Camilla J. Van Vooren is Senior Paintings Conservator at the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Arts in Denver, Colorado. A few years ago, I asked her recently what kind of information conservators need from artists. This was first published in my newsletter, but I think it’s important to revisit the topic.
What we desperately need to know from artists, I think, is a structure-and-instruction report which makes specific references to their intent. For example, “If that caviar falls off your work, should I restore it or just go buy fresh caviar?” [Did I mention Camilla has a sense of humor to be envied? She goes on . . . ]
Seriously, what I think would be of immense value would be a form that covers every aspect of the structure of the work. For example, on an oil painting, start with the “auxiliary support”: the stretcher, strainer, panel or board that the art is executed on. Then we would talk about the gesso or ground layer, then the paint film, the varnish, etc. It would be helpful to the artist to keep records of these things for their own future reference.
For each of these categories, the artist would list the brands or types of materials used including technical references, especially if it is an unusual material. If they would include procedural notes such as layering schemes it would be invaluable to future conservators.
Then, they could include notes on the degree to which they would have any part conserved or restored. For example, if the stretcher fails, do you approve of a conservator removing the canvas from the stretcher and replacing it?
In all of the different areas, artists could include condition notes and their thoughts about it with some general comments about their intent at the end. This might be anything from “Do anything necessary to preserve the 2-dimensional image” to “DO NOT VARNISH” to “Let the thing rot. I specifically do not want it to be preserved!”
If we had these types of guidelines from artists, it would be heaven!
Camilla used paintings in the above example–unconventional materials, to be exact–but this advice can be applied to any medium.
Future generations will have no idea what your intent was in making a piece of art or what your intent was for the future of that art. You have to spell it out if it isn’t obvious. Not everyone wants their art to be preserved forever. Some artists choose decaying materials on purpose–so that the work changes over time. But you have to make us (especially curators and conservators) aware of your intent.
Keep notes about your working materials, techniques, and intent. If you maintain, as you should, a database of your work, it’s easy to add these notes to your computerized inventory.