Copy That! Wait, Don’t. Whitney Ponders Problem of Replication in Modern Art

Amid these efforts, the Whitney committee is unique in its focus on replication. Its origins trace back to a landmark colloquium on the subject called “Inherent Vice,” which was held at the Tate Modern in October 2007. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the colloquium came out of a debate at the Tate over what to do with the sculptures of Naum Gabo, which were disintegrating and turning to powder before the conservators’ eyes. The Tate’s head of displays approached the Mellon Foundation for funding to support a colloquium on the problems raised by the disintegration of Gabo’s sculptures. But the Mellon’s program officer for museums and art conservation, Angelica Rudenstine, didn’t go for it right away.

“I said at the time that such a narrow approach to what I regarded as a very complicated issue involving the work of so many artists would not be possible for Mellon,” Ms. Rudenstine said. “If the Tate was prepared to take on much broader issues, putting together a group of people who would think philosophically, ethically, morally as well as pragmatically about the challenges here, that would seem to justify support from the Mellon Foundation. Then one could perhaps make an exceptional contribution, by resolving dilemmas which must be faced by all of the major repositories of modern art in the world.”

Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro, who teaches conservation theory at Harvard, was asked to join the steering group for the ambitious conference at the Tate. After a year of foundational work, the steering group was joined in London by about 50 museum professionals and scholars.

“We wanted the issues to be discussed by historians, philosophers, curators, conservators—people who were willing to probe the art-historical implications rather than only the institutional responsibilities,” Ms. Rudenstine said. “We thought carefully whether to invite directors to this gathering and decided not to, with the understanding that at some future gathering, directors would have a very powerful role to play and large responsibilities to assume.”

 

THE CONFERENCE GENERATED a stack of thoughtful working papers that are now posted online. But after the conference, it became clear to Ms. Rudenstine that the Tate was not immediately prepared to host another major conference.

“The original idea was that this would be the first stage,” Ms. Rudenstine said. “Museum directors must be brought in, as should members of the artist community and people in the art market.”

When Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro got home from London, she told Whitney chief curator Donna DeSalvo about the ideas she’d heard expressed by her colleagues from around the world. The committee that is meeting now under Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro’s leadership was the direct result of that conversation.

“We’ve been swamped,” Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro said. “We had no idea the number of times one is faced with whether or not to consider a replica. We’ve realized that what came out of the Tate conference was just the tip of the iceberg.”

That said, the committee is taking it pretty slow. When they met last week, Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro called for a return to first principles, and suggested that the group spend the meeting figuring out all the different kinds of art that might cause problems for museums seeking to preserve and display them in the future. Only once they agreed on that list of categories could they move forward, Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro said. Eventually, she hopes the committee can host a symposium not unlike the Tate’s, and eventually publish some record of its work.

“I think it’s a healthy thing for the art world to be doing,” she said. “The Whitney has decided to try to come to grips with this and try to be really serious about what we’re doing, but it’s hard! It’s a hard thing to do.”