Earlier this year, the conservation department at the Whitney Museum of American Art was given the task of preparing Claes Oldenburg’s Ice Bag-Scale C for exhibition in a retrospective. The work, a massive, fan-powered contraption 12 feet in diameter made of nylon cloth and polyester resin, was first created in 1971 and had fallen into disrepair while in storage. When functioning properly, the bag was meant to subtly inflate and deflate, evoking something like a sleeping creature. It needed extensive restoration before it could be exhibitable.
“The skin had decayed and the motors never worked properly—it was not in good condition,” said Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the Whitney’s associate director for conservation and research. “We had to replace a fair amount of it.”
Throughout the process, Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro thought she was engaged in a more or less traditional conservation effort. Others at the institution disagreed. They believed she was making a replica—a.k.a. “an exhibition copy”—and argued that the work should be labeled as such when it was put on display.
These types of situations are coming up with increasing frequency wherever contemporary art is displayed. And museum curators and conservators across New York are really confused about what to do. Obviously, art has changed radically since the days when museums were filled with traditional painting and sculpture. But while art has evolved, the basic tenets of traditional museum practice have not.
The artists are doing this on purpose, obviously, having spent the best part of the past century making work that vigorously and repeatedly challenged concepts of originality, authenticity, and uniqueness– concepts that crucially inform how conservators have preserved and restored work, and how curators have displayed and studied it.
It’s driving museum people crazy. How do you acquire or display a work of performance art that exists only in the form of an instruction sheet? What should conservators do about works that are deteriorating because they were made from unstable materials, such as neon, or sharks? If you want to exhibit a huge work of conceptual art that is housed at another museum, does it make sense to pay for shipping when you could probably just get permission to make a copy?
‘We live in a time when you can make a replica look pretty much the same as the original.’—Carol Mancusi-Ungaro of the Whitney
This matter of making copies has lately been the focus of a pioneering working group at the Whitney Museum. Known as the Whitney Replication Committee, the group is dedicated to thinking systematically about how museum practices must change in order for the guardians of contemporary art to get on the same page as those who create it. Led by Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro, the committee also includes the Whitney’s registrar, collections manager, inhouse legal counsel and several curators. The lot of them have been meeting once a month for the past year and a half.
“We’re in a new era here,” Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro said. “We live in a time when you can make a replica look pretty much the same as the original. When it’s that accessible, the temptation is there to do it. One could just say, ‘Oh, sure, why not?’ But the ‘why not’ answer is a tricky one. When you really begin to think about what it means to create a replica, it becomes much more complicated. The ramifications are huge.”
Replicas are extremely common in the museum world, and the practice of using exhibition copies in place of original works is widespread. The problem is that the museums and galleries that are producing these copies in many cases have not thought hard enough about what they’re doing, often making intellectually fraught decisions on an ad-hoc basis.
The purpose of the Whitney committee, Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro said, is to come up with a coherent “attitude” toward replication and, eventually, a set of hard-won guidelines and principles. Unsurprisingly, discussion so far has been dominated by the most basic questions: What counts as a replica? Who has the authority to produce one? How do we distinguish between originals and replicas when we’re dealing with things like digital video art, which can be copied endlessly at no loss, or with certain kinds of conceptual art, where the idea or gesture is more important than the particular object used to express it?
“What we want to be sure we’re not doing is contradicting ourselves as we make decisions,” Ms. Mancusi-Ungaro said. “We also see it as our responsibility to be thoughtfully consistent. We feel that as an institution that collects modern and contemporary art, we need to hit this straight on.”
ALTHOUGH THE WHITNEY committee has been working largely in a vacuum—so much so that other conservators of contemporary art in New York were not aware of the project until The Observer asked them about it—the question of how museums should adapt to contemporary art that defies their traditions has been taken up during the past several years by others in the conservation community. In 2003, for instance, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum helped organize the Variable Media Network, an initiative meant to explore ways that ephemeral art can be preserved so that posterity can experience it “more directly than through second-hand documentation or anecdote.” More recently, Museum of Modern Art conservator Glenn Wharton moved to launch a North American branch of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, an organization that encourages museum professionals to share notes and discuss best practices.
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.”