No Preservatives: Conversations about Conservation

Concepts Around Interviewing Artists: a Discussion with Glenn Wharton

Over the past six years or so at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I’ve spoken to a lot of artists—either about projects we’ve commissioned or ones that we simply acquired or borrowed. Creating a dialog with artists around preservation issues related to representing their work has become an important way to document their thoughts at a certain time. Theses interviews, whether written or recorded, then become an integral part of the documentation that is stored in the museum’s archives. But interviewing artists about preservation issues can be difficult and consuming work.

Glenn Wharton

Glenn Wharton

To explore issues related to the methodology and process of  interviewing artists, I’ve invited conservator Glenn Wharton here for a discussion. Mr. Wharton is a Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art specializing in time-based media conservation. He is also a Research Scholar at New York University, with a joint appointment at the Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center and the Museum Studies program. He serves as Acting Executive Director of INCCA-NA, the North American group of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.

Richard McCoy: Why do you think it is important to interview living artists?

Glenn Wharton: I think things have really shifted in the field of conservation in response to changes in contemporary art production. The art object is often contingent in that it may be replaced or it may not even exist in contemporary works.

With installation art, media art, or performance art, the work frequently requires a team of people putting the artwork together and then taking it apart again. Many conservators have recognized that what we need to do is document how we install the artwork and define what the artwork can be, not just what it is or what it was. This involves working with an artist, sometimes over a number of installations. Having a record of the artist’s input and thoughts about this process is very important.

For us at MoMA, an artist interview might be anything from a quick email asking in what format a video was produced or what material was used in some specific component of an artwork, or it might become an extended series of conversations that plays out over time.

Each interaction with an artist is different, and context driven. If it’s a full-on interview—one in which the artist comes in to MoMA—we sit down, tape it, transcribe it, and draw out information for our reports. This is a very formal process.

RM: I’ve found that each artist, each artwork, and each situation is different and that there are a lot of variables that play into what comes out of an interview. Can you talk about the process you use when completing an artist interview?

GW: I would say about 75% of the work for a formal interview is in the preparation. I look at past conservation reports, the curator’s and registrar’s files, and then talk to people in the museum who have worked with the artist before. Then I research published material on the artist.

When I’m doing this preparation, first I tend to take a lot of notes, then later I brainstorm for a while. This usually leads to a lot of questions, which I reduce to what I call a “topic guide.” This approach comes from ethnographic practice in anthropology and more basic sociological interviews. In the end, I might come up with 10-12 topics that I want to discuss with the artist during an interview. I take my list of topic guides with me during the interview, and use it as a “cheat sheet” to make sure we cover the topics I want to explore. I use this approach because I think it’s very disruptive to keep looking down at a set of detailed questions. Successful interviews require eye contact, personal relationships, and a meandering but focused conversation.

Some artists are very engaged in this process, and others understandably are not; we need to respect that.

RM: I try to think of it just as much as an interview as a conversation.

GW: Yes—a guided conversation, where you’re the guide. You’re letting the artist talk, but you’re also bringing the conversation back to the issues you want to make sure to discuss. It’s important to allow the conversation to loosen as well, because the artist may bring up information or topics that you hadn’t thought of.

MoMA Conservation Studio

MoMA Conservation Studio

RM: Like any interview, unless you can get the interviewee away from responding in a typical way to questions or topics, then you aren’t going to be as likely to get more than a pre-determined response, which usually is not as insightful.

GW: Maybe that’s the mark of a good interviewer—to be able to break interviewees from those constructions that they have formed in their minds about the work of art: how it was made or what they want it to be. A good interviewer might go on a circuitous path in an effort to disrupt the interviewee’s structured thinking.

RM: What sources or perspectives outside of the conservation profession have influenced your approach to interviewing artists?

GW: I’ve been influenced by three other fields: anthropology (and specifically ethnographic research), sociological interview methods, and oral history. Each of those fields has their own literature on how to interview people, how to establish relationships with people in order to learn from them. Of course ethnography is much deeper and deals with long-term relationships, whereas a sociological interview might just be working through a set of questions. Oral history is typically somewhere in-between. I think what we do is closer to oral history than these other fields.

I always advise my students that if they are in a situation in which they have developed a relationship with an artist, or are working with artists in their studio, then their research can become more ethnographic. Later they might be in a position to write about an artist in a much deeper way since they’ve actually worked with him or her over an extended period of time. That kind of work can be very rich and informative, and really benefit the field.

One occasion that really influenced me was an INCCA-NA sponsored workshop at the 2007 AIC Annual Meeting on interview methodology. We brought in an oral historian from University of California at Berkeley, Richard Candida Smith, who gave a presentation about the construction of memory. It blew me away. He talked about how we remember events, how we structure events in our mind, and the fact that language is itself is reductive.  So, we may experience something—making a work of art, for instance—but then when we turn to someone else and describe that experience we reduce that experience with our language.

He talked about how we use words to describe events and how, as we describe an event to someone else, and then again to someone else, the repetition becomes concrete in our mind. So what interviewers need to try to do is break through those constructions and take the artist back to the experience of making that work of art. By asking an artist where they were when they made a particular work of art (what the studio was like or what the light was like in studio, for example), you can sort of bring them back to that moment through this circuitous route. It’s then that you can start asking the artist the specifics related to the fabrication of the work.

RM: Some curators are accustomed to doing this kind of work, but conservators aren’t often looked to for this kind of material.

GW: That’s right. But I think conservators have a special voice because we are focused on material. We are on the ground working with the physical object, whereas a curator or an art historian may be more focused on meaning, aesthetics, and the look of an artwork. I think conservators can bring a different voice to the table.

RM: Oftentimes, artists are but one of a number of shareholders in the representation and preservation of their artworks.  Can you talk about how you see the role of the other shareholders of an artwork and in what way the public can be a shareholder?

GW: That’s a very interesting question and something I struggle with. The focus of my PhD dissertation was engaging the public and looking at the conservation process. I was interested in conservation as a method of re-engaging the public to the concerns of artists or the culture that produced the object. I wanted to explore the potential for conservation to produce cultural knowledge and engage community, in addition to preserving cultural heritage for future generations.

But this doesn’t easily translate to most works of art that I’m working with now at MoMA. Most of the works are not intended be engaged with by the public, unless there’s some kind of performance interactivity or computer network interactivity, and we do have some works like that in the collection. I’d have to say that most of the collaborations that I have these days are within the professional realm. I would love to find a way to engage community in the process, but I’m not there yet.

I think it would be really interesting and really valuable to bring the public into the discussion of meaning and variability in contemporary art. I think through the Internet, though online communication, and through museum education (workshops, lectures, etc.), the public can be brought in a very meaningful way. I think there is potential, but I haven’t achieved it yet myself.  I hope others can create models for this kind of work that I can use!

RM: I think I understand what you mean. Museums visitors come to look at art, not always be a part of it.

GW: I think for most museums, resources are tight and conservators are not paid to do public outreach or public engagement.  I’d love to see more of it. And I love it when museums such as yours really do allow their staff to engage the public in new ways.  In the long run I think it will be a very good thing because it brings a new public in and it connects them in a deep and committed way. Perhaps you will create models that I can use.

RM: One last thing. Because I’ve visited MoMA’s Conservation Department a few time,s I happen to know that you all have a fabulous view. Will you share a look out your window?

GW: Sure.

Looking out the windows of MoMA's Conservation Studio

Looking out the windows of MoMA's Conservation Studio

Examples of Richard’s Artist Interviews and Links:

Here are two examples of artist interviews that I’ve been involved with recently at the IMA.

Robert Irwin
The first is an interview I completed with Robert Irwin in 2008, the day we finished installing his three-story installation, Light and Space III:

When I was doing that interview, I didn’t have script or a list of questions for Mr. Irwin; I didn’t even think that it would actually be seen by anyone outside of the IMA. But I had been researching and thinking about Mr. Irwin and his work for a long time beforehand. So I knew generally that I wanted him to describe for me—and future employees at the IMA—how he defines this installation and how it can live a long life here. Also, because I was actually involved with constructing scrims in the installation, I was very familiar with all of its material aspects. But I wanted to have him talk about them, and I wanted to record his thoughts as to how we can provide long-term care for his installation.

Orly Genger

Discussion and Interview with Orly Genger

Discussion and Interview with Orly Genger

This is a link to a blog post I wrote for the IMA’s blog about acquiring a work by Ms. Genger, who also wrote her own blog post about the project. Embedded into my blog post is an audio player in which you can here the artist interview with Ms. Genger, Lisa Freiman, IMA Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, and myself.


Here’s a link to some great resources about interviewing artists, provided on INCCA’s web page.