay Area Video Coalition, the trust's board includes Neal Benezra, director of SFMOMA; Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Nicholas Serota, director of London's Tate museums.

"The trust serves as a forum for these three great museums, whose impact is almost impossible to calculate," Ross says. "The trust helps them take seriously their stewardship of new media."

The museums, in turn, take notice and participate in the trust in part because the Kramlichs have such a high-profile collection, including major works by Gary Hill, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman and Bill Viola as well as all five of Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" films.

By bringing the museums together and "dangling these carrots out there of long-term gifts and support," Ross says, "the Kramlichs have created a level of awareness of media art in these three museums that might not have existed."

Since its inception in 1997, the trust has participated, with the museums, in a range of activities aimed at preserving and conserving video and other new-media works considered to have artistic, historical or social significance, Eamon says. In partnership with SFMOMA, MoMA and Tate, it has worked to establish "best-practice" guidelines for the art, with a goal of having other institutions follow the trust's lead. Staff members at the museums participate via trust-funded collaborations.

That effort, publicized through a Tate-sponsored website called Media Matters (www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/majorprojects/mediamatters), has created standards for museums and private collectors relating not just to care and handling but also to the loan process. According to the site, the project "aims to raise awareness of the requirements of these works and to provide a practical response to the need for international agreement among museums."

The trust also is working to standardize guidelines for loans and for institutional purchases of video and new media art, including how several museums might work together to make a purchase.

Pamela Kramlich says she hopes smaller museums that have resisted collecting the art will begin to do so, secure in the knowledge that larger institutions are working to answer conservation and other long-term questions about the media.

"If the Kramlichs didn't provide funding in this area, I'm not sure anybody would," says Benezra of SFMOMA. "Museums have complicated relationships with one another, and they are all too often competitive with each other. What the New Art Trust does is it strongly urges museums -- all of whom have dedicated media arts curators and conservators and whose tendency would be not to work with one another very well -- and throws us into an organizational construct and says, 'Here's what we can do together.' It kind of breaks down some of the barriers."

The Kramlichs also have funded specific conservation projects, including work on Gary Hill's 1990 video / sound installation, "Inasmuch as It Is Always Already Taking Place" at MoMA.

And they have transferred their entire collection of 180 single-channel works to the trust, meaning that SFMOMA, MoMA and the Tate, along with the Bay Area Video Collection, effectively co-own them, according to Eamon.

"We want to keep the collection together and hope that the New Art Trust is the place to have it," Pamela Kramlich says. "We're still buying art, and we still have questions about equipment, exhibiting -- how does this work, and how does it work in terms of donating it someday?"

Regardless of how the mechanics of donation eventually work out, the Kramlichs are building a Herzog & De Meuron-designed home in the Napa Valley community of Oakville that includes a 12,000-square-foot climate-controlled basement where they can house both their collection and that of the trust. By building such a large facility, Pamela Kramlich says, they hope to centralize the cost of care.

Getty Research Institute

WHILE the Kramlichs in San Francisco focus on the future of new-media works, the Getty Research Institute has a more immediate concern with a large and recently acquired collection.

In the 1970s, the Long Beach Museum of Art became one of the first American institutions to collect video art. But instead of acquiring the work the way museums typically do today -- through curators, then acquisition committees and finally with full board approval -- the museum simply bought editing equipment, installed it in the museum and invited artists to come and use it, free. Those who did usually left behind a copy of what they'd made as a thank-you, Ross says.

In time, the museum built a collection of early works by such video art pioneers as Bill Viola, William Wegman, Nam June Paik, Chris Burden, Joan Jonas and John Baldessari. It also traded work with the Italian video art studio Art / Tapes / 22 and so built up a key archive of early European video work.

"I would say we never spent one dollar acquiring the videos," Ross says, adding that in any case, the museum didn't have a video acquisition budget.

In 2005, lacking the resources to conserve the collection, the museum transferred its boxes of tapes and other materials to the Getty Research Institute. Although the collection is believed to be a treasure trove of the early history of the medium, for now it's anyone's guess as to exactly how rich a vein of work it is. No one at the Getty has viewed the tapes; right now staff is busy simply cataloging the archive.

"It's not like you can just pop all of the videos into a player and see what's on it," says Andrew Perchuk, the Getty Research Institute head of contemporary programs and research. "Many of them will only be able to be played once, and they have to be restored during that one viewing."

After cataloging, the Getty will assess each tape's conservation requirements.

"We will be making a set of priorities," says Glenn Phillips, a Getty research associate and consulting curator. "What tapes do you start with -- and I think we all agree the best place to start is to identify tapes in the collection that we believe are unique, where artists have actually deposited their master tapes in the Long Beach collection and then lost their own copies, or examples where we know the artist's originals have been destroyed and we have to determine if the tape is in the Long Beach collection and see if it's been destroyed too."

Ultimately, Perchuk says, the Getty hopes to make the entire archive available -- perhaps in an updated version of the way it was available in Long Beach in the '70s. Then museum-goers would wander in, ask to see a tape, a staff member would get it, and the visitor would pop it into a machine. The ease with which digital copies can be made should make similar access possible again, says Phillips.

As part of the deal -- which involved no money and was approved by the Long Beach City Council -- the Getty also will make copies of the videos for the Long Beach museum. The Long Beach acquisition plays to the Getty's emergent strength in video and new media art. The Research Institute is commissioning new work and has acquired video and film through acquisition of artist archives, such as with the late Allen Kaprow.

Getty Museum Director Michael Brand says the Getty may show works from the Long Beach collection -- and possibly other media works as well -- in the Getty Photography Center, scheduled to open this year.

Brand says it hasn't been decided whether the museum or Research Institute will collect video, although "we already have a Bill Viola piece, so there is some precedent.... The thought is: Let's try to show these things.

"It won't be the world's most perfect video display space," he added, "but I think we can make it very, very good."

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